Collective innovation
Collective innovation in the Philippines © Start Network

Systems innovation

Start Network is based on innovation: looking for new ways to create the system change that will shape a more effective humanitarian system.

Start Network was born as an innovation, with the intention of challenging traditional humanitarian programming and processes. From the beginning, we have been innovating collectively with our members – and now we are doing this with our hubs.

We try out new initiatives that tackle specific issues, such as finding new ways to make humanitarian finance more efficient and transparent. But our ambition is wider: to use innovation as a tool to shape a more effective humanitarian system.

Innovation is not about technology: it is a way of thinking. For us, it is a process that involves different ways of working and experimenting. Some aspects include:

  • working with hubs to shape our new infrastructure, based on our vision of a locally led humanitarian system
  • supporting user-centered innovation – new ideas coming directly from the communities that need them
  • scaling up these locally led ideas by sharing the ones with the most potential and applying them across the network
  • using social innovation methodologies such as design thinking and applying them to the humanitarian sector
  • changing our way of thinking so that our teams and members are comfortable experimenting, adapting and building new partnerships for change.


Community-led Innovation

We believe that people affected by crises are best placed to address their own needs. We aim to foster innovation at a local and community level, recognising the innate innovation capacity that is within communities and support community innovators in developing and testing their solutions.


Examples of Start Network innovation initiatives 


  • The DEPP Innovation Labs (2017–2019). We facilitated the creation of local innovation labs in four countries, where local innovators could develop solutions to humanitarian challenges in their location.


  • We invited members and their partners to submit innovative ideas that addressed problems within humanitarian agencies or local communities. The winning teams received funding and technical support to implement their solutions on a wider scale.


  • Crisis Response Resilience lab. A radical, action-focused learning programme for community-led impact in the aid sector. Teams and individuals were invited to join a collective re-envisioning of the humanitarian sector, based on group wisdom, experimentation, and action-learning.


  • Community-led Innovation Programmes. Working with Hubs to create local innovation spaces and support community innovators so they can identify the humanitarian problems that matter in their communities and create solutions based on local knowledge and context.


Latest news

Reflecting on the outcomes of the Crisis Response Resilience Lab

In October 2021, Complexity University in partnership with Start Network and The Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) launched the first radical, action-focused innovation programme for community-led impact in the aid sector. The Crisis Response and Resilience Lab was a 2-week intensive action-learning programme, the first of its kind, aimed at supporting humanitarian practitioners to experience and learn a new way of working in response to complex humanitarian challenges. The Lab was an experiment in itself—an opportunity to create a place where different people could build new practices, relationships and learning, whilst experiencing a professional and personal journey taking them from business as usual towards a new, better, humanitarian system.

Localized and Innovative: Bringing DRR Innovations Closer to Communities

With support from the Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network (ADRRN), the Center for Disaster Preparedness will work with top community innovators in the Philippines to strengthen the disaster risk reduction (DRR) innovation system in the country through the Pinnovation Academy.

In 2020, as part of Start Network’s commitment to localisation and collective innovation, we embarked on a journey to develop innovative and locally-driven solutions that place communities affected by humanitarian crises at the forefront of humanitarian action. We have been working with Start Network hubs to start building community innovation initiatives in Guatemala and the DRC.

Looking for Local Solutions to Humanitarian Problems

As part of Start Network’s commitments to localisation and collective innovation, we ran the Working Differently Challenge from 14 September to 6 October 2020. During this time, members, hubs, and their partners were invited to submit their innovative solutions that address problems within humanitarian agencies or local communities more widely. After receiving several submissions, which were judged by a panel of experts, three winners were announced at Start Network’s first virtual Assembly and 10-year anniversary celebration. The winning teams were from Cadena, Islamic Relief, and Tearfund.

On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples we look back at the DEPP Innovation Labs project in the Philippines. Enhancing Traditional Food Source Management is one of the 40 innovative solutions supported by Philippines TUKLAS Innovation Labs that help communities better prepare for disasters. The project is implemented by a consortium of four non-governmental organisations: Plan International Philippines, Action Against Hunger, CARE Philippines, and the Citizens' Disaster Response Center. It is part of the Disasters Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP) Innovation Labs, a programme that is managed collaboratively by the Start Network and the Communications with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network.

Related resources

This learning brief looks at the key lessons from the inaugural round of Start Network’s Working Differently Challenge (WDC). It particularly explores lessons on how to support the collaboration of organisations to develop their emerging innovation ideas through different ways of working. The evidence draws from perception surveys gathered from the teams that took part in the challenge—CADENA, Islamic Relief, A Single Drop for Safer Water, Tearfund—and from learning captured through ongoing coaching and reflections.

The DEPP Innovation Labs programme was a two and a half year initiative from 2016-2019 that supported the creation of four community-centred innovation labs in disaster-affected countries (Bangladesh, Jordan, Kenya and the Philippines) to strengthen disaster preparedness and response. The programme was managed by Start Network and the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network. The labs offered skills training, business mentoring, financial support, and the necessary infrastructure to turn local ideas into viable, scalable solutions. All the innovation labs followed a human-centred design process to create local-level solutions that work for and with vulnerable people. Overall, the DEPP Labs supported close to 100 innovations covering a broad range of areas such as early warning communication systems, disaster awareness education tools, protective flood barriers, agricultural tech applications to counter the effects of drought and transport and accommodation solutions for refugees.

Start Network’s first virtual Assembly meeting took take place from Monday 12 to Thursday 15 October 2020, alongside our 10-year anniversary celebrations. Watch the recordings of the sessions on Collaborative Innovation and access all the learning materials below.

Learning from Dhaka: Insights from grassroots innovations

The Disasters Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP) Innovation Labs are composed of national and international humanitarian organisations under the Start Network and CDAC that support innovation emerging from communities in times of crisis. The Bangladesh DEPP lab is one of four labs recently supported by UK Aid for a two year period (2017-2019). This network of labs also extends to Jordan, the Philippines and Kenya. While each lab followed the core principles of lean innovation each adopted their own approach to applying this methodology.