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Stepping Up to the Innovation Challenge

On the morning of October 29, a panel of distinguished judges gathered in Bethesda, Maryland, to hear the final pitches from five DAI projects competing for the title of DAI “Innovation of the Year.”

They heard powerful, impassioned cases made by project staff working to improve education in Pakistan, facilitate land titling in Ethiopia, recognize the land rights of indigenous people in Honduras, and mitigate the effects of climate change in the Pacific Islands.

The proceedings were broadcast live to DAI staff by videoconference, and at a lunch-time celebration the Transforming Education in Pakistan project’s online clearinghouse for education data was named the winner.

The announcement marked the culmination of a five-month Innovation Challenge that is the focal point for this issue of Developments.

Our focus on innovation is occasioned in large part by our clients, whose renewed emphasis on driving beyond the status quo is embodied in new institutions such as the U.S. Global Development Lab and the Global Innovation Fund. Jeson Ingraham’s article discusses these and other donor initiatives to spur new thinking and engage new partners in the development enterprise.

Part of our own response to such initiatives, the Innovation Challenge has proved to be a rewarding and enlightening process, as Betsy Marcotte documents in her lead article on the “lessons and legacy” of the exercise. We have learned about what we are doing within our own network (no small challenge in a globally dispersed organization) and what we can do better to capture, refine, and share the fruits of creativity across that network and beyond.

Jim Boomgard

Such insights are important for an organization that likes to think of innovation as part of its DNA. Ever since the founders named the company Development...

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DAI’s 2014 Innovation Challenge: Lessons and Legacy

International development donors are increasingly asking their partners for more than just “good development.” Inspired in part by the example of the information and communications technology sector, they want new thinking and better approaches to address global poverty, poor governance, climate change, environmental degradation, and inadequate health care. They want solutions that are transformative (vs. incremental), scalable, more efficient, and cost-effective. They want, in a word, innovation.

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Is Everyone Really Innovating?

Innovation seems to be ubiquitous—or, at least, talk about innovation. A 2012 Wall Street Journal review of reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows companies used some form of the word “innovation” 33,528 times in 2011, a 64 percent increase from five years before. At the same time, one doesn’t have to look hard to find growing cynicism regarding over use of the concept.

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Innovation’s Missing Link

In the critically acclaimed film, The Spanish Prisoner, Steve Martin plays a confidence man trying to swindle an unsuspecting engineer out of “the process,” a super-secret industrial formula that generates boatloads of cash. Martin and his co-conspirators are sent away in handcuffs with the process safe and sound as the credits roll. What remains mysteriously unresolved is how the process works and what makes it so lucrative.

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Can the Development Set Reinvent Itself?

Innovation is “in.” In 2014, the U.S. Agency for International Development and U.K. Department for International Development have both launched sizable initiatives: the U.S. Global Development Lab and the Global Innovation Fund, respectively. Innovation hubs, incubators, and accelerators are popping up like mushrooms. Partnerships—especially with the private sector—are widely seen as essential to the innovation of solutions with scale.

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Disruption for Good

Despite the advances in human development in the 20th century, humanitarian aid remains as relevant as ever. While our ability to respond to disaster has improved, factors such as climate change and the burgeoning global population mean that the number and severity of disasters have also increased. Could “big data” help humanitarian relief actors keep up with this escalating challenge?

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Humanitarians in the Sky

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) capture images faster, cheaper, and at a far higher resolution than satellite imagery. And as John DeRiggi speculates in “Drones for Development?” these attributes will likely lead to a host of applications in development work. In the humanitarian field that future is already upon us—so we need to take a rights-based approach to advance the discussion, improve coordination of UAV flights, and to promote regulation that will ensure safety while supporting innovation.

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Drones for Development?

Recent advances in drone technology have come in tandem with advances in artificial intelligence. These converging technologies will give rise to fully autonomous drones that could play an important role in a host of applications, from commercial delivery systems to municipal governance–and quite possibly in international development activities.

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An Innovation in Governance

Pro Mujer is a nonprofit organisation serving communities in Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru. It delivers an integrated package of financial services, business, and empowerment training through its communal banks, which are groups of 20-30 women who receive small business loans through Pro Mujer.

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Failing Fast

“Fail fast” is a mantra in Silicon Valley. While the development sector is starting to accept more failure—through “Fail Fairs” and reports centred around learning from failure—it is still far from achieving the speed of failure practiced in, for instance, the tech sector. Most development programmes don’t know if their program is failing months or even years after launch, whereas tech ideas can recognise failure within days. Can the development sector catch up?

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Big Data for Big Impact

Food-related conversations on Twitter have shown strong correlations with food price inflation. Patterns of mobile phone usage are being analysed to predict the magnitude of a disease outbreak. When airtime top-off amounts shrink in a certain region, it tends to indicate a loss of income in that population.

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Made in Africa

As the current Ebola outbreak vividly illustrates, the ability of developing countries to detect and contain outbreaks of infectious disease is a matter of concern to us all. That ability depends upon capacities across a wide variety of areas. Among these is the capacity of laboratories to quickly and accurately perform modern diagnostic tests — and that requires equipment.

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DIY Development

Following the Fukushima nuclear accident, many Japanese people were concerned about radioactive contamination in their environment. Radiation data from the government and the private sector were out of date and widely viewed with skepticism. Were citizens safe in their homes, schools, and offices? Was the clean up effort effective?

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