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To address the humanitarian sector's biggest challenges, we need to get comfortable with uncertainty

Blog Post

On World Creativity and Innovation Day, we're highlighting the importance of creativity and innovation in solving complex problems within the humanitarian sector.

There is no shortage of problems in our modern world. COVID-19, climate change, migration, and increasing economic inequality are just some complex social challenges that we are facing. These challenges surpass our existing solutions toolkit, requiring us to stretch our creative muscles and innovate in order to keep up.

However, research from Bond with 62 international NGOs indicates that many of them have a low level of confidence in their capacity for creativity. On average, organisations feel that they are at the early stages of their innovation journey, with significant consolidation and improvement still needed. So while the sector is outspoken about the scale of the problems, this hasn’t translated into organisational strategies and a culture that drives innovative practice.

When we are focused on delivering predetermined results, exhaustive planning, and scrupulous financial management, innovation can become undervalued and undermined. This is because the uncertainty involved runs counter to the drive for control and reliable results. In an attempt to demonstrate reliability and integrity through strong bureaucratic systems, organisations shy away from testing and learning. As a result, they become static, inflexible structures that place little value on reflection and imagination as part of their core work.


Innovation starts with creativity

According to design and consulting firm IDEO, "Innovation is the ability to generate and execute new ideas—incremental, evolutionary, or revolutionary—and it starts with creativity."

All humans are inherently creative. Innovation is not about having an ideal technical skillset, but more about embracing a creative mindset: being open to new ideas, experimenting, getting comfortable with uncertainty, and embracing change—but how do we encourage a creative mindset?

First we need to ask difficult questions and challenge our assumptions. Why is this problem stuck? What do we need to really tackle it? What beliefs may be limiting us from looking at this differently? We need to encourage curiosity about problems, looking both within and outside the spaces we usually operate in. We need to have open conversations about failure and experimentation, and create a safe space for these to take place.


Embedding innovation into everything we do

Of course, innovation is most effective when it is embedded across the culture of an organisation, not relegated to a specific team, unit or department. Here is how Start Network is embedding innovation into everything we do:

  • We are promoting a culture that embraces adaptive practice and more constant learning
  • We are exploring how to be more open to risk and failure, and getting comfortable with the uncertainty that is inherent in experimenting (e.g. putting some of our compliance functions under an innovation lens to see how we can rethink them to be more flexible, simple and human-focused)
  • We are creating a new structure of a 'network of networks' that puts local hubs at the centre of their own system
  • We are being led by our values, and prioritising trust and transparency with our members to create space for innovation

We believe that encouraging people to use their creativity to innovate will help us to address many of the systemic problems that the humanitarian sector faces.


Read "Labs and Beyond: Opportunities to Transform Innovation Support"

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  • by Alessandra Podestà and Hannah Reichardt