How Innovative is Innovation?

Max Everest-Phillips is the Director of the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Centre for Public Service Excellence in Singapore. He served previously as Director of Governance and Institutional Development at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. He started his career in the British Diplomatic Service, serving in Finland, Japan and Washington, and was Senior Governance Adviser at the UK’s Department for International Development. He holds a BA (Hons, 1st Class) in History from Oxford University.

Joyce PaulJoyce Paul is a Knowledge Broker at the UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence in Singapore. She has an MA in International Journalism (with Merit) from City University, London.

International development agencies and governments have ‘discovered’ innovation. A mobile application notifies people about cases of dengue fever; another helps check the quality of drinking water; elsewhere, a scheme gives health insurance in exchange for garbage. In Istanbul, authorities worked with a mobile phone company to track where people travel and redesigned the city’s entire bus route network to fit real needs rather than provide long-established but often redundant services. These are just examples of recent simple solutions that solve public service problems and improve the lives of people.
These agencies and governments risk, however, making innovation the new ‘silver bullet’ for improving results in public service.  It is based on the belief that, freed from the constraints of stifling, rule- bound bureaucracies, citizens and officials will co-create innovative and unorthodox responses to the demanding challenges that still require a ‘great push’ to end extreme poverty and other international development goals by 20301.
The World Bank Institute declares its vision is to be a catalyst of innovation for development - to identify and support new ways of “doing different things” and “doing things differently.” 2 The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) states it is using ‘Development Innovation Funds’ to overcome risk-averse cultures, especially in the public sector, where the status quo is favoured.3 The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has placed innovation at the heart of its new Strategic Plan.4
The Australian Public Service declared March 2014 ‘Innovation Month’. Public officials were instructed to empower staff, partners, and citizens to do things differently; collaborate across agencies, jurisdictions, sectors and disciplines/methodologies and ways of thinking and working. But can innovation be mandated in this way?
Furthermore, the McKinsey Center for Government points out that public sector innovation is more complicated than simple knowledge transfer. It states that while it “can reduce costs, raise productivity, and improve the public’s opinion of government. … some of the most cutting-edge innovations have come from the developing world: governments that believe they have no choice but to take bold risks.”5
The Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management (CAPAM) defines it simply and practically as “change that outperforms previous practice.” DFID suggests that the novelty of process is key: Innovation … refers primarily to the use of approaches for the first time, or new ways of applying ideas, technologies or ways of doing things, in a country. The focus is on working with and re-working the existing stock of knowledge in a novel way rather than doing something brand new, so the distinction between invention and innovation – in the sense of first application – is crucial. Innovation can also mean experimentation, with the attendant risk of failure as long as lessons are learned and the implications of failure are appropriately considered.6 The UNDP has defined it as “the aggregation and transformation of knowledge that focuses on new or improved products, positions, paradigms, processes
or services. It entails a continuous process of searching, questioning, understanding, and learning that result in efficiency, effectiveness, quality of social outcomes and impacts.”7
Innovative ideas from outside the public service confront the day-to-day issues of politics, size and complexity of public services. Lack of resources including time, funding and human capacity can prevent effective transformation of ideas into real working solutions. Innovation may also require embracing intelligent risk, accepting the possibility of failure and empowering employees to experiment.
‘Innovation’ is the buzz-word of the moment. Reading the literature one might think that no-one ever did anything pioneering, let alone have an original thought, until around March 2011! Yet how far is the current wave of thinking on ‘social innovation’ simply a recycling of ideas: open innovation from the 1960s; user innovation from the 1980s; and distributed innovation from the 1990s? All these insights were themselves mere elaborations of the same observation that as knowledge becomes more widely distributed, external sources of innovation cross previous boundaries, so ideas become more permeable between customers and suppliers, among rival companies and academic institutions.8
Change, experimentation, invention and new ideas are not exactly, er, new. Washing one’s hands and not defecating in drinking water supplies is considered a modern hygienic practice. However, this was taken up years ago in Ancient Greece, explaining why inhabitants of Athens and Sparta often lived to a ripe old age with a life expectancy not much different from today.
Is there genuine innovation in principles of justice, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings, or are these concepts pretty much the same as Socrates and Plato would have conceived of them?
One could also argue, for instance, that the design of drones to supply food aid, medicines and vaccines is a simple change of use from military drones. Velcro was invented following the design of hooks in burdock burrs. The roll- on deodorant, too, was inspired – borrowing from the idea of the humble ballpoint pen. Bullet trains in Japan used to emit loud and sharp sounds until they were redesigned with sharp noses - an idea adapted from the long and sharp beaks of kingfishers which dive into water without causing a ripple. These inspired and adapted ‘innovations’ have had impacts of great consequence to the daily lives of citizens.
Many factors work against innovation - original research is difficult, costly and highly unpredictable, whereas stealing, adapting and adopting ideas from others is easier and more reliable. Ha-Joon Chang has provided many examples in the book ‘Kicking Away the Ladder’.9
Organizations that have too many innovations or ideas may risk being unfocused. An obsession with generating new ideas and innovations involves time and resources and may cause organizations to drift away from their critical goals. Some have argued that the collapse of Eastman Kodak, which had been around in business since 1888 is an example of this.
Often, success comes by not changing or innovating. The crocodile is a highly successful predator but is pretty much the same as how it was thousands of years ago. Present day crocodiles are largely unchanged from the Crocodylus thorbjarnarsoni10 which lived around 4,200,000 BC.11  Similarly, Coca-cola and the Big Mac have hardly changed in decades. In fact, their lack of innovation in retaining a high sugar, high fat fix model has created an enduring fan base for them.
Having said that, innovation is a very good thing if done well and appropriately. The public service sector is going through a ‘rethink’ and facing pressure to be more relevant, make quick decisions and act effectively while cutting costs. Public servants are being required to deliver ‘more with less’ – this has become the mantra in an environment of fiscal constraints. However, having less resources often results in service failure – longer queues at bus stops, overcrowded prisons or understaffed hospitals.
Solving such issues with constrained resources requires public managers to ‘rethink’ and to ‘recreate’ new processes and solutions. And, this is where innovation becomes a necessity.
A case in point is the Social Business Toilets in Rwanda where a waste disposal problem became a solution for providing fertilisers. Excrement from public toilets is sold as compost for agricultural use. The Rwanda Environment Care set up specially-designed toilets that separate solid and liquid wastes. The wastes are mixed with ash and turned into soil after a few months. This scheme not only improves sanitation but also recycles waste into useful materials. Another fascinating example is found in Indonesia. The ESP ‘Master Meter’ Program provides water to low-income households sustainably through a community- managed water system. The scheme works by piping water to a metered point from which water is then distributed to households that pay a fee. A community-based organisation organises households, maintains the system and collects the fees. The project provides water, encourages citizens to work together and contribute to better sanitation. Also in Indonesia, the Garbage Insurance Clinic gives health insurance in exchange for garbage. Residents, registered under this project, ‘sell’ their organic and non-organic waste at a collection point near the clinic and are entitled to standard health check-ups and treatments.
Do innovators know enough of the past? Edmund Burke warned: “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.
Institutions are critical to development trajectories, and they often also have deep roots,
which to be understood, require an appreciation of historical context – not just ‘path dependency’. The rich vibrancy of human personalities also play a significant role. Such complex processes of interacting forces mean there are no ‘best practices’, only ‘best fits’ as context always influences outcomes.
The political will to experiment with an innovation and accept failure is critical. Innovation requires mixing new knowledge creation, new approaches to communicating, new partnerships and new development paradigms. It encompasses scanning, identifying, sharing and internalizing ‘good’ practices, as well as the scaling up and replication of relevant approaches. Innovation entails moving away from knowledge transfer through external experts towards co- creation by and with citizens.
In public service, the pressure to demonstrate results may lead to a focus on technical aspects of governance and a “one-result” approach, neglecting more complex but more real political aspects. Governance and anything to do with public service is now accepted to be first and foremost as a political will challenge. The success of Singapore since 1959 can be largely linked to the political determination of the country’s leadership to deliver development results to their people.
The 2014 World Development Report points out that effective risk management and the capacity for foresight and long-term planning were critical to the achievements outlined in the ‘Singapore Story’.
President John F. Kennedy understood it well when he noted: Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future. Now that’s an innovative thought!

1 In 2013 two new goals of the World Bank were: to end extreme poverty by 2030; and to boost shared prosperity by promoting real income growth for the bottom 40 percent of the population.

2 Website accessed 6 March 2014.

3 Eg. DFID is spending £30 million over 5 years (2013-2018) in a new Human Development Innovation Fund for Tanzania on the grounds that currently “there are few incentives to innovate”.

4 UNDP Strategic Plan, 2014-2017. Changing with the World: Helping countries to achieve the simultaneous eradication of poverty and significant reduction of inequalities and exclusion, para 46.

5, accessed 8 March 2014

6 DFID. Business Case: Human Development Innovation Fund (HDIF) for Tanzania 2013.

7, accessed 14 March 2014

8 Mulgan, G. and Albury, D. (2003), Innovations in the Public Sector (Cabinet Office, London).

9 Chang, H. (2002). Kicking Away the Ladder. London: Anthem Press.

10, accessed on 4 March 2014

11 Ux_A6V7vaSk, accessed on 12 March 2014