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The life and death of an innovation lab: a personal reflection
by Paul Currion April 2016

At the end of 2015 I stepped down from the Grants Advisory Panel of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund. The Panel needed fresh eyes: after four years and nine rounds of grant applications, a sense of déjà vu had started to settle upon me. One of the last things the HIF asked me to do was to participate in a one-day Humanitarian Innovation conference in June 2015. I was asked to talk about my own experiences in innovation – and it was at that point that I realised that I’d never really talked about those experiences.

I’m not sure that I’m an innovator myself, but I was good at recognising and managing innovation. I was originally invited to join the HIF partly because of my association with projects that were seen as innovative. I began with the Humanitarian Information Centres (HICs) run by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which I was involved with from about 1999–2004. Prior to 1999, a couple of key managers – particularly Randolph Kent and his team in Rwanda – had paved the way for the idea, but it was in Kosovo that the HIC really flourished.

I was Liaison Officer for the International NGO Council of Kosovo, and the NGO community immediately saw the potential of the HIC concept. Basing my position in the HIC, rather than in one of the NGO member offices, meant I would have better access to UN information and, in return for hosting me, the HIC would have better access to the NGO community. I started working at the HIC shortly after it opened, and six months later I was the manager, working with a tremendous team to deliver real value.

The first innovation of the HIC was to act as an independent service provider for the entire humanitarian community, funded and staffed on an inter-agency basis, providing access to technology (particularly Geographic Information Systems, or GIS) that individual agencies could not afford. Today there are a growing number of what Lars Peter Nissen of ACAPS has labelled H2H (or Humanitarian-to-Humanitarian) service providers – but the HIC was a pioneer in this category.

The second innovation was to provide a citizens’ advice function: anybody could walk in, ask for help and be directed to the best provider, civilian or military, UN or NGO, national or international. Unfortunately this was also the first feature that was done away with when the HIC was replicated in less secure locations. This demonstrated how critical it was to tailor HICs to the operational environment.+I wrote about the HIC previously in Humanitarian Exchange 18: ‘Learning from Kosovo: the Humanitarian Community Information Centre, Year One’.

I went on to work in HICs in Afghanistan, Iraq and Liberia,+Humanitarian Exchange, 33: ‘A Little Learning Is a Dangerous Thing: Five Years of Information Management’. but with each project it felt as if they were getting less traction in the humanitarian community, despite the best efforts of the staff working in them. This was partly due to OCHA’s lack of understanding of how to capitalise on the concept: at that stage OCHA had not yet recognised the value of information management, although it has since made great progress with projects such as the Humanitarian Data Exchange. The HICs were promoted by two secondees from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), Paolo Recalde and Giorgio Sartori, and once those two returned to their home agencies, the insurgent mentality that had kept up the momentum disappeared. The concept thus began a slow death, which only ended around 2006, and for which I previously held OCHA responsible.

I now think I was wrong about OCHA’s role because the decline wasn’t just a management issue. The HICs existed in a space that is hard to recall now: built on the technology that emerged during the first wave of the information revolution, but before the second wave of that revolution saw social media begin its domination of the web.

In this context there were diminishing returns on the concept of the HIC as a focal point for new technologies, given how many of those technologies were becoming widely accessible. The technology landscape changed around us: mobile phones, social media (such as Facebook), online mapping (such as Google Maps) and other technologies (such as Skype) quickly became mainstream. This trend was likely the underlying reason for the eventual demise of the HICs, but that wasn’t visible to us at the time, and it certainly wasn’t within OCHA’s control.

We now know that this is a basic rule of innovation: your business model will eventually be disrupted by smaller, more agile innovators. Back then, of course, I had no idea about any of this: the idea of innovation didn’t really land in the humanitarian sector until 2009, when ALNAP published a chapter on ‘Innovations in international humanitarian action’ in its 8th Review of Humanitarian Action. It’s only with hindsight that we can recognise the HICs for what they really were: innovation labs, before innovation labs were cool.

Now everybody wants an innovation lab. Labs clearly have a role to play in the emerging innovation ecosystem, but they have started to become the default solution for promoting innovation – and that might be a problem for the entire sector. Labs create a ‘safe space’ for experimentation, but that safe space is often seen as separate from the rest of the organisation, which in turn can provide those organisations with an excuse for avoiding the much more difficult task of changing their wider organisational culture.

At the time, however, this was the third HIC innovation: creating a field-based ‘skunkworks’ – a small, loosely structured and project-focused team with a mandate to experiment in developing ICT services, particularly spatial technologies such as GIS, remote sensing and handheld GPS. On top of that, we offered these technologies as services and products that could recover at least some of their costs (even if payment was only through the exchange of data) – the origins of the H2H category mentioned earlier in this article.

This style of service delivery was difficult because our customers – UN agencies, NGOs, government departments – found it hard to articulate their needs clearly. Part of our role was therefore helping them to identify exactly what information they were missing, and it was at this point that I realised that decision making in the humanitarian sector was barely connected to evidence. This remains a worrying problem, but it also made it possible for a Lab to provide a launching pad for new ideas, or at least a vehicle for extending existing ideas.

Kosovo’s first road atlas, multivariate vulnerability analysis in Afghanistan, infrastructure mapping with private companies in Liberia, a series of joint needs assessments in various countries – all of these were possible because of the Lab approach. Not every idea worked: we tried crowdsourcing in Liberia, liaising with US universities to clean datasets, but it didn’t work out. In 2003 the necessary technology wasn’t in place and the wider culture wasn’t ready for the idea, providing yet another lesson: timing is critical.

One of the most interesting aspects of the HIC was that most of the time, most of our users didn’t even notice how innovative these approaches were. This was partly because it wasn’t branded as innovation, so we were able to enter organisational structures without attracting much attention, and create an enabling environment for smart and dynamic people to try new approaches. Obviously this wasn’t as easy as it sounds, but the experience suggested the following tactics:

1. Create a flatter hierarchy – although there are limits in countries where this working style is unfamiliar.
2. Establish flexible working conditions – let people work in their own time, as long as they deliver.
3. Develop a culture that combines saying ‘yes’ to new ideas (encourage) with a culture of saying ‘but’ (critique).
4. Give staff (especially national staff) as much responsibility as possible – put them front of house in presentations and meetings.
5. Protect the project from senior management so that staff feel they have permission to try new ideas.

If those are the tactics, then what’s the strategy? I walked away from the HICs having learned three main lessons. First, baby steps are important in a conservative environment like the humanitarian sector. Any large institution, even in the private sector, gives you one shot to make a big change – and if you get it wrong then you have to wait a couple of years before you get another chance. Large institutions have well-developed immune systems, and once they’ve tagged you as an infection, all the defences go up.

Second, the success of the HICs was due to the teams, not the individuals. Creative individuals are important, but they are rarely able to achieve much if they don’t have the support of a team. The early success of the HICs was definitely not due to me as some kind of heroic manager: if anything I may have been a liability to their long term success, having burnt a lot of political kindling in order to make sure the HICs that I worked in were successful. Next time around, I hope I would be smarter about the diplomacy of innovation.

I had too much faith that OCHA would grasp the concept at an institutional level, and take it forward in the same spirit as staff on the ground. This misalignment of priorities arose partly because of the multi-stakeholder nature of the HICs, but also because the goals were never clearly articulated (or at least never clearly understood) at senior management level. This worked to our advantage at the start, since it gave us room to manoeuvre, but as time went on it became a disadvantage, since it made us prone to takeover if one of the stakeholders decided to force a change of direction.

This was first and foremost a systems question: service providers such as the HIC are more common now than they were 15 years ago, but they are still new enough that stakeholders do not recognise their potential. They act as critical hubs within the humanitarian system, but in order to understand the strengths and weaknesses of such hubs we need to use systems thinking – a discipline that barely exists in the humanitarian sector. After a lot of reading, my third lesson was a rule of thumb: creating meaningful change in a system takes a minimum of ten years.

Sadly, the humanitarian sector encourages short-termism, both in terms of planning and people, which makes system change a dispiriting activity requiring a level of stamina that not many people possess. I only lasted seven years, and then watched as others carried the torch on, feeling that I had somehow failed. Yet while the HICs are not much remembered now, they were an essential foundation for much of the progress in information management that the humanitarian community has made in the last ten years. Perhaps there’s a fourth and final lesson: while we may sometimes feel that we have failed to make an impact, we need to take the long view in order to assess whether our contributions – our innovations – have helped to make the humanitarian sector better.

Paul Currion is an independent consultant.