Innovation thinking needs more variety, says UN expert

Copyright: Flickr/UNDP

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  • A narrow focus on top-down innovation obscures grassroots models
  • Innovation for development needs a more-varied approach, including user-led input
  • A new website and a blog aim to do this, including by highlighting successful examples

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The development community's narrow focus on top-down innovation is obscuring the importance of other areas — such as user-led innovation — as useful inputs to the innovation process, says a leader of the UN Development Programme's innovation team.  

The community must move away from its 'one-size-fits-all' approach to innovation and create a varied tool kit to adapt programmes to complex individual situations, says Giulio Quaggiotto, who leads the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Knowledge and Innovation team at the Europe and Central Asia office.

His team has just launched a website and a blog dedicated to collecting examples of early adopters on user-driven innovation and opening the discussion about the applicability of the approach to development work.

The website lists examples, including an innovative plough from Kenya, mobile banking and patient innovation.

Even though research shows that there are many people in need of specific innovations who are at the same time able to create solutions that would satisfy their needs, there are few examples of the development projects that are tapping into user-led innovations, according to the team.

Quaggiotto believes top-down innovation models dominate development thinking at the expense of grassroots methods.

He is collating evidence of user-led innovation from research literature and has uncovered successes in health, and in information and communications technologies.

One recent study showed that at least half of all innovations in mobile financial services in emerging markets came from end users.

“In the private sector, people are more aware that there is no one path of innovation, but in the development sector we often tend to latch on to a single vision.”

Giulio Quaggiotto, UN Development Programme (UNDP)

Another study investigating innovations in healthcare highlighted patients who developed their own prostheses — replacements for missing body parts — and heart valves.

Quaggiotto says he needs more examples of user-led innovation before the UNDP can apply the lessons learnt to its own projects.

Accepting bottom-up innovation models must be part of a more general move towards a more-varied approach in development, he says.

Many organisations and government departments champion one particular approach to innovation, such as crowdsourcing or innovation labs, and do not consider the other options available, he says.

When tackling complex development challenges, it pays to have a broad range of tools and methods, he adds. To provide development actors with a comprehensive set of options, Quaggiotto believes more attention needs to be paid to grassroots innovation.

"In the private sector, people are more aware that there is no one path [of innovation], but in the development sector we often tend to latch on to a single vision," he tells SciDev.Net.

Adrian Smith, a senior research fellow at the STEPS Centre for interdisciplinary research and policy engagement at Sussex University, United Kingdom, agrees that certain ideas tend to dominate the field of innovation for development.

However, this tends to be within decision-making circles, he says.

"On the policy side, there do tend to be fashions and a crowding around the 'new' form of innovation," he tells SciDev.Net.

But Smith believes the fundamental problem is the attention on industry as the main driver of innovation.

Conventional ideas and policies for innovation and development tend to focus on promoting technological innovation in firms, in collaboration with research institutes, he says.

In contrast, grassroots innovators operate in different circumstances, so conventional measures for innovation, such as training scientists or filing patents, make little sense, he adds.

But awareness of a more-nuanced innovation landscape with more of an impetus on grassroots innovation is increasing, says Smith.