Harnessing Humanitarian Innovation: Bettering the World One Idea at a Time

Filed Under Innovation

Fusion TIFF File
Arwen Petty

July 25, 2014

Obvious as it sounds, every technological advancement, medical breakthrough, or creative masterpiece that exists in the world began with one very simple thing: an idea.

To be fair, having ideas isn’t always all that simple. Particularly in business settings, generating truly unique or innovative solutions is often an acute struggle; a battle of wit against resources, deadlines, and data. This is especially true for organizations focused on humanitarian innovation — they’re not only restricted by their own assets, but by the many regional, political, financial, geographical, and cultural aspects affecting the oppressed group or location they’re trying to service. Even the most brilliant concepts must be subjected to intense scrutiny and adaptation. Having a great idea is only the very, very beginning.

Establishing a Process: Considerations and Risks

Humanitarian innovation processes are themselves incremental innovations to ideas traditionally used in the private sector. But rather than focusing on inventing or bettering a product, they’re used to improve emergency response times, assist with protracted crisis and post-conflict recovery, increase access to medical treatments and other necessities, and boost economic growth in impoverished areas.

Though plenty of agencies and powerful individuals contribute time, money, and ideas to a variety of global causes, there’s a pressing need to clarify approaches, identify risks, develop a common language, and establish collaborative support networks. Says the team at The Humanitarian Innovation Project, “Innovation takes place every day in the humanitarian context. Rarely, though, have ideas about innovation been systematically adapted and applied to humanitarianism. This project seeks to improve the innovation process within the humanitarian world. Its ultimate aim is to develop a methodology for bottom-up humanitarian innovation, which can be applied at the field level.” As organizations craft their protocol, they should consider the following:

Research is especially critical. As mentioned above, the factors that come into play when applying innovation to altruism are far more complex, sensitive, and numerous than is typically seen in the private sector. Politics are not limited to project stakeholders and board members, but actual government agencies; resources refer to medical supplies, food, water, shelter, and transportation, in addition to an org’s personnel, budget, and assets. Safety often becomes a major factor, and collaboration between operational teams and government groups (law enforcement, firefighters, volunteers, etc.) is crucial. All of these disparate elements are also at the mercy of circumstance, making research into past activities, known challenges, potential and existing risks, and the people or agencies involved a vital first step.

Starting small is a necessary evil. When an organization practices altruistic innovation, it becomes clear very quickly how daunting a task it is. Even if the efforts are focused on a specific group or region, it may appear that there will never be enough money, enough resources, enough people, or enough time to complete the mission they’ve set out to perform. This realization can be both disheartening and detrimental to effective ideation, because motivation plays such an important part in innovating successfully. Therefore, understanding this challenge up front and being prepared to scale your efforts over time is fundamental to the overall process.

Learning is a continuous process. Always. It’s the same lesson people all around the world are taught from a very young age: the act of learning doesn’t stop, and mistakes are not failures unless you make them repeatedly. As important as embracing hurdles is to the average company culture of innovation, it is doubly so when your goal is to better the lives and conditions of those in need. Consumer product and service mistakes can be rectified; when your end-customer is an at-risk child or village dwelling in deplorably poverty, that’s a major game-changer.

The Global Crowd

There’s something truly, wonderfully unique about acts of humanitarian innovation: they are in no way the sole property of experts, inventors, or highly-trained niche specialists. In fact, it is rare that these types of innovations are born from a singular desire to apply expertise to a problem, like a mechanic who spends their time rebuilding old cars for pleasure alone. More often, an existing need is met with deft resourcefulness and collaboration, resulting in clever solutions to widespread problems.

Take, for example, the Liter of Light movement. Brought to our attention by Su Layug, the winner of our INQ Magazine Issue #3 Twitter contest, this global, open-source movement is an incredible example of need-based, community-generated humanitarian innovation at work.

The movement started in one of the poorest villages in Manila, where the majority of people who live there are impoverished, and do so without electricity. From this need came an idea, and finally a goal: to provide an “ecologically sustainable and free-of-cost source of interior light.” Using nothing more than a transparent plastic bottle filled with water and a little bit of bleach (to inhibit the growth of algae or bacteria), these Liters of Light can be fitted through the roof of a house. During the day, the water inside the bottle refracts sunlight, providing approximately the same amount of light as a 40- to 60-watt incandescent bulb. When done properly, these bottles of light can last for half a decade. What started as one person’s ingenious response to a widespread issue is now a global movement; it has illuminated the lives of over 70,000 people in Manila alone, and now exists in India, Indonesia, and Switzerland. As the concept gained awareness in the global crowd — institutions and individuals around the world who understood its value and demand — it was able to transcend the many financial constraints and other challenges with which it was originally faced.

This is, of course, a specialized case of marrying innovation with philanthropy; a stellar illustration of relying on ideators and limited resources to make a monumental difference in the lives of thousands. But most importantly, it’s a solid demonstration of what humanitarian innovation is all about: the belief that, more often than not, it only takes one, simple idea to change the world.