The Human in Humanitarian Innovation

Transformational innovation – the sort of thing that turns traditional paradigms and models of thinking upside down and inside out – is, quite frankly, rare. It takes an enormous amount of risk, vision, and necessity for an organization to reinvent itself. While such reinvention has happened in the corporate world when companies faced extinction or irrelevance – albeit with a mixture of reluctance, yet urgency – it is not common. One famous example is the notorious case study of IBM, a company whose claim to fame was once its mainframe computers for businesses. That is, until the popularity of the PC resulted in the increasing obsolescence of the mainframe, resulting in losses of $8B in 1993 – the largest loss in corporate history at the time. IBM had to rapidly and radically transform itself to survive, and it did so by rebranding as a provider of IT expertise and computing services for businesses.

For IBM and many other organizations like it, extreme environments characterized by rapid change have cultivated the perfect storm in which transformational innovation could take place. It is only appropriate then that the humanitarian sector, which operates in an increasingly extreme and rapidly evolving landscape, is also at a crossroads. Human suffering is increasing, and traditional organizations and models are becoming irrelevant and unable to close the gap. As a result, innovation and design have cropped up as tools for rethinking how to address human suffering.

The first real consolidated perspective on humanitarian innovation emerged only very recently, during the 2009 Innovations Fair hosted by the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (see “Humanitarian Innovation: The State of the Art,” Alexander Betts and Louise Bloom, 2014). Despite being a fairly new initiative, humanitarian innovation motivated by a deeply human-centric approach has become a tool for new, more agile, and often technologically enabled entrants to disrupt traditional mindsets and models of humanitarian assistance. These new actors are able to fill certain gaps that are left when large legacy organizations are unable or unwilling to navigate complex politics and a cumbersome bureaucracy.

In the world of humanitarian relief – or even, more broadly, within the social and public sectors – the stakes for achieving success are high. The outcomes of social and humanitarian work often directly impact human lives; the work not only needs to be done effectively, but also ethically.

To add to this already highly demanding environment, the complex combination of multi-sector actors, resource constraints, financial limitations, regulatory obstacles, political agendas, and barriers inherent to certain physical environments mean that humanitarian workers must navigate a labyrinth of demoralizing roadblocks at every stage of the process. Traditional humanitarian assistance and development models are having trouble keeping pace with an increasingly untenable worldwide crisis. In 2015, the UNHCR Global Trends report highlighted that a record-breaking 65.3 million people, or 1 in 113 people, were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution. In conflict zones, such as Syria, resurgences of polio, measles, and other preventable diseases regularly occur, and entire generations of children are losing access to education and stability.

In such areas, human progress is a film stuck on rewind. The traditional methods of assistance are falling short, as articulated by the UN Secretary-General in a 2016 report for the World Humanitarian Summit: “There [is] considerable frustration with the international aid architecture. It [is] seen as outdated and resistant to change, fragmented, and uncommitted to working collaboratively.” The Secretary-General goes on to state, “Change will require a steady and determined effort to do better and overcome the structures and arrangements that we have been used to for decades. It will require a new and creative spirit of collaboration at all levels and openness to new and diverse partnerships.”

Together, these factors create an opportunity for disruption in the humanitarian sector. Collaborative innovation informed by design-thinking principles can leapfrog conflict-affected communities into a better future. At least this is what Refugee Open Ware (ROW) believes. ROW leverages “advanced technology, co-creation, and open innovation” to address humanitarian challenges from the source of conflict itself to the many shores upon which its impacts are felt. The organization proposes that the tools of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – such as 3D printing, AI, and the IoT – should be accessible to refugees and the host communities in which they live. With the appropriate resources and training, conflict-affected communities can literally build the tools and organizations that will shape their future.

ROW aims to deliver its desired impact through two primary vehicles: ROW Ventures and ROW Labs. ROW Ventures is a for-profit fund that identifies, invests in, and provides acceleration services to humanitarian technology and innovation that has the potential to create systemic change, while ROW Labs is a non-profit technical assistance vehicle for its portfolio companies that aims to strengthen the ecosystem of humanitarian innovation.

ROW is just one example of how designers, innovators, business leaders, engineers, and civilians can come together to flip a paradigm on its head. However, as design and innovation for humanitarian relief is still in its early stages, much of it remains experimental. There is also no one definition of what exactly “innovation” means in this context. Legacy organizations, like UNHCR and OCHA, are beginning to turn to innovation and design as a lens through which they question their own relevance and efficacy from within, while new entrants like ROW are leveraging innovation and design to question traditional structures much more broadly. While disruption of the humanitarian sector is still in its early stages, now is an important time to stop and consider the lessons emerging from this sector and the implications they could have on what it means to deliver effective and ethical assistance.

 “Smart” Failure

Working in conflict-affected areas introduces a particularly acute moral obligation that can, at times, seem at odds with the humanitarian innovation imperative. Taking innovative approaches to problems involves experimenting, which often results in fast failure. This approach is conducive to a business context; however, in the humanitarian context, failure has very real and far-reaching effects. Failure can mean the loss of life, the fragmentation of families, and, in some cases, the radicalization of civilians. The emphasis on successful outcomes in unchartered territories required for humanitarian work creates a paradox: There is less room for failure even as there is more room for avant-garde thinking.

When I spoke to Kate Wharton, the former Chief Operating Officer of ROW, she described a “smart failure” mentality for innovation in tough places. “Sure, ‘fail fast,’ but don’t fail dumb,” she explained. “Working in the humanitarian sector comes with the responsibility to do everything in your power to avoid dumb failures, because the consequences are so great.” What was especially striking in our conversation was her idea that honest and critical feedback is essential for measuring the efficacy of a method and, more importantly, validating the problem frame. A self-professed analytics nerd, Wharton builds performance measurement frameworks to keep mission-driven organizations honest. “Monitoring and evaluation efforts have a tendency to measure activities, not results, and to exclude the most important voices – those using the service or benefitting from the program,” she explained.

She gave an example, stating that while it is easy to demonstrate that a food package was purchased and relatively easy to show that it was received, it may be more important to ask if this food reduced the risk of starvation or whether food was really what was needed most in a certain area. “The corollary, of course, is that if feedback suggests your solution is not optimal, set aside ego and address the issue head-on. This is the essence of a smart-failure mentality, and anything less is irresponsible.”

This lesson is both humbling and important. It is essential to position the user at the center around which all approaches, solutions, and KPIs orbit. This does not limit the innovation thinking or process, but instead anchors it to its roots – and this is what enables groundbreaking thinking while allowing for constructive, “smart” failure.

Cross-Sector, Collaborative Engagement

For humanitarian or social innovation to be even remotely effective, a cross-sector and highly collaborative approach is the only option. Without the appropriate buy-in from the relevant actors, humanitarian and social innovation can easily be cordoned off by skeptics equipped with red tape. Erica Pincus, a former Policy Advisor at the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, emphasized the Office’s convening power as a fundamental aspect of its role. Getting the right people in the room together is sometimes the primary obstacle standing in between a great idea and the longevity of its success. The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation worked to advance opportunity, equality, and justice by helping to create a more outcomes-driven government and social sector domestically. To do this, the Social Innovation team worked to identify and scale better, more effective social solutions through the use of data and evidence. The Office aimed to leverage federal resources and cross-sector collaboration more effectively and efficiently, which included implementing innovative financial models such as Pay for Success. This approach was possible only through collaboration, buy-in, and trust across sectors, organizations, and individuals. For Pincus’s work, this meant generating dialogue and collaboration across various White House offices, federal agencies, state and local governments, non-profits, and members of the private sector. Generally, innovative humanitarian and social efforts benefit from the network effect: The more widespread the collaboration and uptake, the more valuable and sustainable the solution.

 For Humanitarian Efforts, Systemic Change Is Needed

Humanitarian and social innovation are both about systemic change. There are no givens, and there is no such thing as operating in a vacuum. A revolutionary concept has a ripple effect that transforms everything it touches. The singularity of an innovative idea necessitates the evolution of its supporting infrastructure, and this requires understanding a concept in context and with empathy. Much in the same way that the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation realized the importance of innovative financial incentive models for powering the pivot to data-driven decision making, so too did ROW realize the need for financial engineering as both a tool for its long-term sustainability and an enabling feature for shortening time to market. The latter is especially important in humanitarian crises, as displacement and mortality exponentially increase on a week-to-week basis. However, systemic change is much broader than financial innovation; this type of change encompasses human development, including both training and capacity building. UNHCR Innovation understands this concept, as demonstrated by its launch of a fellowship program in which UNHCR staff and affiliates spend a year learning novel ways of problem solving before applying an innovation lens to a problem of their choosing. This “train the trainer” approach grows in a structured and organic way, introducing human-centered design thinking and innovation frameworks across the wide reach of UNHCR’s operations.

 Transformational innovation requires a visionary shift to the long-term view.

The great challenge of being future-focused is that it requires looking beyond the short term and convincing stakeholders to look past immediate needs and quick wins. The above learnings begin to excavate some of the reasons underlying the efficacy of humanitarian and social innovation, but the uniting theme that cuts across all three is the undercurrent of the human element. Human-centered design is predicated upon attributing great value to empathy and using it to build bridges into the future.

Effective humanitarian and social innovators and designers get this. They understand that it is not possible to solve the world’s greatest human crises without humans.

the author

Sania Salman

Sania Salman is an innovation strategist at Idea Couture.