CSEI’s innovation capabilities

What CSEI does to build innovation capacity in the team

Innovation capability has been defined as an organisation’s ability to identify new ideas and transform them into solutions. Much has been written on innovation in the context of individual (for-profit) firms. Typical characteristics of innovative organisations are responsiveness, flexibility, management’s ability to effectively coordinate and redeploy internal and external resources.

But what about social and environmental innovation? To what extent do these concepts translate into the context of public innovation?

After all, the goal of innovation within firms vs. socio-environmental innovation is fundamentally different. While firms aim to maximise shareholder value, the goal of a non-profit in the social-environmental space is to demonstrably improve societal outcomes at the local to global scale.

In this article, we document some of the capability gaps we encountered in setting up CSEI as an innovation lab.

While CSEI is only beginning its journey, a key decision we made was that we would not implement projects ourselves. Rather we would aim to be “platform players”, who transform socio-technical innovation systems in collaboration with others. The question we asked ourselves was: what specific resources, competencies, and capabilities do organisations that aim to be platform players need to have? Which capabilities should we build in-house vs. partner externally?

We have identified distinct capabilities we needed to build for each step of the CSEI Innovation Funnel:

1. Insight Activation

Even before we begin our innovation process we need to define the problem. We realised that developing clarity on which problem to tackle, involved talking to lots of people to understand their pain points and then making a judgment on which one we are best suited to contribute to. We needed to actively “listen” to what diverse stakeholders were saying; to understand their hopes and aspirations.

We engaged in activities that involved us actively listening to others via: 1) Listening Circles — virtual meetings where people could openly discuss the challenges they were facing, 2) field recce-visits and interviews to see and hear people, 3) social and print media reports, 4) primary and secondary data analyses, and 5) more traditional focus group discussions and participatory rural appraisals.

The problem we faced was what to do with all the rich qualitative data we were generating. The objective was not merely to gain a deeper understanding, which is what qualitative (academic) research methods are geared towards. Our objective was to problem solve, within a much tighter timeline.

Our recent fieldvisit to Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh

Further, we have a young team and these discussions engage diverse stakeholders in different contexts. After all, most socio-environmental problems really are local. Yet, it is not feasible to have senior staff participate in every field visit. If we asked the field team to summarise what they saw and learned in field reports, there was a danger that we would miss something crucial or it would be filtered through their lenses. Our goal was to gather all the available information and translate all the rich qualitative and quantitative datasets into key insights, that everyone was on board with —i.e., to build collective intelligence.

When discussing this bottleneck with a communications consultant (Rini Dutta from Centric Brand Advisors), a corporate marketing cross-over from the consumer goods sector, we realised that market research firms face this exact problem. They have market researchers conduct stakeholder interviews to understand what their customers want. They solve the problem by organising “insight activation” workshops for their field teams to collectively debrief, agree on key insights, and generate action points.

Insight activation is the process of deriving insights by combining rich qualitative data and quantitative data through collective brainstorming. We adapted the insight activation workshop approach for two of our initiatives including both CSEI and non-CSEI participants from diverse backgrounds. The field teams present data and interview notes, everyone asks questions. We use a jam board to note key insights and prioritise key problems that we want to address.

2. Design Thinking

The next steps of our innovation process are ideation and co-creation. Design thinking offers a structured approach to these. It helps actors understand an issue, generate ideas worth testing and iterate to find solutions that work. Design thinking was conceived originally to help design products that involve human-technology interfaces. But since design thinking took off two decades ago, it has been extended to social innovation problems as well. There are now several case studies documenting the design thinking process for social good problems as well as integrating design and systems thinking.

In a project funded by Rainmatter Foundation, where we aim to develop a toolkit to help CSOs address rural water security problems, the design thinking toolkit proved useful in building journey maps, issue maps, and stakeholder maps. These maps (in addition to detailed notes, photos, and videos) were one important way in which we were able to capture, summarise and communicate pain points experienced by different actors in different field contexts. In the absence of these tools, we would have found it difficult to glean common insights from dozens of field interviews conducted by multiple remote teams across three states.

We have attempted to build in-house capacity by having all CSEI staff undergo training with Dr. Pavan Soni from Inflexion Point Consulting to help build skills and mindsets in design thinking. These tools serve as a common language that we can use to communicate within and outside CSEI. They offer a useful way to check our biases and get creative brainstorming across many diverse actors. But even as we formally apply design thinking tools and templates, it is worth emphasising that we view them as just one in a larger set of tools on qualitative and quantitative research tools available to us.

From our design thinking workshop

3. Mediation

The third step is co-creation and prototyping. Co-creation, is a problem solving process in which input from stakeholders plays a key role from beginning to end.

Because CSEI’s solutions are systemic, co-creation typically requires us to develop a fundamentally new approach to both research and communication. We could not follow a traditional waterfall approach of “doing the science” then “disseminating the science”. We had to identify the problem with partners and integrate research organically into the problem-solving process. In other words, the very nature of our communication itself had to change. Where research organisations have tended to engage in “sender-oriented communication” focusing primarily on dissemination of knowledge, CSEI needed to focus on interactions to build trust, building capabilities to receive and act on feedback. We also needed tools for effective multi-directional communication among stakeholders to build consensus and mutual understanding.

One of the challenges we have faced is that many players have vested interests and entrenched ways of working. Our collaborators often use terminology differently. This requires us to play a “mediation role” so we can work with collaborators to build trust and consensus. We have been working with Camp Mediation through a 6-week program to see how we might build these skills better within our team. While we do not expect to become skilled mediators overnight, we hope these sessions will help our team recognise that these are “teachable” skills and that resources exist for us to draw on, when we get stuck in reaching agreement.

4. Technology Development

The final step of our innovation process entails platform-building to scale solutions. In each of our initiatives, we expect that scaling will involve deploying technology, whether for financing and certification, standards development, online marketplaces, or just knowledge exchange.

From past failures, we recognise that we have limited bandwidth to develop technology in-house. We can develop simple databases and low-cost instrumentation successfully, but that's about it. These technology innovations work well as a proof-of-concept but we do not have in-house bandwidth or skills to build “customer-facing” platforms.

If we really expect to deploy technology to scale solutions, we need technology partnerships. There are factors that have led us to avoid building in house platforms. First, we would find it difficult to offer technology specialists career advancement within a non-profit setting. Second, technology experts are often expensive and it’s challenging for the non-profit sector to pay tech industry rates for prolonged periods.

There are challenges too. Working with technology collaborators brings to the fore questions on who owns the IP, and importantly, how will the platform sustain itself financially in the long run. If we spin the platform off to be financially sustaining, we may not be able to serve the social good and inclusion objectives for which we set it up. If we continue to subsidise it, it could easily become a white elephant that we have to continuously fundraise for.

We do not have answers to all these problems. But we have tackled this problem in different ways across our initiatives. In the Mira project on lakes, we have been working with a consortium of app developers, civil society organisations and citizen groups. The product is collectively owned which brings its own challenges. But the goal is to spin it off as a separate entity that can sustain itself.

Open source Jaltol QGIS plugin is being developed in-house: Read more

In our Jaltol plug-in we have brought in a technology contractor. Here the code is open-source so IP is not an issue per se. But we have initiated discussions on long-term maintenance options from the outset. At present, we believe that this is a “lean” enough technology development that can be sustained by the community itself in the long run. In other initiatives, we are working with private sector players, who own their technology. Our role here is to link these firms to other stakeholders to collectively create social impact.

In summary

Problem-solving in the socio-environmental space requires distinct capabilities that we did not have. We identified four unique ones that mapped to the different phases of our innovation funnel, in addition to traditional skills in GIS, data analytics, modelling and written and visual communication that we needed to strengthen.

Over the last two years at CSEI, we have actively tried to articulate what these missing capabilities might be and how we might build them in-house or partner with others and arrived at four: insight activation, design thinking, multi-directional communication and technology development.

To stay updated on how the team applies these newly acquired capabilities for social innovation, join our mailing list!

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