KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

The next innovation: scaling up

with 17 comments

 Right now innovation is one of the hottest topics in development. Even the UN is all over it :-), started by pioneering work from UNICEF, now UNDP, UNHCR, OCHA and many others are creating innovation teams, strategies and labs to help their programmes (and organizations?) become more innovative.

As this great paper from Bruce Jenks and Bruce Jones nicely elaborates, The UN, and the “development system” more broadly is at a crossroads. The current business models were designed in a different age and need to change to adapt to the emerging post-2015 development agenda, but also to the reality that change is permanent and accelerating and so we need to be more agile to keep up and stay relevant and effective.

In the past the most common way to test out new ideas and programme approaches was the “pilot programme” followed by “rigorous evaluation”. The problem with this was that a lot of pilots were created, but few were scaled up to national or global programmes. The pilots would often run for years, but with a kind of loving attention and specific starting conditions that couldn’t easily be replicated (like Millennium Development Villages on a smaller scale). The other challenge was that these projects would need to be run as designed for a couple of years before they could be evaluated (preferably against a control group or even in an RCT). This means there was little scope to adapt them based on feedback, on the ground reality and changing circumstances. A lot of these pilots were also based on theories brought from the outside rather than on local participatory design.

The new wave of innovation projects has done a lot to address these shortcomings. Projects are developed using participatory approaches such as “human centred design” so they better respond to on the ground reality. They are quickly iterated based on feedback and there is an emerging (if still challenging) culture of being willing to fail quickly and start again. There are now a proliferation of trainings, manuals, guides and checklists for those who want to give this approach a try.

But looking ahead, I see a number of challenges in making the most of this welcome development. I wonder how do we make sure that this new approach has a systemic and scalable effect on how we do our work? Here I see three related challenges

1. How do we make the culture or approaches of innovation more mainstream in our organizations so that it is a regular part of how we do our work rather than another pilot project or a high-profile, high visibility approach that organizations use to say “look we’re changing” while keeping most of their operations (and resource allocations) chugging along using the existing (and tired) model.

2. How do we scale the learning from the individual innovations themselves? While there have been a number of very successful innovations developed – how do those become adopted or adapted widely enough to generate large-scale impacts on development (rather than  a significant but localized effect as is currently the case).

3. How do we innovate in the area of policy, or use innovation to inform policy making. In many countries the main game in town for external development actors is increasingly support to upstream policy work. This is inherently national and thus at scale, but innovating at a policy level and creating a space for experimenting, failing and learning is politically challenging for governments.

I don’t have all the answers to these but here are a few thoughts on each of them:

On the first a key step would be to “mainstream” innovation within the work of the organization as a part of (but not the whole of ) the programming toolkit rather than as a parallel process or set of discrete projects. This would imply developing programme guidance that allows innovation and allows but also manages the risks involved and explains when and how the approach should be used. A number of our current programming instruments such as in work planning, monitoring, budgeting management and procurement/partnership need to be revised to remove bottlenecks to innovation. But this is equally a “hearts and minds” issue where there is a need for clear messages and behaviour modeling from leadership to demonstrate that it innovation is encouraged (and to avoid where senior leaders encourage innovation in their words while their actions send a quite different message). Skill building and knowledge sharing is also key for staff to learn how to do it. In this model a team of innovation experts is essential, but their role will become more one of champion, policy setter, capacity builder and advisor than one of project manager.

On scaling up the knowledge from the innovations themselves, there are a couple of challenges. Innovations are often tailor-made to a specific context and may often not have a strong body of evidence nor “theory of change” behind them that explains the underlying method through which they work. This makes it hard to extract the generalizable learning that can be applied elsewhere. But there are a few things that can be done to mitigate this problem such as systematic data collection around innovations, and formative evaluation of the most successful to better understand how they work. Another is to share concrete examples and replicate them as “first prototype” in new contexts to see how they can be rapidly  adapted to fit the next context. This can both make it easier to generate ideas and also help determine which parts are common features of similar projects in different locations and which are elements that need context specific customization. Another approach is to try similar experiments in multiple locations and see which work and which don’t to see what patterns emerge. But this also requires a more coordinated approach to innovation that the “let a thousand flowers bloom approach”. Short of this enhanced networking among innovators can help spread ideas.

Another challenge with scaling up innovation though is that the skills to manage a programme at scale are different from those required to innovate in the first place. As a project becomes more successful and matures there is less ideation and evolution and more traditional “good management” and standardization. The challenge is to organize a smooth transition between these phases so the project management style evolves as the project matures. Another idea is trying to find ways that when new ideas are tested there is already some consideration of scale from the outset. This could be in the form of constraints on the initial design that only allow designs that can function at larger scale without a high degree of customization or a high degree of technical support.

On the challenge of innovating in the area of policy – while it’s not wise to fail, even if it is fast in national policy initiatives, small-scale experiments can help identify and test possible policy actions before they become officially adopted. In particular they can help not only determine the likely effects of policy, but also different approaches to implementing it in practice. This is particularly promising in the complex areas of social policy and behaviour change for which technical fixes don’t work. But this requires carving out a space for small-scale policy experiments that are designed to help influence policy at the macro level (such as the UK behavioural insights team).

A related challenge for public sector innovation is the low tolerance for failure, even for experiments, on the part of the public who funds it. An interesting approach used in the early days of New York City’s innovation work was to tap into private and foundation funding that is more tolerant of risk but in the right circumstances might be willing to invest for social good rather than just economic gain. This also has potential to be applied in other countries, and particular in the UN system where we are looking in any case to diversify funding sources. New partnerships with the private sector could actually be a spur for increased innovation both through funding and expertise. Even with traditional funding sources it might be wise to take a portfolio approach to public spending with an explicit “set-aside” for innovative activities that follows a different set of rules for planning, budgeting and evaluation allowing more risk, but only on a small part of the overall budget.

Another challenge for policy innovation is that what works in practice is not always what is popular politically and so the policy process often takes a different direction from what the evidence from experiments would indicate. This is equally a problem with traditional “evidence based advocacy” and scaling up in general. A potential advantage for innovators is that they may be able to mobilize a constituency of supporters around a successful experiment in a way that a traditional researcher cannot.

Right now innovation is literally “the new thing” but if we are not able to come up with sound approaches to mainstreaming it and scaling up the results then it may be just another development fad rather than a new way of doing business. Then innovation won’t be as “sexy” as it is now but it will be making a more lasting difference.


Written by Ian Thorpe

December 18, 2013 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

17 Responses

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  1. […] Right now innovation is one of the hottest topics in development. Even the UN is all over it :-), started by pioneering work from UNICEF, now UNDP, UNHCR, OCHA and many others are creating innovat…  […]

    • Hi, Ian, thanks for your thoughtful comments on scaling up. Some of us at the Brookings Institution have done work on this important topic (see, e.g., our book, and worked with various institutions, including AfDB, IFAD, IFPRI, JICA, GIZ, UNDP, USAID and the World Bank on how to go from innovation to scaling up in development. A series of policy briefs published by IFPRI provides a quick insight into scaling up in agriculture, rural development and nutrition ( Let me know if you want to explore the scaling up topic a bit more — it would be great if the UN system were to incorporate a scaling up agenda more systematically in its work.

      Johannes Linn

      December 21, 2013 at 5:08 am

      • Johannes – many thanks for sharing these resources.

        Ian Thorpe

        December 23, 2013 at 11:20 am

  2. Hi Ian,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on three dimensions of applying innovation in practice. Your blog is becoming one of the primary sources for emerging questions.

    In addition to what you have outlined, I believe there are relative and core reasons why it is difficult to start off with the innovation agenda in the UN System. One of the core reasons is our current rules, regulations and most of all inflexible guidances. At the organizational level, we are really good with coming up with different guidances that are not tested in practice. We tend to jump into developing them without knowing how it works today and how it will work tomorrow (without user-centered approach). As you mentioned, agility mindset is key. As for the relative reasons, all development organizations look up at each other, even at governments. So, what challenges we have today are also relevant to other development organizations and governmental systems. This was the way of doing business before, and we trained everyone to follow them. Now, it is time to revert it and we are asking staff to change their mindsets and create the right culture without right incentives.

    Most people are not ready to do something risky and untested fearing to lose their jobs, that’s why we always look for best practices to avoid it (which is in reality doesn’t quite exist). In the UN, we value people who don’t change their jobs for many many years. Imagine, suddenly we start talking about mainstreaming innovation culture that these people are not aware. They will certainly resist, because it is unknown, we don’t provide incentives and we don’t create enough space and opportunities for learning. Learning doesn’t always happen in workshops or trainings. It is actually 10 % of all learning acquisition. We could start diminishing these face-to-face workshops and increase opportunities for staff exchanges (issue-based teams, staff exchanges among agencies/private sector/foundations for short-term assignments, etc). We need to create a space for staff to increase their capacity constantly in an agile manner and then we can ask them to be agile. Otherwise, this will be another theoretical talk.

    When we discuss innovation as a process element, we are discussing a lot about prototyping, testing and validation. At the same time, we should clearly visualize that it takes time until we see some elements of results from prototypes. Based on my observation and from a conversation with Natalia Adler (UNICEF Nicaragua), depending on the context and scale, prototyping takes up to 1-year to test and validate several times. As mentioned by Jasmina Belcowska (UNDP Macedonia), they are doing several prototypes at the same time and improving while they are learning. They haven’t even announced about the initial results, but gears are ready for the experiment. We should be ready with the right capacity to spend some time to do prototypes, test and validate them


    Ifoda (@Ifodakhon)

    December 19, 2013 at 3:12 pm

  3. Hi Ian,

    Not sure I ever shared this with you. It was something I conceptualized and started rolling out in India. Good programming practice, you are right. Just a clear intention from the outset and aligning all the ducks to make things work…

    UNICEF India Guidelines on Piloting and Scaling-up of Innovations and Good Practices

    And the illustration of the work… watch the Madhya Pradesh video.

    Joaquin Gonzalez-Aleman

    December 19, 2013 at 6:53 pm

  4. Hi Ian,

    I was going to try to be ‘clever’ and answer your question with another question, when I noticed that you beat me to it and have already answered it in the end of your posting. Notice to self: never try to outsmart a blogger…

    Before we can talk about scaling up innovations, we should take a closer look at what we mean by ‘innovations,’ in the first place. Bill Taylor, echoing other writers before him, recently blogged in the Harvard Business Review about how the word ‘innovation’ has become devoid of any meaning in the business world. Taylor (quoting Saul Kaplan) makes the distinction between those who tweak at the margins (“share takers”) and those who “create a one-of-a-kind presence, a unique offering, unlike what anyone else can do” (‘market makers’). I think something similar is happening in development. We have become so enfatuated with calling almost any twist to the way we do business an innovation that we miss the point of inducing regular changes in our business model.

    With this caveat, I believe innovation in development is (or should be) about complexity and systems thinking. It’s not about flashy ideas without substance. In the words of Robert MacDonalds (qtd. in Taylor), innovation is about “conjuring up a set of ideas and practices that are so original that established companies can’t begin to make sense of them, let alone respond to them — and painting a vivid picture of what your organization can become if it delivers on its change-the-game agenda.”

    And that’s very country specific and it’s a lot of work (someone once said, “innovation is not the product of intellect, but the product of will”). I think Joaquim, in his comment below, provides a very compelling case of this.

    I also agree with Ifoda’s remarks and I think there’s a lot of potential to trigger a mindset change at the UN through the work of Matt Andrews and Lant Pritchett on Problem Driven Iterative Approach (PDIA). But interestingly, they never talk about it in terms of innovations. It’s all about common sense. And that’s worthy scaling up!

    Natalia Adler

    December 19, 2013 at 8:03 pm

  5. Hi Natalia – thanks for the comment. Personally I don’t care much for definitions, and for me we need both continual tweaks on existing models as well as a continual search for new ones – but my guess is that because “innovation” is the current buzzword everyone is looking to find a way to use it to describe what they are doing! Both can be hard to scale, although I do think the latter is much more so because there is usually more work needed to develop them and convince people to try them and overcome resistance to change.

    I agree with you that innovation in development should be about systems thinking – in particular I like the increasing focus on user experience and expertise (e.g. human centred design approaches), interdisciplinary thinking (e.g. cross fertilization of approaches and tools across domains of expertise) and iterative improvement (rather than the 5 year programme plan based on a “scientific” approach). I too am excited about the potential of PDIA for use in the UN and other large aid organizations. some of the ideas from here “should” be able to be adopted in our organizations, if we can get over our own resistance to change.

    Ian Thorpe

    December 20, 2013 at 11:29 am

    • Hi, Ian, Natalia! Great post, Ian, challenging us to ponder about this wonderfully inexact concept (or family of meanings) of innovations.

      Let me throw in one additional ingredient to the innovation gazpacho: networked operations. I mean using a structured set of practices (can be loose, but not ad-hoc) which serve to enable the participation of many and diverse actors (from individual to corporations) applied to the complexity/systems thinking approach promoted by Natalia. Just as the emerging field of network science, with authors like Barabasi, is making inroads into deciphering complexity, I think that well-defined networked operations can make a practical (operational) difference to the complexity-aware/systemic approach that modern international cooperation needs to embody.

      Merry Xmas to all! Manuel

      Manuel Acevedo

      December 26, 2013 at 8:36 am

  6. […] Right now innovation is one of the hottest topics in development. Even the UN is all over it :-), started by pioneering work from UNICEF, now UNDP, UNHCR, OCHA and many others are creating innovat…  […]

  7. […] Right now innovation is one of the hottest topics in development. Even the UN is all over it :-), started by pioneering work from UNICEF, now UNDP, UNHCR, OCHA and many others are creating innovat…  […]

  8. Thanks a lot Ian, spot in article. Innovation is not a goal in itself but can a means, i.e. to achieve certain goals in a better way. Overall I greatly appreciate the current innovations drive as it opens up opportunities for “younger, fresher, better” ideas to change corners in the UN system that need change and help address UN goals. Only when innovation is not buzz-word or hype but well-used, built-in, results-oriented it will have the transformative power we want.

    Juergen Nagler

    December 31, 2013 at 4:29 pm

  9. Excellent post. I think you are right in that we need both game-changing innovations and incremental innovations. You are right that fostering innovations upstream towards governments can be tough. (but development was never meant to be easy, was it?) Fortunately, the UN can draw on the experiences of so many innovation labs that exist in governments throughout the world. A good map can be found here:

    I know that UNDP already has centre for public sector excellence in Singapore and their experiences in working upstream can possibly be leveraged in south-south cooperation.

  10. […] Seeing such an immense gap between what companies aim to achieve – and say they will – and the little genuine innovation and safe-fail space they effectively allow their staff to play with – something which matters when we are looking at scaling up innovation. […]

  11. […] Right now innovation is one of the hottest topics in development. Even the UN is all over it :-), started by pioneering work from UNICEF, now UNDP, UNHCR, OCHA and many others are creating innovat…  […]

  12. Thanks for this Ian! I think with regards to policy innovation through small-scale experiments (and failures), there is a lot to learn from China’s experience using local policy experimentation as a major instrument for economic reform during the last two decades. While the nature of China’s approach of course diverges somewhat from the ideals of the recent innovation agenda of international organizations (e.g. with regards to social innovation and active participation of beneficiaries), there might be some lessons with regards to how to move from successful local experiments to scaled-up national policies. Referencing the work of Sebastian Heilman, Prof. at the University of Trier on this topic:


    January 6, 2014 at 3:57 am

  13. Hi Ian,

    Interesting post, but I disagree with the apparent underlying assumption in your argument that innovation and good project management are different things. I think good project management is all about adaptive approaches which inevitably innovate to some degree as realities on the ground are confronted. Vice versa, organisations that depend on external experts to innovate for them, often fail to understand the innovations which they have been gifted (see I suspect you probably already thought that – hence the call to mainstream innovation – but your subsequent paragraphs half imply otherwise.

    However, I certainly do share your frustration with the poor quality of most efforts to scale up pilot projects. Here are my thoughts on this from a couple of years ago:

    cheers, MJ


    January 17, 2014 at 7:42 am

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