The “making” of innovation

The formalization of the term “innovation” in the language of humanitarian organizations, resulting from ALNAP’s 2009 study on innovation in the sector, and its adoption as one of the main themes in the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, led to the proliferation of different models on “how to manage humanitarian innovation”.

The distinction between a centralized and a decentralized innovation management, matters for humanitarian organizations that adopt the concept of innovation as an integral part of their activities, and as a key contribution for improvement and change. This distinction matters independently of the change organizations do: from the products they use, the processes they carry out to their structure or aim. Some organizations centralize innovation by creating positions or units responsible to overview, coordinate and manage “innovation projects” or the innovation environment. Others support a vision of decentralization, more based on capacity building within the organization, promoting individual and spread-out initiatives.

Whereas the first model offers a better environment to control decisions on investment and to promote solutions, the other is potentially more agile, diversified and needs driven. The first model may be criticized for the distance between solutions (often technology driven projects, influenced by the “north”) and “real” problems; and the second model, criticized for limiting the scale and impact of initiatives because field staff have a poorer exposure to the latest technologies, and they lack time and skills to manage and scale up projects.

In the humanitarian sector, the management of innovation is mostly done at the level of headquarters, through funding mechanisms, support units, specialized departments or collaborations. In the field, the management of innovation is less visible, or structured, because of the focus on operational priorities. In the field, while new adapted solutions are embraced and celebrated at headquarters, it often happens that there are no formal structures to leverage from new ideas – or ways to do things – and in daily reality, most field staff is not particularly encouraged to deviate from standards.

Innovative humanitarian organizations centralize innovation management to target problems of headquarters nature, while creating mechanisms that allow the field to be innovative too, solving field-related problems. Both, staff at headquarters and in the field, can have a key role in improvement and change. For this, innovation management must not lead to frustration about top down decisions, unwillingness by the field to take up suggestions from headquarters or mistrust from headquarters on field’s small scale and low impact “improvisations”.

The establishment of an environment at headquarters of acceptance for change, constant reflection and improvement of field support, and challenging policy making are very different activities, than operational – and very context specific -experiments or improvements. And yet, both offer opportunities to be innovative. Field staff does not need headquarters to “make innovation” for them, they need opportunities for exposure to new technologies and ideas, training on manage operational priorities and problem solving, and a clear and agile decision making path where to communicate intended actions. At headquarters, staff equity and retention, knowledge management, and research about latest technologies, are objectives for which a central and large scale position are required.

Managing innovation, as opposed to making innovation, is an orchestration of activities to achieve common objectives in resolving problems. For that, an organization must identify, promote, strengthen and celebrate the various approaches with which everyone, independently from where they sit, contributes to a better organization and humanitarian service.

Interesting to read:
Scott-Smith, T. 2016, Humanitarian neophilia: the ‘innovation turn’ and its implications. Third World Quarterly Vol. 37(12).

Sandvik, K. 2017, Now is the Time to Deliver: Looking for Humanitarian Innovation’s Theory of Change. Sandvick Journal of International Humanitarian Action (2017), 2:8.

I’m innovating, aren’t you?

International humanitarian organizations are increasingly confronted with an urge to innovate. Innovation is now framed and described in strategic documents as key to be efficient and effective, a holy grail to be competitive in face of tight budgets and a growth in number and size of the sector. Humanitarians are “in scene”, present in competitions and calls for innovative “ideas”, in research papers, and in social media groups. New technologies, adopted products, dedicated labs and even academic courses populate the concept of humanitarian innovation. Companies also increasingly deliver combined services and new business models.

However, humanitarian organizations are, by virtue of their history and essence, innovative. The term humanitarian innovation, how it is used within the sector and in most of what is written about it, uses a “market” jargon and a mixed sense of identity and concretization. Humanitarian organizations exist from the need of rupture with common institutions and their processes, to achieve what governments, companies and the civil society cannot, objectives such as fulfillment of basic needs and equitable access human rights. They work in ways that respond directly to humanity problems. And, that nature makes them very different, even if complementary, than markets and governments.

The systematization of innovation comes in as a solution to address objectives that finally, are secondary for these organizations. Whereas the objectives of cutting across religions, genre and age to guarantee equal access to education or health is the ultimate objective of some of these organizations, innovation brings along a second kind of objective, often confused with a primary one, which moves the focus from the real problems they are addressing.

Innovation is not a result you deliver. Innovation is a means, a culture, a systematized process set to reach an objective. It is thereby embedded in processes all across an organization. Innovation is not, and cannot be an objective in of itself. In order to generalize good practices, international humanitarian organizations don’t need to adopt the discourse of the market. They can choose to innovate and create measures for it, but what innovation means to them must come from inside.

From problem solvers to solution managers

Here’s a blog post I wrote a few days ago. Humlog is an interesting blog about humanitarian logistics from Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Research Institute (HUMLOG Institute) at the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, Finland.

From problem solvers to solution managers – a new perspective for humanitarian technology transfer

Innovation in refugee camps

Last Wednesday I was part of a panel about innovation in refugee camps organized by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) at the conference Re:publica. I was present as co-founder of Rethink Relief and member of the IDIN network, because of the work we do to bridge the transition between short-term and long-term oriented organizations with the participation in workshops of refugees, social workers, humanitarian workers in design summits and creative capacity building workshops.
The panel also included Kilian Kleinschmidt, Marlen de la Chaux, Grace Keji and Katharina Dermühl, as moderator. As part of an ICT/media/makers conference the discussion was destined to be framed within these topics but in fact is was less about technology and mostly about the role of refugee camps, the empowerment of refugees and how a systemic change is needed to address the problems. The discussion was rather consensual in most of the points with one or two exceptions.

Refugees, but who really?
Only about 1/3 of all refugees live currently in camps. Most refugees live in cities’ suburbs throughout the world. There’s an estimated number of 6 million urban refugees falling outside of the humanitarian radar, looking for work and opportunities in less segregated and limited places. Besides these, there are also “statusless” asylum seekers who more even than refugees face difficulties accessing basic services like healthcare or housing. And there are internally displaced people, who account for most of the total 60 million people of displaced people in the world. People who seek a safe place to live.
It is important to define whether we’re talking about the refugees in massive makeshift cities like in the Zaatari camp in Jordan; if we’re talking about refugees in open, smaller camps inserted in local populations like in Uganda, refugees arriving in Europe or refugees in the neglected trafficking roots between Myanmar/Bangladesh and Indonesia. It’s impossible to speak about all in the same way. The challenges they face are different and so are their motivations, their journeys, their cultures, their literacy levels and so on. If in many cases we must speak of difficult hygiene conditions and risk of disease, challenging seasons and social segregation or stigma, in other cases, where conditions in a camp actually exceed the ones of host populations it is more relevant to discuss the need to support their transition; In Europe where there is a huge mismatch between expectations between Europeans and migrants, the abolition of “temporary” camps and concepts like integration and engagement need to be more frequently and seriously discussed in a multidisciplinary manner.

What we could speak about however is the ‘refugee status’ and what that means. This status is not an unchangeable by norm and as the landscape of humanitarian aid changes, it becomes increasingly urgent, to challenge the advantages and disadvantages of how the status of refugees is defined. Refugee empowerment, a paradigm change, as Andreas Proksch, Secretary General of the German Federal Enterprise for International Cooperation (GIZ) called it, means that the narrative of the refugee as an impoverished, vulnerable and victimized person, is misleading. On one hand, it is positive that media bodies spread the awareness, on the other hand, this should not be done on basis of pity or invoking the need for charity. The discussion about what refugees need, needs to be done with and by refugees themselves. And it’s more than time to involve them actively in humanitarian and developmental policy decision making. A refugee is a person like any other, capable and often specialized individual. Someone who was previously a decision maker and is unfortunately, as refugee, seen as someone whose decisions are made for. Furthermore, refugees are not only individuals but groups of individuals and communities and it is important to understand the respective the dynamics of refugee groups, their origin and their ways. And as refugees take their space in decision making, humanitarian aid organization models, funding structures will also need to adapt and modify their governing models.

One question generated some controversy. Is it better to plan and design refugee camps as cities or is it better to reinforce integration? And how can refugees be empowered to take part in that design. From the point of view of Kilian Kleinschmidt, former manager of the Zaatari camp in Jordan, the design and planning of camps should be in the hands of specialists and not humanitarian organizations. He argues that neither these organizations neither refugees themselves are capable of doing this properly. But there’s a different view on this.
Camps should remain a temporary, a transitional place. We should ask refugees, not to design their camps, but to design their journeys. We should support them in achieving a goal, whether the goal is to return or not, we must create bridges, services, with existing health and education systems to support that transition period, and that is entrepreneurs, specialized doctors, teachers, farmers, etc. Building new urban spaces for refugees, designed by western urban planners and architects, supported by private investment does not address the need for these refugees to be integrated in society, it promotes their segregation. Besides that, over reliance in private investment may lead to less governmental motivation to take responsibility on the distribution of refugees, and the provision of access to healthcare, education and welfare.

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Panel “Innovation in Refugee Camps“, 4th May at Re:publica in Berlin. Foto: re:publica

Interesting links

“Treating the refugee crisis as a design problem is problematic”

And some flying thoughts and open questions about innovation definition and opportunities…
Can we develop innovations for the people or is innovation what people come up with? Is a refugee-app innovation or is the use of tourist-apps by a refugee, innovation? Are systems like rain water harvesting or hydroponics that circumvent problems of land owning and dependency on limited systems innovation (Rethink Relief)? And as Marlen de la Chaux said: “when a refugee who was previously a barber, sets up a barber’s place … is that innovation? Are programs, governmental, non-governmental and private/for profit that empower refugees in transition or humanitarian workers to use and develop their capacities innovation (e.g. Kiron University, Unicef Innovation labs)? Are programs connecting refugees with companies innovation (e.g. Intelli-grate)? Are maker spaces offering tools to refugees innovation (e.g. comunitaire)?

Relative burden

Hans Rosling demonstrates with a simple visualization of Syrian migrants numbers, how the burden of middle-east refugees is overestimated in Europe. Often the numbers of asylum seekers within EU is not balanced with the number of internally displaced or refugees hosted by neighboring countries. In fact it’s mostly Middle East, African and Asian countries who host a higher number of refugees. As analysed by UNHCR, it’s poorer countries like Ethiopia, Jordan or Pakistan that support the great majority of refugees, on top of internally displaced as well.

Syrians represent 25% of all the refugees in the world. They are amongst the many African and Middle East nationalities most threatened by the migrant crisis int he Mediterranean sea. The man, women and children who survive the long walks and horror sea crossing are provided by humanitarian organizations with blankets, pre-packed food, and hygiene items. Organizations attempting to include for example pocket money or shavers in these kits can be accused of promoting violence or themselves. Above all, humanitarian organizations are seen as reasons for more migrants to come to European borders.

Refugees seek humanity, as anyone else would in their situation. Unfortunately, whereas most of the news published about today in the media are whether European borders should or not be closed, information about migration policies and refugee rights are rarely publicly discussed.