A recent post about research around the multi-year, multi-donor Making All Voices Count (MAVC) innovation initiative aimed to shock with a bold banner bearing an ominous headline: A Lot of Civil Society Organizations Have a Secret. Their Tech Projects Are Failing. But is this really such a secret? Innovation for development is in its still in its infancy and ideally built on shared values that include a greater willingness to risk and embrace failure. And no-one with a history of working in support of civil society could argue that civil society organizations are or should be natural leaders in technological innovation.
What is more interesting than the failure rate is the extent that tech for development initiatives—be these focused on supporting government, civil society organizations, social enterprises, start ups, or a combination of these—are learning from success and failure and sharing these lessons quickly and widely. For now, though, it is surprisingly hard to access aggregated lessons on technology for development via online platforms. But there are a few notable examples—including that analysis on MAVC.
The summary findings on the MAVC project include that implementing partners were overly optimistic about their ability to leverage technology in support of their development objectives. Meanwhile, analysis from UN Pulse Lab Jakarta’s innovation small grant awards in Indonesia suggests that unrealistic targets in tech for development can be set both by implementing partners and supporting donors. Innovations are often squeezed into project cycles rather than acknowledging and then accommodating the innovation cycle.
While innovation and collaboration have become almost synonymous, it is surprising to learn how often a lack of information sharing and engagement—with intended beneficiaries as well as with other relevant stakeholders, including policy makers—is deemed to have compromised the success of tech for development. Both the MAVC and Pulse Lab studies highlight this.
Lessons from supporting social enterprise in India further stress the importance of interaction and cross-sectoral collaboration. A blog from the London School of Economics summarizing a 2015 Global Summit in Delhi discussing innovation for inclusive economic growth focuses on the ingredients that support an effective entrepreneurial ecosystem (“ecosystem” being an unwieldy word but one that reinforces the variety of resources and interactions to be exploited). It offers a simple equation:
ASSETS + NETWORKS + CULTURE = SUCCESSFUL ECOSYSTEM.
Assets in this case mean people and institutions as well as infrastructure and resources. Networking can be formal or informal and based around the individual or institutions. But the real value of these assets and networks rely on the interaction between them. For example, how multiple smaller ecosystems link and create a strong larger ecosystem. Culture here refers to entrepreneurialism and risk-taking—including the engagement of non-traditional actors. Once again, the focus on expanding interactions and collaboration.
One of the benefits of broader collaboration is the incorporation of a wider variety of skills and approaches. But there are few systematic efforts to promote collaboration—in particular, between civil society organizations and the private sector. And both the MAVC and Pulse Lab analyses suggest that projects have suffered as a result of inadequate capacity and skills among those leading and directly involved in project design and implementation. In the case of MAVC, the challenges experienced were both in using technology and also around the lack of ability to engage with technology providers and telecommunications companies; for Pulse Lab (and with a far smaller number of projects being drawn on for the assessment) the focus was more specifically on the need for data analytical capacity to complement design and construction of data-heavy technology.
Nesta has produced numerous informative analyses and toolkits in support of promoting innovation. While such studies support the idea that governments themselves should be outward looking and open to inspiration and collaboration from all quarters, they also often explore the vital importance of the solid evidence basis necessary as a precursor to striding forward on tech for development. In support of better evidence and learning, NESTA and The Social Innovation Partnership have highlighted important stages for donors to consider in better embedding evidence as part of their innovation support.
The MAVC analysis reveals that in the race to develop technology products, important initial user research was often overlooked or ignored. In a similar vein, the Pulse Lab analysis highlights the importance of ground-truthing hypotheses underlying the innovation design and approach. Like “ecosystem”, “ground-truthing” is conveniently ambiguous jargon, but here is defined as follows: “ideally, innovation addresses challenges and problems that have been observed and validated on the ground.”
The small handful of studies and analyses referenced here highlight other important considerations, such as the promotion of a legal environment that is supportive of innovation and technology as well as business modeling around innovation that stresses not only operational models with well-considered designs but also realistic revenue models.
The bottom line is that technology is being employed at unprecedented rates in support of development objectives—generating important data and lessons, whether perceived as success or failure. This presents a challenge for all of us to occasionally raise our heads to look beyond the parameters of individual projects and initiatives to share, learn, interact, and collaborate.
Image credit: petrOlly.