Innovation at Médecins Sans Frontières

I was last Thursday at the MSF Scientific Days in London. MSF organized for some years a day dedicated to in-house research that advances knowledge on frontline practices. This year, the research presented and exhibited included topics such as Cholera, HIV, maternal health and Ebola.

What brought me to London was not so much the medical research as it was the 1st time a second day was organized in name of in-house innovation.
The presentations were mostly related to digital data and mobile technologies. Included were mapping technologies, community-based healthcare delivery models and unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones). All of these presentations raised very diverse technical and philosophical questions. And it was clear that that was the result of a multidisciplinary and multi-section attendance. There were medical doctors but also logistitians, engineers, epidemiologists and more.

You have 1 million euros: how would you use it to foster a culture of innovation in MSF?
This was the title of a discussion panel that included people from MSF, ICRC, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford. All the panelists presented a short list of issues they propose as essential to create a culture of innovation.
The most mentioned included internal communication, engagement in partnerships with external actors, project commitment and agile management, focus on beneficiaries and on strategic opportunities. I personally liked two: creation of innovation metrics and of incentives. For MSF it is important to adhere to a healthy form of competition, sharing resources, ideas and partners for the greater good.

Open questions
The environment was sometimes rather tense. It is clear that there are many unsolved internal discussions but above all that this day opened many questions that remain to be answered. The reference to collaboration within MSF, with the private sector or local ministries of health is still spoken at a very abstract level. Another tension point is related to the position of MSF action in the spectrum of emergencies to development. Especially because several innovative approaches imply looking at prevention and at very local initiatives. Issues like IP, costs of technology development, regulation were still left unaddressed.

There are so many opportunities to improve field work and I’m happy to see that MSF stands open to them. After such a successful day I look forward for more next year!


Photograph by Andreas Larsson

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