The good, the bad and the ugly of humanitarian innovation learning

Ian McClelland
Nov 28, 2017 · 4 min read
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With support from the HIF, Sahana Software Foundation are investigating the use of pictographs in disaster communication systems. Credit: Sahana Software Foundation

Earlier this year Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund commissioned Gray Dot Catalyst (Ian Gray, along with Joseph Guay of The Policy Lab) to help us produce the first-ever ‘field guide’ for innovation management in the humanitarian sector. The guide, funded by EU humanitarian aid, will be designed to support humanitarian teams to adapt or develop innovations that help meet the needs of emergency-affected people. It will also aim to facilitate engagement with those outside the sector who want to help solve humanitarian problems.

With such ambitious goals, we’re taking our time to get it right. We’ll be working with people across the humanitarian spectrum in the coming months to ensure that we deliver something that is truly interesting, relevant and useful.

In our initial research phase, we’ve been reviewing the literature on innovation in humanitarian action, and social innovation more broadly, with two key learning objectives in mind: what are the challenges and gaps in knowledge with regards to humanitarian innovation, and what are the kinds of tools that have been successfully employed in innovation projects? We’ve also been speaking to a number of experts across the sector, and we’ll be continuing to interview and engage key stakeholders at a range of levels throughout the process.

What have we learned so far? Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly:

The good: We understand how to create an enabling environment for innovation

This is partly due to the efforts of the HIF and ALNAP, through the ‘More Than Just Luck’ research project, as well as key studies commissioned and supported by CENTRIM, the Humanitarian Innovation Project, MSF, OCHA, Oxfam, Unicef, and the Transformation Through Innovation track of the World Humanitarian Summit, among others.

The sector has also identified (at least on the surface level) a handful of approaches, methods, and some specific tools and techniques that have been used to manage innovation in humanitarian response — although many of those mentioned, at least in the literature, have not been fleshed out, validated or triangulated.

The bad: There is a lack of practice-based evidence of what works

This echoes similar findings from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund Evaluation, which state that “too little [is] known from across the projects about the effectiveness of investments and about ‘what works and what doesn’t’.” In short, there is a big gap in the literature on understanding of best practice, and there is much more to be done on generating evidence for the kinds of tools and approaches that lead to success, as well as evidence of success itself. And this is where we need to focus our efforts.

The ugly: There is a lot of confusion about where guidance is most needed in the humanitarian innovation ecosystem

This is where we need your help. Are you trying to diagnose a problem and find the right approach, or looking to scale up a successful pilot project? Are you bamboozled by business models, mystified by monitoring and evaluation, or feeling defeated by design thinking? We want to provide the right tools to help you innovate, so fill out our survey and let us know where you’d like more guidance and support. And if you want to be part of the community that helps us to develop the guide, remember to add your email address at the end!

TAKE THE SURVEY

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Elrha

We are Elrha.

Ian McClelland

Written by

I work for Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund, making connections and sharing learning between people looking at new ways to tackle humanitarian challenges.

Elrha

Elrha

We are Elrha. A global charity that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems through research and innovation.

Ian McClelland

Written by

I work for Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund, making connections and sharing learning between people looking at new ways to tackle humanitarian challenges.

Elrha

Elrha

We are Elrha. A global charity that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems through research and innovation.

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