Sunday, January 31, 2010

Innovation vs. the Boring Stuff

Over the last year or so, I’ve encountered a tremendous push for innovation in the fields of development and disaster relief. Organizations big and small are looking for the ideas that will catapult millions of people out of poverty. The next clever gadgets that will cheaply and quickly filter water, prevent malaria, and stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. These ideas are almost by definition just over the horizon – because once an idea has been around for a few months, it’s not that innovative anymore.

And so what happens to those innovative ideas? What happens when the clever creator has received his fellowship grant and begins to work out the tricky details? From what I’ve seen, the funding organizations have moved on to the next ‘innovation’ and left the creator to work out the Boring Stuff on their own. My experience in Africa has pointed to the Boring Truth – 90% of what’s needed is not innovation but ‘capacity building’ – training, logistics, and equipment purchases. Building systems that can scale up to help thousands more people.

Take for example the work my fiancée does in health care. She is deploying an innovative new computer and mobile phone-based system to track and process health claim forms. It promises to reduce overhead and errors, increasing the rate at which health providers are reimbursed by funding agencies such as KFW (the German development bank). And yet the health providers she partners with, while supportive of her new claims system, are more excited by the equipment and training she is giving as part of the research. They’re excited about the opportunity to purchase laptops, check email, and learn how to track patients on Excel. And they want to do it on laptops, not smart-phones, as are being so heavily touted in development circles. They want to do things like we do in developed countries. Given the option, they’re taking the boring stuff before the innovative.

To a large extent I’ve found the same to be true in the work I do with water. The basic work – building gravity flow systems – has been done since the Romans! It’s not exactly cutting-edge technology. But the great improvements are coming from the Boring Stuff – GPS devices to mark pipe and tank locations. Creating a database to manage the hunt for new sources of water. These behind the scenes changes are making it much easier to build and manage a water system.

But unfortunately the Boring Stuff isn’t sexy enough to get funding. The truth is, nobody wants to fund it because they can’t put their names on it. The funding organizations can’t brag to their peers and donors about the Boring Stuff - “look we gave $10,000 to train X health practitioners on how to enter and process data!” But when they put out $10,000 to fund the Next Big Thing, out come the press, book agents, and dollars.

This trend points to a glaring fact – we in the developed world are more interested in creating a system that makes us feel good rather than creating a system that provides the resources people in the developing world need to succeed. And I will be the first to confess of this – I want to feel good about myself just as much as anyone else.

Now, all this is not to say that innovation is inherently bad – far from it. It is only to say that innovation should not be the absolute focus, or even the primary focus. We need to support the Boring Stuff, the physical and educational infrastructure that will be the foundation on which the vast majority of people are lifted out of poverty.

Elsewhere, Blood & Milk has argued along the same lines…

No comments:

Post a Comment