Mapping the humanitarian innovation ecosystem

  • Rush, Howard (PI)
  • Ramalingam, Ben (CoI)
  • Bessant, John (CoI)
  • Hoffman, Kurt (PI)
  • Gray, Bill (PI)
  • Warren, Kim (PI)
  • Ian, Gray (CoI)
  • Bayley, Simon (PI)

    Project Details


    The challenges facing international humanitarian action are growing in scale, scope and complexity. According to UNOCHA, nearly 150 million people were affected by a combination of natural disasters, wars and conflicts in 2013, and the number of people needing assistance as a result has more than doubled over the last decade. International humanitarian agencies are already struggling to meet these growing and increasingly complex needs. Without concerted effort, the gap between what is needed and what is provided is likely to grow in the coming years and decades.

    Against this context, many are calling for radical changes to both what humanitarian actors do and how they do it. Such changes have been called for in the past, of course, especially in the wake of high profile humanitarian failures in Rwanda, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and Haiti. But the current context of growing global needs is creating a ‘burning platform’ scenario for the sector. Put simply: humanitarians must adapt in order to maintain their relevance, reputation and impact.

    An increasing number of humanitarian agencies and researchers recognise the need for such change, and have embraced ideas and principles of innovation. Their efforts have:

    raised the importance of innovation for achieving humanitarian goals
    showcased and communicated numerous examples of successful innovation
    generated specific initiatives to facilitate innovation and
    helped to build understanding of the innovation process in the sector.
    Innovation is increasingly understood as a dynamic process involving search and discovery, invention and selection, implementation and testing, and scaling. It is seen as taking place within a complex system shaped by multiple actors, factors and interactions. This emerging body of work has provided the intellectual and operational foundations for the present research.

    A two-year-long programme of research for the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) has helped to extend these initial efforts by conducting an empirically based examination of the Humanitarian Innovation Ecosystem.

    Project aims

    The overarching aim of the research was to move beyond the analysis done so far in the sector, with an explicit aim to analyse and assess the system of actors and factors that shape innovation within the humanitarian sector. By developing an innovation ecosystems framework and associated analytical approaches derived from the field of innovation management, we have sought to move toward a thorough understanding of the challenges of humanitarian innovation, and how they might be overcome.

    Project research method

    The research involved four mutually interdependent work packages conducted over 12 months. These included:

    > a detailed literature review to map out the relevant approaches (and alternatives) in this field
    > interviews with key figures and experts within the humanitarian aid sector and innovation studies experts in order to better identify and understand important issues, resources and data of relevance to the subsequent case studies and survey
    > case studies which provide a more in-depth description of how the HIE functions based on specific sub-sectors and themes in humanitarian responses and which will be made available as stand-alone studies for use by sectoral groups such as the humanitarian aid clusters
    > a synthesis of the research results, which will aim to speak to the longer-term vision for the sector.

    Project recommendations
    Where innovation ecosystems work well and support ongoing innovation management efforts, it is because of sustained resources, rigorous innovation management processes, and a system for adaptive learning. This is true regardless of the sector or the actors involved. But there are also particularities for the humanitarian sector that make innovation more challenging than in most other private or public contexts. The humanitarian sector is also in the early stage of its innovation journey, and some of our critical findings need to be understood in this context.
    Our recommendations present a set of broad ideas for changes to strengthen the humanitarian innovation ecosystem. These are based on the vision of innovation playing a more central and higher-valued role within the evolving humanitarian landscape. In order for this vision to become a reality, there are a number of specific improvements that must be addressed by actors inside and outside the sector. We present our view of what these improvements should be, based on our findings and conclusions. A full presentation of the recommendations can be found in the conclusions of the final report. You can access the final report, literature review, interview summary and specific case studies by scrolling down and clicking on the output tab on the table at the bottom of this page.

    Key findings

    The research was conducted for the Department for International Development (DFID) with the explicit aim of informing policy and promoting responsible and sustainable innovation in the humanitarian sector.

    The project output formed part of the background documents used by the expert panel on 'Transformation through Innovation' who formulated recommendations for the United Nations' World Humanitarian Summit which took place in Istanbul in May 2016.

    One of the principal recommendations was for the building of a global alliance to strengthen the humanitarian innovation ecosystem. Our researchers proposed a new institutional arrangement that would work to prioritise humanitarian innovation and coordinate the distributed efforts of the sector and wider actors through the establishment of some form of global alliance to bring together diverse actors to share experiences and ideas, raise funds, engage senior-level leadership, incubate new cross-sector initiatives and provide a platform for addressing the weaknesses of the ecosystem identified in their report in a systematic and sustained fashion.

    Our recommendation was endorsed by the World Summit. Donors committed three million US dollars to establish the GAHI – The Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation – which is being hosted by ELHRA, an organisation dedicated to Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance. The GAHI began its work in 2017. Twenty founding members have already signed up including UNICEF, UNCHR, the World Food Program, Word Vision, the ICRC and the IFRC.

    In addition, the report also argued for the need to strengthen innovation management skills and capacities within the agencies and non-governmental organisations that provide the day-to-day assistance required all over the world. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent asked our researchers to provide training for their Innovation Pioneers in the concepts and practice of innovation management.
    Effective start/end date1/09/1431/08/16


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