Opinion

Why transformative development innovation needs patient realists

Published on 12 February 2016

Image of Ben Ramalingam
Ben Ramalingam

Research Fellow

Launching the Global Innovation Fund

This week saw two seemingly unrelated events – the launch of the Global Innovation Fund’s (GIF) first round of grantees, and the discovery by an international network of physicists of gravitational waves, proving yet another prediction by Einstein.

The GIF first. Billed as ‘DARPA for development’ during its inception, the GIF is a $200m collaboration between USAID (building on its Development Innovations Model model), UK Department for International Development, Sida, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Omidyar. The idea is that through making different kinds of financing available – from grants to loans and shares – a wide range of development challenges can be addressed through novel and creative approaches.

The messages at the Nesta launch were very clear – that development problems could be solved by more and better innovation, that innovation was about creativity, results and scale; that anyone could apply, from anywhere, any time of year; and that this signaled a move to a new kind of development thinking and practice.

The grantees were a diverse mix – addressing everything from youth employment and teenage pregnancy to digital systems for global cash transfers and children’s nutritional supplements. And a great range of ways of communicating the projects were also on display – most memorably a collective rap involving all 150 attendees about changing sexual behaviours. So too was the mix of approaches to financing innovation on display – grants, equity, and loans. The speakers and panelists made some great points, including the following:

  • That development innovation work was itself an experiment in whether innovation was endogenous to economic systems or could be actively supported and enabled through conscious investments.
  • That local ownership and engagement was vital for innovations that scale.
  • That there were many different routes to scale, and the GIF would need to engage with all of these – ranging from commercialisation to government take-up to open source dissemination to direct replication.
  • That the GIF should be ever alert to the dangers of technocracy and keep political economy considerations around innovation in mind, especially when trying to reach the poorest and most marginalised. 

Lessons with gravitas

So what is the connection to the much-lauded discovery of gravitational waves? The announcment by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) Laboratory – a billion dollar international consortium –signaled the first direct detection of the prediction made by Einstein in his general theory of relativity of how gravity works (see the great cartoon explanation by PhD Comics). Depending on who you listen to this is the news story of the year, the century or even the millennium – for many physicists, this has been described as akin to the first time humankind pointed a telescope into the skies. This is not the place to assess such claims – not least because it’s not the specifics of the discovery but the lessons from the process that I am interested in here.

Three things stand out for me from my readings this week:

Transformative discoveries demand both evidence and transparency: the whole process was designed to make sure that ‘extraordinary claims are backed with extraordinary evidence’ – but that evidence is also now being presented, pored over, discussed and digested by thousands of scientists.

Transformative discoveries build on many different kinds of innovations: the discovery was built on the coalescing of many individual innovations, including the long-term development of the most precise scientific equipment ever – so precise that it could pick up changes in measurements that amounted to a difference of roughly one million millionth the width of a human hair.

Transformative discoveries require patience: this discovery took 101 years, with Einstein having made his original prediction in 1915. The original experiment that led to LIGO was conceived by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968. There is a long history of mistaken claims and errors, dating back to the 1960s, and most recently in 2014, where a prominent announcement was found to have resulted not from gravitational waves but mis-measurements caused by space dust.

Implications for development innovation

What does this mean for how GIF and other development innovation vehicles works towards transformational ideas that can address longstanding challenges of poverty, vulnerability and inequality? On the one hand, there is a tension between these ideas and the pressures on innovation, and development more generally. Innovation can be often be viewed – in the slogan of the Gates Foundation – as impatient and optimistic.

But arguably the most important lesson from this week is that for the truly transformative developments we need patience and realism. Indeed, the things that have really transformed the development sector – from cash to microfinance to community-based feeding therapy – have taken decades to come to fruition. Some of this is of course because of the dysfunctions of the system, but we need to be clear that innovation – whenever and wherever it occurs – is a long-term game. Science and innovation are almost always work-in-progress, and if this is true for physics, I wonder how much more true it is for the complex, entrenched social, economic and political challenges we face?

Let me make a small bet here – if in five-to-ten years time we see a development sector that has realised its innovation ambitions and is really making transformational changes happen for poor and marginalized people, it will be in part because these principles and ideas have been taken on board. This will mean a conscious effort to really understand what makes innovation work, and to incorporate lessons into our ways of working on innovation, as well as into how we do development more generally.

Without such an effort, however, we may see a business-as-usual approach to innovation dominate: low risk, incremental, technocratic, dominated by the status quo and usual suspects, and more about institutional marketing and branding than about making meaningful change in the world.

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