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When humanitarians foster innovation

Key challenges and lessons from DEPP Innovation Labs

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‘Innovation’ has become a ‘buzz word’ in the humanitarian sector, with organisations seeking new and improved ways of delivering aid or boosting the preparedness and resilience of at-risk communities. Over the last 10 years, organisations such as UNICEF, Red Cross and the World Food Programme have invested resources in developing units for innovation and, recognising the importance of understanding people’s needs, their approaches are often rooted in human-centred design.1  Despite this, when examining innovations that have been developed, one important trend stands out - the ‘innovator’ is nearly always the humanitarian organisation.

To me, this seems a bit backwards. Logic and evidence suggests that affected communities are better placed to understand their disaster problems and to find relevant, effective and sustainable solutions based on their own experience and knowledge. However, more often than not, their role in traditional ‘human-centred’ disaster innovation design goes no further than simply giving feedback to solutions presented to them.

The Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP) Innovation Labs aim to go further than that. Our network of labs (Bangladesh, Jordan, Kenya and Philippines) aim to empower disaster affected communities to be the innovators and influence the innovation process. This approach is novel and has raised a number of interesting challenges for our lab partners.


Managing expectations

One key challenge has been changing community expectations around partner outputs. DEPP Labs are run and funded by the following humanitarian organisations:

  • Start Network
  • Dhaka Community Hospital
  • Red Cross
  • Plan International  
  • UK Department for International Development
  • International Rescue Committeee


These organisations are known for delivering tangible humanitarian outputs, including healthcare, cash transfers, education and livelihood support. However, DEPP Innovation Labs require these organisations to play a very different role; rather than offering tangible solutions, they are expected to encourage and enable communities to find their own.

This issue of expectations was clearly illustrated during lab scoping studies, when community members saw not themselves, but lab staff, as sources of innovative solutions. In response to this challenge, the Kenya lab has sought to reduce its Adeso branding and renamed itself as Maarifa ‘ideas’ centre. This highlights the importance of managing target communities’ expectations and perceptions by developing a distinct lab identity. Ideally, this activity should be conducted in consultation with a handful of community representatives and completed before widespread community engagement. This will ensure that branding is relevant to the community and the perceptions are managed at an earlier stage.  


Bridging the gap

A second challenge has been bridging the humanitarian-innovation gap.  Humanitarian organisations lack experience in fostering innovation, therefore DEPP Innovation Labs are managed and run jointly by humanitarian and innovation management partners.  In general, humanitarian and private sector innovation experts do not share the same language; both sectors are notorious for using inaccessible acronyms and technical vocabulary.

Humanitarian partners have struggled to understand the complexity of essential terms such as innovation, pivots and pilot. Furthermore, innovation partners are unfamiliar with common humanitarian acronyms such as MEL (Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning); one colleague assumed that we were referring to a member of the team who he had not met.

As a result, partners have struggled to create a common understanding around shared processes. This challenge is exacerbated by people’s reluctance to admit when they don’t fully understand a term or concept. To overcome this, we need to use simple language to communicate complex ideas, avoid unnecessary acronyms, and create an environment where individuals feel comfortable asking for clarity on key concepts and terminology.


Finding the right people

A third challenge, shared by all labs and deriving from the desire to bridge the humanitarian-innovation divide, has been recruitment. Labs have looked for staff members with experience in both the humanitarian and innovation sectors. Such individuals are rare because overlap between these sectors is limited. Finding qualified MEL officers has been particularly difficult, as such individuals would require specific technical expertise - this narrows down the pool of possible candidates. As a result, several essential lab positions have remained vacant for prolonged periods of time.

This highlights two important lessons: Firstly, labs must be flexible and adapt their strategy according to the reality on the ground.  For example, following rounds of failed recruitment, the Kenya lab successfully adapted its strategy by recruiting internally and focusing their efforts on upskilling their candidate. Secondly, labs must have quick learning loops. To prevent unnecessary delays, it is important for labs to constantly test their assumptions - in this case, that ‘suitable candidates are available’ -  and pivot quickly when these prove to be incorrect. 

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Read more about the DEPP Innovation Labs

Read about the launch of four new Innovation Labs, aimed at finding fresh ways to help local communities prepare for disasters

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  • by Scarlett Sturridge