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Solid waste disposal: identifying innovation opportunities for a wicked problem

Our Humanitarian Innovation Fund has run a number of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) innovation calls, focused on finding solutions to problems highlighted by our Gap Analyses of WASH humanitarian response.

These Gap Analyses survey practitioners, people affected by crises, and the available literature to understand where gaps persist in WASH service delivery in humanitarian contexts. The focus of our calls have included handwashing, water treatment, menstrual health management (MHM), and faecal sludge management.

Solid waste disposal (SWD) was identified as a prominent problem in our Gap Analyses. It’s characterised by multi-layered interdependencies, complex social dynamics involving multiple networks of stakeholders, and ever-shifting inputs and expectations for outputs.

The nature of SWD as a problem affects how we can use innovation to address it. This became clear as we discussed the findings of our recently published report on Innovation Opportunities in Solid Waste Disposal in Humanitarian Settings at a Global WASH Cluster (GWC) satellite event in October.

Solid waste disposal as a deprioritised systems problem

The Innovation Opportunities Report examines the problem of SWD across two settings: Doloow Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Somalia and Rwanmwanja Refugee Settlement in Uganda. We asked event participants — ranging from practitioners to innovators and WASH specialists — to what extent, in their own work, they’d encountered the main problems identified in both settings.

The first takeaway from this discussion is that people working across diverse contexts have found SWD gets deprioritised due to other competing priorities, and that, possibly as a result of this, limited financial and personnel resources are allocated to it.

The second takeaway is that waste disposal is a systems problem. It relies on co-ordinating a large range of actors. To solve it, both behavioural change and infrastructure development need to advance simultaneously. When asked which humanitarian sectors should be involved with SWD, event participants agreed that camp coordination and management should be involved, but were evenly split over the involvement of health, logistics, education, early recovery, and livelihoods actors.

Opportunities for tackling SWD with innovation

How can we use innovation to tackle a problem that requires buy-in and coordination of a wide range of actors, and which may not be at the top of the priority list?

Our report highlights five innovation opportunities:

  1. Build a zero-waste vision for humanitarian settings.
  2. Safe and accessible disposal sites.
  3. Sustainable collaboration models for humanitarian agencies and local authorities.
  4. Support potential entrepreneurs to turn waste into a resource.
  5. Identify and reduce high impact waste sources.

Of these, event participants ranked 3 and 5 as the opportunities likely to have the most impact.

To engage with either opportunity, a systems innovation approach may be useful, mapping out the systems and actors in a location to understand their needs, motivations and constraints before we can design solutions.

We can draw on experiences of solving other WASH problems that require infrastructure and behaviour change, like handwashing or sanitation use, which have shown that user-centred design and design thinking are powerful tools to affect change.

A helpful approach is to consider how power and knowledge are distributed through the system, as in Nesta’s systems innovation framework. Is the power to make change in the hands of a few stakeholders or more evenly distributed? Is the knowledge base stable or are there new technologies that could be employed? Is there a system already in place, or is there scope to create a new one? To what extent will change rely on capital investment and be led by public actors over private ones?

The answers to these questions could provide guidance on the innovation strategy we might employ. If power and knowledge are more evenly distributed, we could look at driving incremental change across various parts of the system. If power and knowledge are more concentrated, a better strategy could be to work with actors to repurpose or reconfigure the system. And where new technologies are available, it may be possible to leapfrog the old system entirely.

After discussing our report findings with WASH actors at the GWC event, it’s clear that any innovation in SWD must be driven and inspired by a localised systems assessment to understand what could motivate change and who should be involved.



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