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Innovation: what’s all the fuss about?

Innovation: what’s all the fuss about?

So the development sector is in a pickle, to say the least. It has been for a while. It’s just particularly acute at the moment. In fact, you could say it’s a microcosm of the broader political quagmire that we see around us – locally, nationally, and internationally. Governments and big NGOs struggle to do the work communities actually want, and donors struggle to find the right people to fund in a mutually conducive way. And into this cacophony of chaos swaggers…innovation.

What’s ‘innovation’ your colleague asks? Oh, it’s the latest buzzword – the latest repackaging – says the healthy sceptic. But take a moment. Breathe. Without getting sucked into eternal navel gazing around definitions (and many working on innovation naturally don’t like to over define it), take a look at the word cloud (featured image) from 45 young Afghans that I think offers a great starting point (an extract from a broader piece of research).

As an anthropologist, what excites me about the growth of innovation for development? Well, it’s initiatives like Edgeryders which foster inter-generational collaboration across communities (both physical and online) to tackle social problems. They are currently working on a community health care programme that is worth checking out. Also, it encourages everyone to look at the old in a new way – deconstruct, play and build. Just see Nesta’s DIY toolkit and the chapter headings; for example, ‘thinking hat’ and ‘experience map’. It already puts a swing in your step.

However, there is a lot of framing (intentional or not) that still needs refining, and I have a lot of questions that maybe some of you can answer for me. Innovation (in the main) takes heavily from the field of design and human centred design thinking. But how are practitioners checking language and discourse? For example, the language of ‘users’ (see BOND’s starter framework) can reinforce and perpetuate political economic systems that turn everybody into workers/consumers. The world is increasingly challenging neoliberal systems as generators of inequality. So how is innovation for development then really engaging and grappling with a human rights framework? Is it enough to see a refugee camp through the eyes of a refugee in a simulated game?

Innovation has to be so much more than tech 4 development, which is not to negate its significance, but just to say it’s limiting if innovation is only tagged with ‘enterprise’, ‘start up’ and ‘digital’. Whilst these are hugely important – just see the open data movement, or the growth of tech for social good companies in Nairobi – it has to be about the fundamental shifts needed in development.

How can NGOs structure and organise themselves better for staff and the people they work with? How can MEL be freed from the restraints of the log frame and the theory of change? How can civil servants be enabled to feel less like middle managers? How can organisations that work on women’s rights actually foster an authentic culture that doesn’t replicate patriarchal ways? As complexity and systems theory gain more traction, the sector’s silos – programmes, policy, campaigns – slowly dissolve.

As the so called fourth ‘bio tech’ revolution takes hold (see Yuval Noah Harari’s latest provocative talk at the RSA) we are given an opportunity – a space – to look at the fundamentals of community development. I think Jason Hart’s article sums it up pretty well.

boy innovation
‘Boy saved from Tiger’ statue in Tobacco Dock, London. Credit: Sarah Huxley.

We live in times when the politics of hate and blame are endemic. It’s always someone else’s fault. The economics of neoliberalism puts blame on the individual worker. Everyone is victimised in some form. But equally there are many counter narratives – of survivors. Innovation for me offers an opportunity to reconfigure the never ending rubix cube of development. No one needs ‘saving’, just opportunities for self-actualisation. Any young person I have worked with will tell you that. I am reminded of this every time I see the statue of “Boy saved from Tiger“, a statute in Tobacco Dock to commemorate a small boy’s encounter with a tiger who escaped from Jamrach’s Emporium in London in the 1890s.

“The true story goes that a full grown Bengal tiger, having just arrived at Jamrach’s Emporium, burst open his wooden transit box and quietly trotted down the road. Everybody scattered except an eight year old boy, who, having never seen such a large cat, went up to it with the intent of stroking its nose. A tap of the great soft paw stunned the boy and, picking him up by his jacket, the tiger walked down a side alley. Mr. Jamrach, having discovered the empty box, came running up and, thrusting his bare hands into the tiger’s throat, forced the beast to let his captive go. The little boy was unscathed and the subdued tiger was led back to his cage.”

I am not convinced there was really any ‘saving’ going on….and if so, who was actually saving who? I also wonder if the boy was in fact a girl, but that’s another story! Using innovation as a way of seeing should be an enabler for co-creating self-actualised opportunities.

Featured image shows a word cloud based on innovation from 45 young Afghans. Credit: Sarah Huxley.

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Sarah Huxley is a trained child- and youth-focused anthropologist. Her special areas of interest are participation, governance, youth policy and strategy, education, innovation and post-conflict transitions. She was the International Youth Policy Adviser for ActionAid from 2012 to 2015, and has worked on a number of practical publications, including managing the production of the 2008-2010 DFID-CSO Youth Participation in Development Guide. Sarah was the lead writer for the first ever crowdsourced online United Nations World Youth Report in 2011.

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