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Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

For our Tuesday, July 27th Salon, we discussed partnerships and interoperability in global health systems. The room housed a wide range of perspectives, from small to large non-governmental organizations to donors and funders to software developers to designers to healthcare professionals to students. Our lead discussants were Josh Nesbit, CEO at Medic Mobile; Jonathan McKay, Global Head of Partnerships and Director of the US Office of Praekelt.org; and Tiffany Lentz, Managing Director, Office of Social Change Initiatives at ThoughtWorks

We started by hearing from our discussants on why they had decided to tackle issues in the area of health. Reasons were primarily because health systems were excluding people from care and organizations wanted to find a way to make healthcare inclusive. As one discussant put it, “utilitarianism has infected global health. A lack of moral imagination is the top problem we’re facing.”

Other challenges include requests for small scale pilots and customization/ bespoke applications, lack of funding and extensive requirements for grant applications, and a disconnect between what is needed on the ground and what donors want to fund. “The amount of documentation to get a grant is ridiculous, and then the system that is requested to be built is not even the system that needs to be made,” commented one person. Another challenge is that everyone is under constant pressure to demonstrate that they are being innovative. [Sidenote: I’m reminded of this post from 2010….] “They want things that are not necessarily in the best interest of the project, but that are seen to be innovations. Funders are often dragged along by that,” noted another person.

The conversation most often touched on the unfulfilled potential of having a working ecosystem and a common infrastructure for health data as well as the problems and challenges that will most probably arise when trying to develop these.

“There are so many uncoordinated pilot projects in different districts, all doing different things,” said one person. “Governments are doing what they can, but they don’t have the funds,” added another, “and that’s why there are so many small pilots happening everywhere.” One company noted that it had started developing a platform for SMS but abandoned it in favor of working with an existing platform instead. “Can we create standards and protocols to tie some of this work together? There isn’t a common infrastructure that we can build on,” was the complaint. “We seem to always start from scratch. I hope donors and organizations get smart about applying pressure in the right areas. We need an infrastructure that allows us to build on it and do the work!” On the other hand, someone warned of the risks of pushing everyone to “jump on a mediocre software or platform just because we are told to by a large agency or donor.”

The benefits of collaboration and partnership are apparent: increased access to important information, more cooperation, less duplication, the ability to build on existing knowledge, and so on. However, though desirable, partnerships and interoperability is not easy to establish. “Is it too early for meaningful partnerships in mobile health? I was wondering if I could say that…” said one person. “I’m not even sure I’m actually comfortable saying it…. But if you’re providing essential basic services, collecting sensitive medical data from patients, there should be some kind of infrastructure apart from private sector services, shouldn’t there?” The question is who should own this type of a mediator platform: governments? MNOs?

Beyond this, there are several issues related to control and ownership. Who would own the data? Is there a way to get to a point where the data would be owned by the patients and demonetized? If the common system is run by the private sector, there should be protections surrounding the patients’ sensitive information. Perhaps this should be a government-run system. Should it be open source?

Open source has its own challenges. “Well… yes. We’ve practiced ‘hopensource’,” said one person (to widespread chuckles).

Another explained that the way we’ve designed information systems has held back shifts in health systems. “When we’re comparing notes and how we are designing products, we need to be out ahead of the health systems and financing shifts. We need to focus on people-centered care. We need to gather information about a person over time and place. About the teams who are caring for them. Many governments we’re working with are powerless and moneyless. But even small organizations can do something. When we show up and treat a government as a systems owner that is responsible to deliver health care to their citizens, then we start to think about them as a partner, and they begin to think about how they could support their health systems.”

One potential model is to design a platform or system such that it can eventually be handed off to a government. This, of course, isn’t a simple idea in execution. Governments can be limited by their internal expertise. The personnel that a government has at the time of the handoff won’t necessarily be there years or months later. So while the handoff itself may be successful in the short term, there’s no firm guarantee that the system will be continually operational in the future. Additionally, governments may not be equipped with the knowledge to make the best decisions about software systems they purchase. Governments’ negotiating capacity must be expanded if they are to successfully run an interoperable system. “But if we can bring in a snazzy system that’s already interoperable, it may be more successful,” said one person.

Having a common data infrastructure is crucial. However, we must also spend some time thinking about what the data itself should look like. Can it be standardized? How can we ensure that it is legible to anyone with access to it?

These are only some of the relevant political issues, and at a more material level, one cannot ignore the technical challenges of maintaining a national scale system. For example, “just getting a successful outbound dialing rate is hard!” said one person. “If you are running servers in Nigeria it just won’t always be up! I think human centered design is important. But there is also a huge problem simply with making these things work at scale. The hardcore technical challenges are real. We can help governments to filter through some of the potential options. Like, can a system demonstrate that it can really operate at massive scale?” Another person highlighted that “it’s often non-profits who are helping to strengthen the capacity of governments to make better decisions. They don’t have money for large-scale systems and often don’t know how to judge what’s good or to be a strong negotiator. They are really in a bind.”

This is not to mention that “the computers have plastic over them half the time. Electricity, computers, literacy, there are all these issues. And the TelCo infrastructure! We have layers of capacity gaps to address,” said one person.

There are also donors to consider. They may come into a project with unrealistic expectations of what is normal and what can be accomplished. There is a delicate balance to be struck between inspiring the donors to take up the project and managing expectations so that they are not disappointed.” One strategy is to “start hopeful and steadily temper expectations.” This is true also with other kinds of partnerships. “Building trust with organizations so that when things do go bad, you can try to manage it is crucial. Often it seems like you don’t want to be too real in the first conversation. I think, ‘if I lay this on them at the start it can be too real and feel overwhelming.…'” Others recommended setting expectations about how everyone together is performing. “It’s more like, ‘together we are going to be looking at this, and we’ll be seeing together how we are going to work and perform together.”

Creating an interoperable data system is costly and time-consuming, oftentimes more so than donors and other stakeholders imagine, but there are real benefits. Any step in the direction of interoperability must deal with challenges like those considered in this discussion. Problems abound. Solutions will be harder to come by, but not impossible.

So, what would practitioners like to see? “I would like to see one country that provides an incredible case study showing what good partnership and collaboration looks like with different partners working at different levels and having a massive impact and improved outcomes. Maybe in Uganda,” said one person. “I hope we see more of us rally around supporting and helping governments to be the system owners. We could focus on a metric or shared cause – I hope in the near future we have a view into the equity measure and not just the vast numbers. I’d love to see us use health equity as the rallying point,” added another. From a different angle, one person felt that “from a for-profit, we could see it differently. We could take on a country, a clinic or something as our own project. What if we could sponsor a government’s health care system?”

A participant summed the Salon up nicely: “I’d like to make a flip-side comment. I want to express gratitude to all the folks here as discussants. This is one of the most unforgiving and difficult environments to work in. It’ SO difficult. You have to be an organization super hero. We’re among peers and feel it as normal to talk about challenges, but you’re really all contributing so much!”

Salons are run under Chatham House Rule so not attribution has been made in this post. If you’d like to attend a future Salon discussion, join the list at Technology Salon.

 

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Last month I joined a panel hosted by the Guardian on the contribution of innovation and technology to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Luckily they said that it was fine to come from a position of ‘skeptical realism.’

To drum up some good skeptical realist thoughts, I did what every innovative person does – posted a question on Facebook. A great discussion among friends who work in development, innovation and technology ensued. (Some might accuse me of ‘crowdsourcing’ ideas for the panel, but I think of it as more of a group discussion enabled by the Internet.) In the end, I didn’t get to say most of what we discussed on Facebook while on the panel, so I’m summarizing here.

To start off, I tend to think that the most interesting thing about the SDGs is that they are not written for ‘those developing countries over there.’ Rather, all countries are supposed to meet them. (I’m still not sure how many people or politicians in the US are aware of this.)

Framing them as global goals forces recognition that we have global issues to deal with — inequality and exclusion happen within countries and among countries everywhere. This opens doors for a shift in the narrative and framing of  ‘development.’ (See Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries; and Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.)

These core elements of the SDGs — exclusion and inequality – are two things that we also need to be aware of when we talk about innovation and technology. And while innovation and technology can contribute to development and inclusion…by connecting people and providing more access to information; helping improve access to services; creating space for new voices to speak their minds; contributing in some ways to improved government and international agency accountability; improving income generation; and so on… it’s important to be aware of who is excluded from creating, accessing, using and benefiting from tech and tech-enabled processes and advances.

Who creates and/or controls the tech? Who is pushed off platforms because of abuse or violence? Who is taken advantage of through tech? Who is using tech to control others? Who is seen as ‘innovative’ and who is ignored? For whom are most systems and services designed? Who is an entrepreneur by choice vs. an informal worker by necessity? There are so many questions to ask at both macro and micro levels.

But that’s not the whole of it. Even if all the issues of access and use were resolved, there are still problems with framing innovation and technology as one of the main solutions to the world’s problems. A core weakness of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was that they were heavy on quantifiable goals and weak on reaching the most vulnerable and on improving governance. Many innovation and technology solutions suffer the same problem.

Sometimes we try to solve the wrong problems with tech, or we try to solve the wrong problems altogether, without listening to and involving the people who best understand the nature of those problems, without looking at the structural changes needed for sustainable impact, and without addressing exclusion at the micro-level (within and among districts, communities, neighborhoods or households).

Often a technological solution is brought in for questionable reasons. There is too little analysis of the political economy in development work as DE noted on the discussion thread. Too few people are asking who is pushing for a technology solution. Why technology? Who gains? What is the motivation? As Ory Okollah asked recently, Why are Africans expected to innovate and entrepreneur our way out of our problems? We need to get past our collective fascination with invention of products and move onward to a more holistic understanding of innovation that involves sustainable implementation, change, and improvement over the longer term.

Innovation is a process, not a product. As MBC said on the discussion thread, “Don’t confuse doing it first with doing it best.” Innovation is not an event, a moment, a one-time challenge, a product, a simple solution. Innovation is technology agnostic, noted LS. So we need to get past the goal of creating and distributing more products. We need to think more about innovating and tweaking processes, developing new paradigms and adjusting and improving on ways of doing things that we already know work. Sometimes technology helps, but that is not always the case.

We need more practical innovation. We should be looking at old ideas in a new context (citing from Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From) said AM. “The problem is that we need systems change and no one wants to talk about that or do it because it’s boring and slow.”

The heretical IT dared suggest that there’s too much attention to high profile innovation. “We could do with more continual small innovation and improvements and adaptations with a strong focus on participants/end users. This doesn’t make big headlines but it does help us get to actual results,” he said.

Along with that, IW suggested we need more innovative thinking and listening, and less innovative technology. “This might mean senior aid officials spending a half a day per week engaging with the people they are supposed to be helping.”

One innovative behavior change might be that of overcoming the ‘expert knowledge’ problem said DE. We need to ensure that the intended users or participants in an innovation or a technology or technological approach are involved and supported to frame the problem, and to define and shape the innovation over time. This means we also need to rely on existing knowledge – immediate and documented – on what has worked, how and when and where and why and what hasn’t, and to make the effort to examine how this knowledge might be relevant and useful for the current context and situation. As Robert Chambers said many years ago: the links of modern scientific knowledge with wealth, power, and prestige condition outsiders to despise and ignore rural peoples’ own knowledge. Rural people’s knowledge and modern scientific knowledge are complementary in their strengths and weaknesses.

Several people asked whether the most innovative thing in the current context is simply political will and seeing past an election cycle, a point that Kentaro Toyama often makes. We need renewed focus on political will and capacity and a focus on people rather than generic tech solutions.

In addition, we need paradigm shifts and more work to make the current system inclusive and fit for purpose. Most of our existing institutions and systems, including that of ‘development’ carry all of the old prejudices and ‘isms’. We need more questioning of these systems and more thinking about realistic alternatives – led and designed by people who have been traditionally excluded and pushed out. As a sector, we’ve focused a LOT on technocratic approaches over the past several years, and we’ve stopped being afraid to get technical. Now we need to stop being afraid to get political.

In summary, there is certainly a place for technology and for innovation in the SDGs, but the innovation narrative needs an overhaul. Just as we’ve seen with terms like ‘social good’ and ‘user centered design’ – we’ve collectively imbued these ideas and methods with properties that they don’t actually have and we’ve fetishized them. Re-claiming the term innovation, said HL, and taking it back to a real process with more realistic expectations might do us a lot of good.

 

 

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I love Dr. Seuss. His books are creative and zany. He made great social commentary. “If I Ran the Zoo” is a story about innovation and re-invention*. The hero, Gerald McGrew, is a young a boy who re-imagines the zoo. In his vision for the new zoo, he travels the world to find cool creatures that no one has ever seen. He brings them back to showcase in his “new zoo McGrew zoo,” which is dynamic, flashy and exciting.

McGrew’s new zoo looks a lot like today’s world of development sector innovation and “innovation for social good.” Great ideas and discoveries; fresh things to look at, play with and marvel at; but also quite laden with an adolescent boy’s special brand of ego and hubris.

See, most of our institutions have been basically like this for a while:

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 2.49.53 PM

But over the past decade, we’ve been hearing quite a lot of this:

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 2.52.14 PM

People inside and outside of the development and social sectors are innovating really hard to come up with new and cool things. Silicon Valley is putting in its two cents and inventing “life-changing solutions.” People are traveling all around and looking for “local” innovation, too. Some donors are even are supporting what they like to call “reverse innovation.” It feels a bit like the days of colonization are rolling on and on.Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 1.49.18 PM

We see people with resources exploring and looking for opportunities, amazing ideas, and places to invest in or extract out value (BOP anyone?). These new ideas and innovations are captured and showcased for donors, investors, and global development peers.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 1.51.59 PM

The most innovative are applauded and given more resources. Those who “win” at innovation are congratulated on Ted stages, like McGrew is for his cool new flavor of exotic creatures.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 1.53.21 PM

But it’s fairly safe to say that one of the biggest problems in the world today is inequality. Many believe it’s the development model (in the small and the big sense) itself that’s the problem. Yet most of this “innovation for social good” is being stimulated by and developed within the capitalist, colonial, patriarchal models and structures that entrench inequality in the first place.

If I ran the zoo, I’d take innovation in a different direction. I’d try to figure out how to dismantle the zoo.

*****

Fun fact: Many people credit Dr. Seuss with coining the term ‘nerd’ in this book.

(Screenshots from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=20&v=BLQpqkbsrr0 and https://books.google.com/books?id=fdX3xUSbriIC&pg=PT57&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false. Book by Dr. Seuss from 1950)

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This is a guest post from Jamie Narkunski, who works as a UX consultant at ThoughtWorks NYC.

by Jamie Narkunski

IMAG0304

Photo from ThoughtWorks.

I recently attended a Tech Salon where the subject of grant applications came up.  Part of the conversation revolved around the issue that the complexity, format, and investment required in the traditional grant application process acts as a barrier for organizations that lack the resources or experience needed to complete the process in a competitive manner, leading to the exclusion or weeding out of potential target applicants in some cases.

The conversation made me think of a recent grant I was a part of:  The Digital Prototype Opportunity.  ThoughtWorks partnered with Parsons New School and Blue Ridge Foundation to host a grant for $100k in funds + $350k worth of development work. The grant was split across two winners. The grant application was open to organizations who had an existing social impact innovation but wanted to use technology to extend and/or deepen their impact in their social space.

Because there were organizations of varying sizes and capabilities involved, we wanted to try to level the playing field as best we could without negatively impacting the applicants.  We started the process with an announcement and invitation to come to our offices for a two-hour workshop where we helped the organizations explore their current process flows and the users they serve, and to identify where they could make the most impact with the addition of technology.

The interest came to around 120 individual organizations. After the first workshop we had the organizations submit a short proposal based around the work done in the workshop or work they’d done based on the format of the workshop we had introduced to them.  The proposals we received were, for the most part, to the point and included a direct ask and perceived impact.  The workshop had enabled organizations to understand our interest in the “What” and the “Why” over the “How”.  This allowed applicants to focus their efforts around what they know best:  their users and the needs of those users.  It would be misleading to say that every single proposal we received stuck to this format — there were of course the occasional 20+ page proposal from the organizations with the professional grant writer — but that was the exception.

Photo from ThoughtWorks.

Photo from ThoughtWorks.

Next, we narrowed the group down to ten finalists.  Our promise to the finalists was that even if they were not one of the two winners, they would walk away with a fleshed-out proposal with a clear ask, reasoning to back it up, and an understanding of resources, funds and time needed to complete it.  In order to make good on this promise, we held a second workshop for the finalist groups.  They each got 1:1 assistance, and this time the focus was on framing an MVP and rough scoping the tech, resources and time needed to complete.  From there they had the option to refine their proposal, images and diagrams from the workshop.

We ended up with a clear understanding of what was being asked for, why, and what it would take to pull off.  It made for a difficult evaluation on our end, because there were few applicants we could disqualify for technicalities. For me, that proved the success of the application process.  In the end we ended up with two diverse winners and 8 finalists with very strong proposals.

I would love to see and to personally attempt to repurpose the format we did at a local level on a larger scale.  It will be interesting to see the creative use of partnerships and program management most likely required to grow this model.

If there are any questions or interest in the methodologies and tools used in the workshop I am happy to help.  You can reach me at jnarkuns [at] thoughtworks.com.

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Our February 6th Technology Salon in New York City focused on the organizational challenges that development organizations face when trying to innovate or integrate ICTs into their programs and operations. We looked at the idea of “innovation” and different ways to approach it. We asked what “innovation” really means and why “technology” and “innovation” seem to always be used interchangeably. We shared ideas, challenges and good practice around supporting and encouraging staff, managers, and donors to experiment with new and better ways of doing things.

A huge thank you to Somto Fab-Ukozor and Rachana Kumar for their collaboration on writing the summary below!

Mika

Mika Valitalo, Plan Finland. (Photo by Somto Fab-Ukozor)

Our lead discussants were Jessica Heinzelman, DAI’s senior ICT specialist; Chris Fabian, UNICEF’s advisor to the Executive Director on innovation and co-lead of UNICEF’s innovation lab; and Mika Valitalo, Plan Finland’s program manager for ICT4D.

What is innovation?

Different organizations bring in different ideas and definitions of innovation. Is innovation always synonymous with technology? Does it always require technology? For some organizations, “innovation” means doing things faster, better and differently in a way that adds value and has a concrete impact.

One discussant noted that innovation is not necessarily disruptive in nature; it can be categorized into 3 main forms:

  • a totally new context, new problem, new solution
  •  an existing solution that is improved
  •  an existing solution that is adapted to a new context, country or sector

Another lead discussant pointed out that innovation is not necessarily something brand new; it can be something that existed but that is used in a different way or simply different processes or ways of thinking, and innovation does not have to be technology. The concept of innovation is often misunderstood, he said, because “someone can come up with 10 crappy ideas that are new but that does not make them innovative or useful.” He also cautioned that innovation should not only be about replication and scale, yet donors sometimes decide that an idea is innovative and encourage organizations to replicate the idea, without ensuring that it is having a real or relevant impact across different local contexts.

One discussant disagreed and said that there’s no innovation without technology; for example, 60% of kids are stunting in one of the greenest areas in the world because of lack to electrical grid; the provision of electricity is technology. Without the electrical grid, the country will never reach any of its developmental goals. Technology enables the work to happen. A different viewpoint, as another discussant explained, was that the application of the technology is the innovative part, not the technology itself.

What fuels innovation?

A key part of the Salon discussion focused on whether having dedicated resources fueled innovation, or whether the presence of challenges and constraints forces innovation. Some Salon participants felt that when people are faced with challenges such as less time, fewer resources, no office space, etc., they may find themselves being more innovative in order to overcome constraints. Others found that staff often use the excuse of not having time and resources as a reason for not innovating or thinking outside the box. Some felt that innovation is difficult to achieve within large bureaucratic institutions due to their risk averse cultures, whereas others felt that one of the benefits of large-scale organizations is having resources to innovate and then test and scale innovations. Participants did agree that regardless of the outside setting, some people are more inclined to be innovative – these people are easy to identify almost everywhere, as they are always coming up with new ideas and trying/testing things out. The key is to find a way for organizational structures to support and reward innovators.

Encouraging innovation within large development organizations

Different organizations approach the innovation question in different ways. One discussant said that at his organization, the innovation team spends 60% of its time working on problems the organization is facing at the moment; 20% of its time looking towards the future (a 3-5 year horizon) for ideas that have an immediate direct impact on its work; and 20% of its time on organizational redesign, in other words, how to work with users to create solutions that are not top down and that take advantage of the existing ecosystem. His innovations team is only interested in finding/creating innovations that could reach very large scale, such as 10,000,000 people or more.

The innovation team created some guidelines for staff and allies with tips on how to defend one’s existence as someone working on innovation.  The guide addresses questions like: Why innovation?  Is it valuable to have an innovation unit? If so, why? If so and why, then prove it. Working on these questions led the innovation unit to develop metrics for innovation to justify staff positions focused on innovation. These guidelines can help people at other organizations who are trying something new to have a reference point; they allow innovation teams to say “such-and-such organization is doing this, so we can do it too.”

Metrics for innovation

Having a set of metrics can help innovation labs, teams or persons charged with organizational innovation to measure whether they are actually achieving their goals, too. One organization defined the following metrics:

  • permission to fail or fail cheaply without fear
  • working with heterogeneous groups
  •  sharing knowledge across countries and contexts

Working across organizational boundaries without “soul crushing bureaucracy” and having the real ability to work horizontally is one key to achieving these metrics.

Decentralizing the innovation function

Another lead discussant described the institutional changes and underlying understanding of people needed to improve and support innovation:

  • Identify the real incentives that someone has – individual or project – and the disincentives to innovating. It is important to look underneath the excuses people come up with such as time constraints and additional work, and find out what is driving them.
  • Hire realistic optimists – Sometimes in the ICT4D space, people gloss over the challenges and promote the technology. It is important to hire people who are grounded and have a good analytical sense, and who can think beyond gadgets and hype.
  • Building and sharing expertise within the organization – Creating a champions group of mid-to entry-level professionals within the organization, who understand the power that new technology has, is another way to make innovation and ICT4D spread. Rather than keep the expertise isolated within a specialist unit, finding younger people who are hungry for knowledge and who see this kind of work as a way to help further their career and set themselves apart from their colleagues can help. Then the “innovation team” can provide them with support and guidance. Participatory workshops on new tools and approaches can be organized where these innovation champions are tasked to research and explore something and then present it. Equipped with tools and trainings, they will be able to better identify opportunities for innovation.
  • Getting innovation into the plan early and working with those who are putting proposals and RFPs together to make sure that it is part of the metrics being measured from the beginning. It’s hard to add new elements into the program later because people will perceive it as additional work.

One Salon participant said that her organization disconnected “innovation” from its other programs so that space for trying new things would be made, and the fear of failing would be reduced or “offloaded” to the innovation team. In this case, the unit is funded through private sources which support it to experiment. It still has to struggle for its existence and show the impact and value of either failure or success.

Ideas for taking innovation and ICT4D forward

Some ideas for moving ahead included:

  1. Flexibility in program planning– In reality, most times during program implementation the plan changes and we have to figure out how to cope with it. The solution lies in the ability to quietly promote innovation and to influence donor organizations to embrace more flexible implementation.
  2. Integrating User-Centered-Design – Ethnographic research can help to better understand how people use technology locally and what its meaning is. It also helps identify existing patterns and ways of doing things that could be enhanced or shared with other communities if they are working well. Agile methodology from the software world can be pulled into development programs in order to end the top-down approach of solving problems from afar and having everything cooked up from the start. Rather, focusing on small iterations and the impact of the deliverables can be a better approach.
  3. Collaboration with Universities – Universities can be great places for working on and trying out  new ideas. Links with universities can be used as ways to find solutions, but even moreso to “change the proteins” inside of a traditional organization.  Collaboration among staff and students provides opportunities for staff to learn how to think about things differently and for students to understand real-world challenges in development agencies.
  4. Bridging the gap – Involving educators, health experts, child protection specialists and others who are not very interested in gadgets can bring about strong understanding of the real needs. Then connecting them with “techies” and ICTs in plain language and asking them to relate their own use of tech (they probably all use mobile phones in their personal lives, for example) to the ways that community members use tech can help to bring about solid, practical, sustainable and locally driven solutions.
  5. Provide a safe environment – Many humans are innovative by nature, said one discussant. Hierarchies and organizational processes are often what prevent people from doing new things. Giving feedback and psychological support can help those who are innovative to flourish within a difficult environment.
  6. The interdisciplinary approach – One Salon participant said that his organization had started to work with some senior staff to think and structure data in a way that would help them understand their challenges and programs better in order to innovate. This makes people more comfortable, and working across different teams with a variety of people and skill sets can help new ideas and solutions to bubble up.
  7. Information intermediaries – Infomediaries working at various levels can help connect people with technology, conduct training, and ensure that staff can acquire skills to use the technology themselves and in programs.
  8. Open source – Making project documents, budgets, concepts, “open” online can make them more accessible and  help  enable sustainable projects and prevent issues and costs associated with proprietary tools, applications and content.
  9. Younger management – There’s an age differential between the people who lead most large organizations and large-scale projects and those who are more interested in technology. One participant suggested it would be important to get younger people into positions where they can make contributions of ideas and decisions without being blocked by higher level people that may be “past their innovation prime.” Another solution may be to hire more experienced people but to ensure that they are open to working with  younger people who bring in new ideas. (Some Salon participants, however, felt that age has nothing to do with innovation, and that it is more related to personality types and organizational environments).

For  additional resources on the Salon topic, look here – and add your resources as well.

Salons are held under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this post. Many thanks to our lead discussants and to ThoughtWorks for hosting and providing breakfast.

If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here!

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This is a cross post from Tessie San Martin, CEO of Plan International USA. It was originally posted on the Plan USA blog, titled Old Roads to New Directions. We’ll have Tessie, Chris Blattman and Paul Niehaus from Give Directly joining us in NYC for our November Technology Salon on Cash Transfers. More info on that soon!
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There has been a lot of chatter in the mainstream media about unconditional cash transfers (UCTs) lately. See, for example, recent pieces in The New York Times and The Atlantic; and a much discussed segment in NPR. Most media pieces also mentioned an organization called GiveDirectly that does just this. The idea, touted as an important innovation in development, is simplicity itself: give cash directly to poor people who need it, without strings.

GiveDirectly leverages the low costs of mobile money to deliver cash transfers to poor households in select African countries. Initial results are encouraging. The money is not being spent on “sin goods”. On the contrary, it is being – for the most part – directed into productive investment that helps these poor families get ahead.

It is worth noting differences between UCTs and CCTs (conditional cash transfers). CCT programs provide cash payments to poor households, but they impose conditions on recipients before they get the money, mostly related to children’s health care and education (e.g. enroll the kids in school). UCTs put no such conditions. This is why there is such enthusiasm about UCTs. “No conditions” means such programs tend to be cheaper to administer. At least that is the theory. Note that UCTs and CCTs are similar in that neither has any conditions on how the money (once obtained) is spent.

This posting is focused on UCTs because of the current buzz around them. Although they are showing impressive results, let’s be realistic about the potential and limitations of UCTs. There is a lot that we do not know about the conditions under which UCT schemes lead to sustainable poverty reduction. Nor are we clear about how such programs can be scaled effectively. To the credit of organizations like GiveDirectly, they have partnered with Innovations for Poverty Action to carefully evaluate the results of their actions through rigorous randomized control trials.

It is worth noting that GiveDirectly is doing more than just sending cash to the poor; they are also spending resources carefully identifying, evaluating and selecting beneficiaries, and on monitoring and evaluation. This leads me to one of three points I think are worth making about UCTs.

First, the idea behind UCTs may be simple, but the more successful UCT schemes are complex. The “U” in UCTs does not mean that all you are doing is giving poor people money and stepping back. Research done by ODI and funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) suggests that UCTs work best when accompanied by information, education and communication efforts, careful targeting and selection of participants, and constant feedback and interaction. In other words, you need to consider who will be selected, what complementary efforts/services will enable and facilitate a good response, and you need to constantly invest in citizen feedback channels that allow you to learn and adapt as better information about program impact comes in. This is not much different than what a good INGO needs to do in order to deliver effective programming (UCT or not).

Second, the media coverage ignores how much variation exists among UCTs schemes. As the World Bank’s Berk Ozler has highlighted, there is a world of difference between “waking up one morning and finding $500 in your M-PESA account” (GiveDirectly) and the interventions being carried out in Liberia for unemployed youth, or what the DfID-funded ODI studies describe. Again, it is too early to tell what kinds of effects on poverty reduction we can expect from such schemes and we are miles away from understanding how scheme design details are related to sustainable paths out of poverty.

This leads me to a third set of questions: for whom are UCTs working? How do program results compare in urban vs. rural areas, for different income levels? We have years of data on CCTs, particularly a lot of data from Mexico, Brazil and other middle income countries where these programs have been scaled up nationally. Yes CCTs have problems (what development and social safety net programs do not?). But there is plenty of research demonstrating the conditions under which CCTs work. UCTs are much less well studied.

But the importance of these innovations, as Chris Blattman has already said, is that it forces (or should force) development organizations and donors to think about “top and bottom lines.” In other words, is what we are doing working? And even if it is working, at what cost? More importantly, we should always ask: are there other options for delivering the same (or similar) results more cost effectively?

As the CEO of a child sponsorship organization, I am drawn to the idea of UCTs. In fact, our initial child sponsorship efforts decades ago bear important similarities to today’s UCT programs. But Plan (like most other child sponsorship organizations) stepped away from such direct transfers, as concerns with sustainability and dependency grew. It is perhaps time to take a new look at the evidence around cash transfers, invest in reviewing results of past sponsorship programs and the lessons learned from that experience that may be applicable to a new generation of UCTs.

In the private sector, publicly quoted companies live and die by the share price, and the pressure to innovate and stay ahead is always present. For public charities like Plan, the rewards – and risks – of innovation are much less clear. But ignoring disruptive technologies and innovations, and failing to continuously push to experiment and learn will lead to irrelevancy. The jury may be out on UCTs, but they need to be taken seriously. GiveDirectly and others like it are pushing us all to do better.

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CISCO is looking for stories about how people and organizations have used network services (mobile video and gaming, video conferencing, SMS, and social networking) to achieve different social or personal goals. The idea is to find stories not only about how technology developers are inventing things, but also about how different tools are enabling a range of things to happen and helping people to resolve challenges and achieve progress in their communities.

The application process is quite simple – just answer 5 questions through a form on the website to formulate the story. You can also download a form, fill it out, and then cut/paste into the form online if you are on slow internet. Contest and story submission information is here.

According to CISCO, by posting a story on how you’ve developed solutions, or used these services, you will be an inspiration to others and CISCO will help you promote your work through their social media channels thereby increasing your visibility. They hope that the stories help generate more conversation around the impact of Internet services.

They also hope the stories can help answer some questions around the benefits of increased connectivity. For example:

  • How will growth in Internet access impact global economies?
  • How can more communities and businesses take advantage of the significant growth in mobile services?
  • What new opportunities can be created for those least connected?
  • Why are there regional variations in adoption rates of certain networking services?

I know a lot of smaller local organizations – especially some great youth-led organizations – are doing some fantastic things, and a prize like this could help these organizations get to the next level. More information here.

The more academic folks out there may not want to submit stories, but you might be interested in the Virtual Network Indexing Forecast.

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