Authors: Jonty Slater and Deirdre Sheridan – Blue Globe Innovation, Louis Potter and Denise Soesilo – Outsight International 

Creating effective and sustainable innovation in the humanitarian and development sectors: some essential parts of the puzzle.

Can we achieve humanitarian goals using open innovation models? Building on the ideas of the crowd can be a compelling approach to tackle some of the biggest humanitarian issues of our day. Original ideas help businesses avoid disruptive threats from elsewhere in their industry, and this same approach and energy can help to create supportive and creative humanitarian programmes. However, it can be less clear whether traditional innovations approaches can provide value in this sector.

Often, innovation is used in corporate environments to improve business practices — such as sourcing ideas for new solutions or new marketing strategies directly from employees. Workplace innovation has been especially important in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, with working from home becoming a new standard for many offices. But within the humanitarian sector, ‘innovation’ as a term has lost its sheen. Particularly when considered alongside the challenges that COVID-19 has provided in the past year, many feel that ‘innovation’ might not be relevant to the humanitarian sector at this time. But innovation always has a place. Blue Globe Innovation and Outsight International — two innovation consultancies — regularly work together to bring innovation strategies into the humanitarian space. Read on to find out how our work has spread worldwide to solve issues in a sustainable way. 

Getting to effective and sustainable innovation

To date, whilst humanitarian innovation initiatives have led to interesting developments in technology and processes, they have struggled to achieve sustainable and effective change.  Effective and impactful innovation must focus on addressing local needs first, while still prioritising scalable solutions. Humanitarian innovation must therefore address the root causes and systemic issues causing the problem. With the right partners and the right priorities, we can create effective solutions and help to “programme” new innovations into areas of need. To construct self-sustaining development, local innovation strategies must be implemented, and establishing the field context and evidence for this work is crucial to help disrupt and develop scalable change. 

Outsight International and Blue Globe Innovation utilise a number of specific strategies to adapt innovation to humanitarian and development causes. These aim to create projects with lasting positive effects, while further empowering and stimulating self-improvement and active engagement in local communities. Two of these tenets are: planning a journey to scale and keeping it local. We now explore how these relate to using innovation to push genuine change.

Keep it local

At OI and BG, we emphasise the importance of not making any non-local organisation or stakeholder a permanent part of a solution, in order to ensure ownership and scale-up is carried out in a responsible and manageable way. Engaging the intended audience and beneficiaries is crucial from the start — in order to ensure the right people are being reached, the extra support from consultancies helps to create a pathway to success. The most important element of this success is ensuring innovation incorporates the efforts of local communities from the beginning. Our goal is to make ourselves redundant in our projects as soon as possible — the sooner local actors can take over our roles in facilitating their journey, the better!

A strong example of local-led innovation is efforts in the Lake Victoria region of East Africa, where supply lines for creating alcohol-based hand sanitizer to control the spread of COVID-19 has been disrupted in a positive way. An innovative, local-led solution from CIST Africa (Center for Innovation Science & Technology Africa) has been found in water hyacinth, an invasive aquatic plant that negatively impacts the lake ecosystem, blocks boat traffic, and attracts mosquitoes and other pest insects. Harvested water hyacinth is now fermented into alcohol, which can be used to produce hand sanitizer. Waste products from the harvesting can also be used for molasses and other food products, reducing the impact of the plant’s growth and helping to serve local needs. As a project led by locals, the innovation has been scaled up to include creating bio-fuel from the plant and continuing to create essential products with a direct impact.

Most importantly, these programmes are led by locals themselves — to identify local issues, employ local people, and address local needs. Co-creation principles have guided these projects, allowing local-led solutions and empowering many demographics often not included in community decisions. Integrating these principles into this community, guided by their own culture and values, has supported and informed work in other areas. Innovation consultancies such as Outsight International and Blue Globe know that to achieve successful innovation in the humanitarian space, one must be prepared for long-term work to keep innovation sustainable — and they can help to adapt to unexpected changes and broaden the scope of projects.

Stakeholders hoping to create innovation on this scale must create a robust structure with significant energy around it. Utilising this energy wisely is important. With an agile, “fail fast” approach, experienced innovation professionals can identify key strategies alongside collaborators and identify which ideas are worth pursuing, although with humanitarian approaches it is important to ensure integration with the target community is prioritised. 

In our ever-connected world, it is easy to consider online innovation projects as an easy pathway to success. However, BG and OI have found that offline innovation accelerators must be considered as well — offline collaboration allows for quicker implementation and a deeper understanding of a community’s immediate needs. 

Plan a journey to scale

Building a journey-to-scale model requires consideration of the form and complexity of the innovation, the target business model, the domain, and the context of the innovation. With involvement from stakeholders and advice from our experts, appropriate paths to scale can be mapped and navigated in far more efficient and effective ways. Mapping these ecosystems in different contexts, then allows innovators to identify both the context-specific requirements, and the commonalities between contexts that can provide replicable systems in different projects.

Interviews with stakeholders support the adaptation of new innovations into humanitarian practice. As consultancies, we help organisers to understand the different organisations and partners that can help an innovation reach its scale. Universities, commercial partners, innovation hubs and government agencies can all be important allies for innovation projects, and with the expertise of teams such as Outsight and Blue Globe supporting the facilitation and translation for such multi-sectoral initiatives, lead-in time and resources can be cut. 

Learning from early ideas is not effective if the solutions are not initially being developed in cooperation with the target community. Evaluating the root causes of the problem that the innovation seeks to solve helps to broaden the solver’s understanding, and thus creating a movement towards a journey to scale. Evaluating the “big picture” can help to pivot the solution to one that has even more impact than one simply informed by an idea. But this collection of data and solutions cannot be done alone — with the expertise offered by our expertise, a larger crowd of solvers can be sourced with more background information to stimulate innovation and strategy. 

Drawing on broad expertise and examining the bigger picture is essential for creating innovative solutions to today’s biggest humanitarian challenges. With guidance, humanitarian leaders will be able to use this to respond to changing situations and focus their work efficiently. Outsight and Blue Globe build on sustainable development projects, such as work in Zambia to distribute oral rehydration salts and other crucial treatments for malnutrition. With partnerships from both governments and external donors in the UK, OI and BG can create effective and sustainable growth that aligns with existing government policy and is able to support itself from within. 

The Adaptation at Scale Prize built on this work, as Blue Globe Innovation collaborates with development organisations in the public and private sectors to support climate change adaptation projects in Nepal. Recognising the importance of this work, Blue Globe was able to offer important scale-up support and advice to make the Prize successful even with sociopolitical barriers. Blue Globe’s open innovation knowledge helped to strengthen the Prize structure, create new initiatives, and support sustainable growth. With a wide knowledge base to draw from and significant international experience, innovation consultancies are a vital partner in adapting innovation to humanitarian causes.


Innovation as a term has come under much scrutiny within the humanitarian sector in recent months — many questioning whether it can really deliver true ‘impact’ on the ground. What we argue for is a move towards a more considered approach of ‘effective innovation’ — one that accepts that, for positive change to be achieved, we must anchor initiatives with local organisations and contexts and consider a route to sustainability in the long run. This may seem less ‘sexy’ to firms looking to contribute their expertise to the humanitarian sector through participating in a hackathon halfway across the globe, but ultimately, it’s what will lead to real change in communities. 

To achieve this, innovation experts who can act as ‘choreographers’ between sectors, contexts and actors are an essential piece of the puzzle. Keeping locality and a realistic view of how to scale at our core, we are helping organisations move innovation beyond just a buzzword to something with genuine effect.