• Opinion
  • February 7, 2019
  • 12 minutes
  • 2

Moonshots and missions: Four lessons for the future of innovation investment

Opinion: No one player nor sector can innovate alone


By Benjamin Kumpf, former UNDP Innovation Policy Specialist. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.

To protect this planet and create prosperity for all, we need moonshots and puddle jumps — deliberate investments in different forms of innovation.

Coined by Jason Prapas of MIT’s Tata Center for Technology and Design, moonshots refer to transformative innovations and technological breakthroughs; and puddle jumps to important incremental improvements and efforts to address last-mile challenges.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are unlikely to be met without massive investments in multiple forms of innovation: incremental improvements, transformative innovations, pursuing bold missions and bottom-up solutions.

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However, a focus on the SDGs is not enough. Governments and development organisations need to invest in anticipatory innovation: addressing potential future risks and liabilities by designing experiments to explore them today.

This is particularly relevant for frontier technologies and their impact on economies, human freedom and our wellbeing.

Moonshots and puddle jumps

A report from the UNDP Innovation Facility shares think pieces and 25 case studies that outline how development can be done differently.

The case studies capture development innovation in action: from a collaboration in Honduras that co-designs 3-D printed prostheses with and for persons with disabilities; a spatial data sandbox to improve biodiversity conservation with UN Environment, MapX, NASA and UN Global Pulse; a joint experiment with Nudge Lebanon and partners to prevent violent extremism in Sudan using behavioural science; a trial to improve land registration in India using blockchain; and scaling public sector innovation processes in Armenia, Bangladesh, Georgia, Moldova and Sri Lanka.

With support from Denmark, the UNDP Innovation Facility has invested in over 140 experiments in 87 countries to identify better ways of delivering impact. These investments mobilised twice the funding invested, created new partnerships and helped scale new ways of working.

Over 40% of Innovation Facility-supported initiatives are tri-partite partnerships between government and private sector partners that have attracted further investments  —  a first proxy for scale.

Based on what we’ve learnt so far, here are four lessons for the future of innovation investment.

Balance improvement-oriented and transformative innovation

For any organisation committed to innovation and change, it is paramount to be deliberate about the kind of innovation to pursue. While the boundaries can be blurry, it is useful to distinguish between improvement-oriented and transformative innovation.

The majority of our investments so far have pursued improvements on how we operate, for example: how can we leverage behavioural insights to more effectively address gender-based violence? Or how can we create real-time insights on poverty to more effectively deliver cash transfers?

Transformative innovation aims at radical changes

Transformative innovation aims at radical changes, such as the work of UNDP Serbia with the government on designing a trial for a universal basic income. Transformative innovation is a high-risk endeavour that requires multi-year investments.

We have found that the best model for developing scalable, transformative innovation involves flexible funding and iterative testing to develop proofs-of-concept.

Moving forward, innovation investments will be clustered and split between improvement-oriented innovations at the early and scaling stage, and investments in transformative processes. We know that there is no golden rule to split innovation portfolio investments, and we will test different models.

To leave no one behind, we will target our investments in puddle jumps, in incremental improvements on solutions that benefit the most marginalised first.

Cluster investments around bold missions

In the past, we invested in a very diverse set of initiatives across almost 100 countries,  supporting both experienced intrapreneurs and newcomers to do development differently. This approach raised awareness and helped to spread risk.

However, we learned that political support can easily falter; staff turnover or changes in governments can mean budding innovations fail, lose momentum or remain isolated experiments.

Senior political support and the ability to manoeuvre bureaucracies are key to moving innovation from a single experiment to a deep-rooted iterative program with long term impact.

The concept of mission-driven innovation can help to address the shortcomings of incrementalism and short-lived political support for doing development differently.

Missions need to be specific, time-bound, cross-sectoral and cross-disciplinary

Missions need to be specific, time-bound, cross-sectoral and cross-disciplinary. They can enable different players to invest in a portfolio of parallel solutions, some pursuing incremental advancements, others requiring radical breakthroughs. Such missions could be equal pay for women in all sectors by 2025 or carbon-neutral cities by 2030.

In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, UNDP supports multi-sectoral players to rally investments and action around the mission to curb air-pollution: curating platforms and supporting partners with design and execution of strategies.

In Pakistan, UNDP advises the government and civil society partners on water management: creating a systems-map of the blockers and accelerators to manage water. This can be a first step to understand complex systems and jointly formulate testable hypothesis.

Involving players from the whole of society in formulating missions, derived from national SDG priorities, has the potential to create powerful drivers for innovation across different sectors, potentially beyond electoral cycles.

Invest in anticipatory innovation

Innovation efforts within governments or development organisations need to go beyond achieving the SDGs. Questions development innovators should consider include: the impact of AI on human wellbeing; effects of disproportionate sex-ratios on social and political stability; cybersecurity risks on electoral processes; or the effects of blockchain on government legitimacy.

A few decades ago, the pursuit of economic growth resulted in severe negative environmental consequences for a number of countries. For too long, economists and policymakers treated “the environment” and “the economy” as separate issues and coined the notion of negative externalities.

But there are no side-effects in a complex system, just effects  —  as Kate Rawford emphasises in Doughnut Economics. One of today’s key challenges is not to treat “technological progress and digitisation” and “human freedom and fulfilment” as separate issues. Today we must anticipate future risks in our use of data along with the protection of human rights, privacy and civic participation.

Humans are generally bad at anticipating futures that do not benefit them

Humans are generally bad at anticipating futures that do not benefit them. To help partners design the accountability infrastructure, frameworks and principles for the ethical use of frontier technologies, development organisations need to plan not only for uncertain but even for autocratic futures.

What accountability and safety systems can we put in place to ensure that data produced today by citizens, migrants and refugees will not be used for discriminatory purposes in future decades? What do we need to do today to protect civic participation in 2030 in light of increasing algorithmic decision-making and existing data monopolies?

Scale processes, not just solutions

Since 2014, UNDP and partners have incubated and scaled solutions to address wicked problems such as corruption, environmental degradation and building back better after disasters.

With partners, we scaled an SMS-based reporting system to combat corruption in Papua New Guinea; an ingenious app for e-waste recycling in China; and a mobile payment mechanism for relief workers during and after the Ebola crisis.

Bringing solutions to sustainable scale remains one a key objective  —  but it isn’t enough. Scaling processes is also fundamental to anchor new ways of working and to make innovations stick.

This processes principle is key for our work on public sector innovation: UNDP supported governments to redesign public services with citizens, execute experimental policy design and improve public planning through foresight processes. In over 10 countries, UNDP has helped design and launch dedicated public policy labs.

Innovation efforts too often focus on novel work-tracks and solutions, while insufficiently addressing the innovation-readiness of an organisation.

However, we do see emerging models of mainstreaming innovation. In Rwanda for example, the UNDP made it mandatory for all new projects to allocate a portion of their budget to iterative design and qualitative inquiry. In HQ, we worked on embedding principles of innovation, especially experimentation, in our corporate rulebook for program and project management.

Over the years, the Innovation Facility’s dynamic portfolio has taught us that deliberate efforts are required to unlock the potential of innovation for: incremental improvements, for transformative change, to curate and scale bottom-up solutions, to design anticipatory workstreams and to upgrade the innovation readiness of an organisation.

No one player nor sector can innovate alone

To leave no one behind, this requires deliberate investments in innovation that target previously unreached individuals and communities at the base of the pyramid.

No one player nor sector can innovate alone. Get in touch if you are interested in co-conspiring to tackle the social, environmental, political and economic challenges of our time. — Benjamin Kumpf

A version of this piece was first published on the UNDP blog and can be found here.

(Picture credit: Albert Gonzalez Farran/UNAMID)


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