Part 1: Understanding the conditions for fostering the right kind of innovation

Blog |January 28, 2014 |Duncan Edwards


In this blog, Research and Evidence Programme Manager Duncan Edwards, reflects on the first in a series of thematic discussions led by the Institute of Development Studies. Below is one of two posts.

How do we do the Making in Making All Voices Count?

The discussions on the first day of our Making All Voices Count e-dialogue focussed on: “Making – understanding of the conditions for fostering the right kind of innovation to Make All Voices Count.”

I posed an initial set of question areas which I felt are particularly relevant to the theme:

  • We talk about working with “unusual suspects” – but who are they? And how do we identify them?
  • Is competition conducive to innovation?
  • How do we address the tension between learning and the financial and reputational to bring honest and open reflection of our successes and failures?
  • If ideas take time to develop and emerge – how does this fit with a funding culture of short term grants?
  • What do we know about the important of context? Should we expect all innovations to scale?

We had a great number of really interesting contributions and at times it was really hard to keep up and follow different interlinking bits of the discussion. We covered lots of areas many which discussed these initial questions, but the conversation delved into many other areas too. I’ve pulled out some of the key themes:

The unusual suspects

In the Making All Voices Count programme, we want our support to innovation to extend to “unusual suspects”. It’s an often-repeated phrase that we all use. But, who are they? How do we work with them?

Before we consider who the unusual suspect it is worth considering who the usual suspects are. I think Phillip Thigo phrased it well: “the usual suspects are those innovators who have access to opportunities, contacts, and resources.” This was echoed by many participants in the discussion, that it is the urban, the educated, the middle classes, the people who understand how to jump through the funding hoops, present themselves or organisations in a way that makes them appear ‘low-risk’ from a financial and project management perspective. It would seem that the usual suspects are those who are able to engage with those who are looking to fund innovation. Erik Hersman summed up: “One of the biggest problems is that people with money tend to give it to others who look and sound like them.”

So looking at who these unusual suspects might be, a number of participants raised the point that some of the most creative people find it difficult to work in traditional rigid organisational structures and vice a versa. This can often lead to difficulties when an idea is picked up and moves to implementation, yet the management or organizational conditions to support implementation do not exist. Giulio Quaggiotto talked about the “incontractable workforce, who are smart people with very diverse backgrounds who will never want to work for traditional bureaucracies”, highlighting that we need to find ways to collaborate with these ‘incontractables’ and ‘edgeryders’ who bring fresh ideas and thinking.

Unfortunately it seems that in a programme looking to strengthen links between citizens and their governments, one of those key parties, governments, are likely to be difficult to engage. Stephen Davenport said “unusual suspects too often also includes the elected government of the country where the voices are coming from. Because it is easier, we design and implement transparency and accountability tools that inherently exclude those that can turn successful interventions into better service delivery”.

Ken Banks and others talked about the fact that people innovate at different levels. His message was, essentially: provide the tools and the means and citizens will find their own ways to make their voices count.

So are they actually people who are living and working to overcome the challenges of governance we’ve talked about, rather than those who we’d identify as ‘innovators’ or who’d identify themselves as innovators? People at different levels change and adapt, and make use of the tools and processes that are available to them. Take the Farm Radio example Bartholomew Sullivan shared, using missed calls to engage in polling and competition on Farm Radio. This takes an innovation that listeners have developed themselves (utilising missed calls as a mechanism for communication) and applied it within the new context of the radio show. Bartholomew made the point that, “innovations emerge out of the limitations and our preferences of an environment. Our Beep2Vote technique evolved because leaving a missed call was easier and cheaper than sending an SMS.”

So returning to one of my earlier questions “how do we work with them?” – Will they work with us?

Collaboration – bringing different groups together

A number of participants talked about how they bring diverse groups of people together who come with very different skills, experience, and perspectives. Lucia Abelenda explained: “with a clearly defined goal, it is possible that actors with different perspectives can work together, where the vision and experience of each contribute to enhance the joint project. This strategy encourages the transfer of knowledge that allows the generation of more robust innovation strategies.” (Note: I have amended the quote slightly as Lucia is a non-native English speaker, but have not altered the sense of it).

Participants expressed the importance of collaboration in innovation processes, but fostering collaboration between different groups can be difficult. As I referred to above in relation to the ‘incontractables’ and the ‘edgeryders’, clear incentives need to be considered in order to engage these groups. But even so, some of the traditional mechanisms of procurement or incentivizing innovation can stand in the way of substantive collaboration.

Janet Gunter suggested that in her experience bringing the right mix of people together for constructive collaboration was a challenge: for example, bringing creative technical types with those who are tactically smart and have a long term commitment to change. She felt a barrier to exploration and collaboration often lay in a mistrust of the creative techies by the tactically smart long-haulers who were wary of people motivated by new tools and approaches.

Janet’s example illustrates careful and skilled facilitation of groups is really important to overcome challenges both in bridging disciplinary jargons but also where people bring very different ideological perspectives and trust might need to built. Two groups supported by the Transparency and Accountability InitiativeTALearn and TABridge, look to provide facilitated spaces (online and physical) which enable donors, practitioners, researchers, and technologists to come together to share differing understandings of how to strengthen accountable governance.

Claire Schouten talked about the potential of engaging with the different roles individuals play: “In working with the justice and security sector, tapping into other roles such as ‘parent’, has helped foster accountability and innovation across sectors when parents, who are also police officers, for example, take an interest in greater accountability and service delivery. Involving participants or community members as people concerned about the wellbeing of their family, for example, can make greater contribution to constructive dialogue and collaboration than engaging them, let’s say, in a session on anti-corruption in the justice sector.”

It is clear that bringing a diverse range of people together, from the the unusual suspects to the usual suspects, embracing and linking the innovation which is happening at different levels is going to figure as an important element of supporting innovation to Make All Voices Count.

In the next post we explore other factors for fostering the right kind of innovation: Building on the work of others; Learning from success and failure; Competition; Tensions between context, scale, and sustainability; and Project management and funding models.

List of participants: Alan Hudson, Alex Kelbert, Bartholomew Sullivan, Brendan Halloran, Carlos Cortez, Chris Underwood, Claire Schouten, Duncan Edwards, Erik Hersman, Erik Nijland, Evangelia Berdou, Giulio Quaggiotto, Hapee De Groot, Ian Schuler, Janet Gunter, Jaume Fortuny, Ken Banks, Linda Raftree, Lucia Abelenda, Matt Haikin, Mikel Maron, Patta Scott-Villiers, Philip Thigo, Remko Berkhout, Robert Hunja, Rosemary McGee, Stephen Davenport, Wayan Vota, Wouter Dijkstra

This e-discussion took place as part of a week long discussion hosted by Making All Voices Count from 20-24th January, 2014 which explored:

• Making: understanding of the conditions for fostering the right kind of innovation to Make All Voices Count
• All: the aim of inclusiveness in transparency and accountability (T&A) work, and within Making All Voices Count
• Voices: the expression of citizen engagement with the state or corporate actors on issues related to transparency and accountability(in tech-for-T&A initiatives, mediated by technology)
• Count: government responsiveness to citizens’ exercise of voice

About the author

Duncan Edwards is the Programme Manager for Making All Voices Count’s Research, Evidence and Learning (REL) component at the Institute of Development Studies