Six Stages of Innovation for Development

By Andrew Thornley and Derval Usher

Oscar: technologist in residence.

Pulse Lab Jakarta has recently assessed some of its projects, including those supported under its Data Innovation Mini Grants. This process has yielded important lessons and interesting results. It has also provided insights at the macro level into the challenges of implementing innovations in the development sector to the point of sustainable impact and scale.

Summarizing these insights and building on similar stage-based analyses from other disciplines, here are six distinct stages that illustrate specific challenges to the successful implementation of innovation for development.

1. Ideation. Pulse Lab Jakarta’s partners prove that innovative ideas can start with one person and come from anywhere. Innovation can be self-driven or promoted, for example through financial incentive or open-minded management. But if no-one hears about an idea, then does it make a sound? Save for the self-funded few, the originator must sufficiently champion the idea such that it can progress to the next stage. The key here is in empowerment to think freely and communicate.

2. Selection. With a free market in ideas, there is a need to separate the wheat from the chaff. In the development context this often occurs through team feedback and internal design meetings, and more broadly through proposal review for grant awards or government funding as well as during competitive events such as app challenges and hackathons. The challenge is in casting the net for ideas wide enough to avoid a bubble which recycles the same actors and approaches.

In the process of culling, juries and reviewers will consider elements such as design, value, sustainability and capacity — and in so doing may also skew assessment towards their own priorities. Of no less importance — and yet frequently less practiced — this should also entail rigorous “ground-truthing”, or ensuring that ideas address actual and observed problems. This could include analysis of the relevant political economy in order to assess the prospects and likely routes for traction in implementation.

3. Piloting. By definition, innovative ideas are untested. And so for the Grade A ideas screened in the previous stage, prototypes need to be built and designs piloted. This is the critical stage of experimentation as well as, ideally, learning and refinement through iteration. Pulse Lab Jakarta’s experience is that piloting tends to focus on building and testing of technology at the expense of the essential human-centric element of demonstrating impact to intended beneficiaries.

4. Persuasion. This is the complicated cross-section where supply solicits demand. Armed with a successful prototype and with ambition to implement, innovators require powers of persuasion and a targeted advocacy strategy to achieve buy-in (both literal and figurative) from key stakeholders. This stage may entail encouraging donors to more actively and strategically invest. Demand among policy makers may be stoked by strong data and compelling stories of impact but also by political imperative and incentive.

5. Uptake & Implementation. This stage is easy to promise — as reflected in many proposals received by Pulse Lab Jakarta — and yet difficult to achieve. Often it involves impacting policy. Evidence-to-policy analysts define policy uptake on several levels, from influencing debate to reforming legislation. To reach this stage suggests the successful navigation of numerous challenges relating to financing, the regulatory environment, changing policy priorities, institutional culture and egos, as well as individual and institutional capacity. And implementation is not a line to cross, but requires strategies in support of sustainability.

6. Scale. Most development programs cite lofty goals in which scale is inherent — such as improved democratic governance and poverty reduction. Most good innovations tout scalability by the second stage of this process. But we’re not often accountable for this, since such goals are typically “beyond the life or scope of the project.” Scale requires consistent championing beyond the timeframe of most development projects and programs.

In Indonesia, there is a strength in the first three stages. There is no shortage of innovative ideas. Positive engagement by the government, international donors, technology companies and others has spurred efforts to promote and screen the best of these. Pilots and prototypes abound.

The challenge in innovating for development has been in getting through and beyond stage 4 where impact is felt. Very few initiatives sustain at stage 5. Stage 6 remains the stuff of legend (and case studies).

Why is this so? Broadly stated, because each successive stage entails greater funding, time, risk (financial, reputational, and political), complexity of both implementation and stakeholder engagement and the capacity to manage all of the above. Failure to successfully accommodate any one of these can result in attrition.

Short-term project cycles, routine staff turnover, and even changing government priorities and policies pose significant challenges to planning across all six of these stages. As such, the imperative to collaborate becomes stronger at each stage — but this grates against our instincts and mandates to work in silos. Donors often encourage implementers to work within specific project parameters. Individual organisations may have limited mandates or be reluctant to collaborate with each other since they often compete in other circumstances for awards.

And then there is the digital-development divide. The skill sets that drive progress through stages 1–3 can differ from those which most effectively drive progress in stages 4–6. Few development professionals understand app development or social media analytics; conversely, data scientists do not always transition well into policy advocates. Bridging this will require more diverse recruitment, improved technical capacity, and more effective collaboration.

The bottom line is that in innovating for development, experience suggests it is advisable to set realistic goals in manageable components — acknowledging the complex stages and project-specific characteristics in this process, and then planning around the challenges within each.


The funding for these mini grants was through UNDP’s Innovation Facility which is funded by the Government of Denmark. Thank you for the support.

Pulse Lab Jakarta is also grateful for the generous support from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Government of Australia.