‘We’re not Coca Cola’: Why scaling involves a continuous reunderstanding of your innovation
This blog post is part of a series sharing insights from sessions at the Humanitarian Innovation Exchange, which took place on 26 June 2019. The event was jointly organised by Elrha, Leiden University’s Centre for Innovation and the Dutch Coalition for Humanitarian Innovation (DCHI). A special thank you to Andrew Lamb and Anwen Chung for their contributions to this session.
When it comes to scaling innovations in the humanitarian sector, understanding how to replicate your innovation in a new geographic location is key. Every intervention will be unique to varying degrees, based on factors including the distinct capacities and vulnerabilities of those affected, local laws and culture, and the different partners involved. So each new deployment will likely require adaptations to be made.
However, there is little information or guidance available to assist with thinking through the operational challenges of replicating and adapting innovations — whether products, processes or programmes models — in a responsible and ethical way across different settings, or to understand how these challenges contribute to the evolution of innovations as they scale.
This was the subject for a session I facilitated at the Humanitarian Innovation Exchange in June 2019, with case studies provided by Andrew Lamb from Field Ready and Anwen Chung from the World Food Programme’s mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (mVAM) unit. Both Field Ready and mVAM have received funding from our Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF).
New problems in new settings drive innovation adaptations
At Elrha, we believe that innovation should be problem-driven. Problem-driven innovation reduces the likelihood of developing ‘solutions in search of a problem’ which, if they fail to deliver value, create additional ethical risks if they also distract from real humanitarian needs. Furthermore, for every new setting in which a solution is deployed it is necessary to assess whether the problem manifests in the same way, and whether the solution is still an effective fit.
For Field Ready, who received funding and support as part of our Accelerating the Journey to Scale initiative, attempting to replicate and scale their work in different places has led to an evolving understanding of the value they offer. In Andrew Lamb’s words, “replication has been a story of trying to better understand what our innovation actually is…It involves a continuous reunderstanding of what we do.”
With each new deployment, the Field Ready team have made adjustments to their solution so that it responds to an identified problem in the new setting. They initially focused on 3D manufacturing technology, so were looking for problems where this technology might provide an appropriate solution. But as the number of deployments grew, so did their understanding of other ways they could add value in a given setting.
This eventually led to a realisation that the core of their innovation isn’t the 3D printed products, or even the “networked local manufacturing” process, but rather the highly-localised process they go through to identify the means (current capabilities), motives (needs) and opportunities (funding and partnerships) for local manufacturing of humanitarian aid items, which then informs their in-country approach.
Today, they support local manufacturers to produce aid supplies, they bring in manufacturing capabilities where they don’t exist, and they do rapid deployments to fix things in humanitarian settings. In Iraq they’re building makerspaces and training local engineers. In Vanuatu they’re making furniture. In Bangladesh they’re supporting staff at a World Bank-funded Fab Lab who will then support a remote team in the Rohingya camps.
Andrew explained the nature of Field Ready’s innovation as being less like Coca Cola and more like General Electric. Whereas Coca Cola’s model of having a standardised recipe and global distribution lends itself to instinctive understanding, General Electric’s business model is much less readily understood. That’s because the core of the offer isn’t an easily identifiable and scalable product, it’s a process for identifying opportunities where they can add value in any situation.
An evolving innovation creates new adaptation challenges
The idea for the World Food Programme’s mVAM initiative originated in late 2012. Ongoing conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo was limiting access in areas where WFP was meant to carry out needs assessments. At the time, needs assessments were generally done through face-to-face surveys, which were time-consuming and costly.
In response, the team started thinking about the possibility of using mobile technology to gather information remotely. With our support, they were able to test their idea. Today, six years on, mVAM has scaled to 42 countries and gone through a similar process of reinventing itself as it has been scaled up internally through different country offices and adopted externally by other organisations.
As mVAM was rolled out from 2015 to 2018, rather than simply replicating the initial mobile survey solution (like distributing identical cans of Coca Cola), it was continually developed in response to new challenges, demands and opportunities. mVAM’s features grew rapidly to incorporate two-way communication options, such as interactive voice response (IVR) and chatbots, and more recently to make use of machine learning to predict food security in areas where limited data is available.
But, while these new features offered opportunities to provide valuable services, they also created further challenges. “We assumed people would know how to text and respond to IVR,” said Anwen, “but it turned out some people wouldn’t press numbers on the keypad or didn’t know how to respond to an SMS. In a new country context we cannot assume that the solutions will work perfectly; they need to be adapted.” And so the cycle of learning continues.
Creating an innovation platform for tailored solutions
Ultimately, both mVAM and Field Ready can today be viewed as platforms. Like Uber or AirBnB, mVAM is an ever-evolving online platform that started with a simple mobile survey function but has gradually added new features in response to user needs. Like those platforms, it also acts as an intermediary between service users (affected populations) and service providers (WFP country offices or adopting organisations).
While Field Ready doesn’t operate as a physical or digital platform, the organisation has similarly evolved from a more singular function into a broader platform for matching the needs of affected populations with local manufacturing capabilities, and filling the gap in between. In fact, Field Ready is now looking to follow the example of the Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP) in developing a cross-sector partnership to mainstream elements of their approach in humanitarian settings.
What the experiences of Field Ready, WFP and others show is that an innovation’s value proposition often continues to evolve and broaden over time, particularly when it is challenged by new deployments. While some physical product innovations might go from development and testing to mass production, the majority of innovations will continue to generate learning as they scale, fueling adaptations and the growth of additional services and ‘add-ons.’ In turn, this demands reevaluation of the ‘core’ of the innovation — or the platform from which each tailored solution can be developed and deployed.