What is innovation? And has the COVID-19 pandemic changed our focus on innovation?  

What is innovation? And has the COVID-19 pandemic changed our focus on innovation?  

What is innovation? ‘Simply put, innovation is finding and applying new approaches to address existing problems or serve unmet needs’ according to the World Bank.  

Innovation is a bit of an ever-present buzzword, a piece of technical jargon that we often bandy around when we write funding proposals. It is often assumed that innovation equals something digital but this can be too technically focused and too narrow a definition.  

So, what does it actually look like? It is contextual (of course). It can be iterative or disruptive. There are a number of innovation funds and prizes which offer numerous case studies you can read to give you inspiration, including the Global Innovation Fund which gives out grants and risk capital, ELRHA’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund which offers independent grants to the humanitarian community and the UK Government Ideas to Impact Fund which ran between 2014 and 2020 giving out innovation prizes around climate change adaptation, energy access and water, sanitation and hygiene. Also worth a read, is Bond’s Innovation Award from 2020, which showcases organisations and initiatives taking a novel approach. 

Has COVID-19 changed our focus on innovation? 

COVID-19 has necessitated that we learn together quickly about what works. The Centre for Global Development blogged about how we can repurpose innovative livelihood protection interventions within the context of COVID-19 like mobile money, remote cash transfers, leveraging self-help groups and the expansion of phone or text based mental health counselling. Whilst Kathy Peach from Nesta and Ian Gray shared how COVID-19 responses have harnessed collective intelligence such as mapping tools for medical supplies, open-source local production and a medical hive mind. 

Whilst COVID-19 has challenged many programmes and disrupted delivery, the disruption might be a driver to embrace innovation. There has been discussion about how COVID-19 could transform humanitarianism, forcing disruption to business models and long accepted modalities. Youth Business International recently wrote a great blog about how we can innovate in times of crisis, by learning lessons from entrepreneurs.  It argues that civil society organisations should stay close to your project users, be responsive by moving at pace, and focus on creating a minimum viable product (something with basic features that helps you to can gain feedback on a product). 

But what does this really mean in practice for a project or programme looking to learn about innovation? Sign up to attend our next training session: Putting innovation into practice on 19 January 2021.