Saving international development:

Why innovation matters for development

A recent Nesta study looks into the role of innovation in international development. Innovation is increasingly seen as integral part to the process of development. This is a good thing, according to Nesta. The industry that faces many challenges and criticisms desperately needs reanimation. Why does innovation matter for reinventing international development?

Radically incomplete

Traditionally, development was seen as involving only the last part of the innovation process. The industry would adopt ideas that had been born and proven elsewhere. This was inspired by unilinear theories of social development.

Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta, explains: “Development traditionally is all about adopting the best available methods. A great deal of the daily reality of development in a town in Sumatra or a city in Tanzania could be understood in these terms. And this perspective now looks radically incomplete.”

Beyond the usual suspects

What naturally follows is this insight: if innovation matters and is no longer a monopoly of the rich world, attention has to turn to how it can best be supported. One of Nesta’s roles has been to help the development world use and adapt tools and ideas of this kind, and to adopt insights from beyond the ranks of the usual suspects.

The best innovators are often the best adopters, and vice versa. Both require a flexible mindset that’s hungry to learn, experiment, and tinker. “Adoption works best when it’s allied to the capacity to adapt and create, whether the focus is on siege machines and irrigation methods, or mobile phones and solar power,” Geoff Mulgan emphasizes.

Hypes and fads

It is too soon to claim a coherent, systematic new model of development. But there are some common themes. “The general ethos is one of open innovation, opening up questions and challenges to all-comers, rather than directing resources purely to elite universities or established research centers. There’s an emphasis on people power, and democracy, in its widest sense.”

“Innovation is a field that’s all too prone to hype and fads. What’s newest is certainly not always best,” Geoff Mulgan is eager to stress. “But without systematic and deliberate innovation, any field is bound to stagnate and to miss out on opportunities.”

Reinventing international development

The interpretation of development as innovation is simple, but challenging. “Yes, the world of development should be adopting and adapting tools or innovation to reshape its own practice. This includes new ways of organizing finance, evidence, data, and citizen inputs. But the ultimate prize is to see development itself in a new way, as a form of individual and collective freedom that’s manifest in the ability to create and spread useful new knowledge.”

The experiences, insights and practical advice from more than 20 leading practitioners in innovation for international development form the basis of Nesta’s report, titled “Innovation for International Development: Navigating the paths and pitfalls“. It offers a helpful introduction for those who are new to innovation in development, as well as insights and advice for experienced practitioners.