Innovation should be a 'tool' not a 'master'
Development projects should diligently build on existing solutions as well as introducing innovative new ideas, argues David Lewis.
Innovation has become central to the work of development organisations and donors, but many development problems need funding and capacity building more than they need new solutions, argues David Lewis, social policy and development professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom.
Innovation is a concept that comes from the world of business, notes Lewis, and is often described as a moment of creativity that leads to the production and selling of a product. But "when it comes to development, things are more complicated", he argues, adding that "not all development problems require new solutions."
For example, basic technologies to improve water and sanitation in densely populated urban areas have barely changed over a hundred years. And new efforts can build on existing innovative projects around community-managed sewers, like the work of the Orangi Pilot Project Research and Training Institute in Pakistan.
Lewis argues that innovation should be seen "as tool, not master", and highlights four main problems with the concept of innovation for development. Firstly, it is a buzzword that is often used with no clear definition or meaning. Secondly, innovation implies taking risks, from which people living in poverty should be protected: "Why experiment when we could be getting down to important, useful routine work using proven methods?"
Thirdly, innovation is costly, which is why the private sector establishes clear boundaries in terms of budgets and resources. Finally, emphasising new solutions risks reinventing the wheel, rather than building on what has already been achieved.
There is value in genuine innovation and in ways of working that promote problem-solving mindsets, says Lewis. But "the ubiquity of vague ideas about innovation in development may ultimately serve to devalue it," he argues.