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The Innovation Process

Principles and ethics

With humanitarian organisations and social entrepreneurs increasingly seeking to harness the transformative potential of innovation, it is vital to learn from the experience of others and to ensure a responsible approach.

In 2015, the HIF convened leading practitioners and policymakers to share and build on our experiences of managing innovation, resulting in the development of a set of evolving principles for humanitarian innovation management (Elrha, 2016).

While these Principles embody what is understood to be best practice, we also provide a set of Ethical Guidelines developed to help mitigate the risks associated with the practice of experimentation in humanitarian environments.

Principles for Humanitarian Innovation management

The following seven principles are an initial attempt to represent a collective view of this emerging area, based on the experience of those seeking to drive humanitarian innovation, whether from headquarters or at field level.

The central role of end-users, particularly affected communities, is fundamental to successful innovation. The involvement of end-users and other stakeholders in the design, development and delivery of new products and services is pivotal in ensuring they are relevant and appropriate. A key challenge for humanitarian innovators is to find creative and meaningful ways to include the views of end-users, particularly crisis-affected populations, but also field workers or other organisations.

Collaboration isn’t easy, and it consumes time and resources – it’s about persuading people and negotiating to meet shared goals. Recognising this, it’s important to work openly, sharing data and using open licenses wherever possible. At the same time, it’s important to be strategic in building relationships, by recognising and prioritising the collaborations that bring together complementary expertise, which are critical to success.

Clear problem definition is at the heart of successful innovation, through all stages. Focus on identifying, articulating and meeting needs, monitoring progress and adapting accordingly. Failed innovations are often associated with a lack of focus at the start, or conversely a failure to adapt as evidence and learning suggests a need to change the approach.

In the early stages of a new project or initiative, when budgets are low and projects can operate ‘under the radar’, spaces can emerge for risk-taking and learning. Experience tells us that this will shrink over time, as systems and processes are formalised, and bureaucracies emerge. For innovations to continue to grow it is essential to protect and prioritise the flexibility to continue to learn and adapt innovative ideas.

The central role of appropriate, robust evidence has been identified as paramount, particularly given the non-market nature of the humanitarian system, and the broken link between ‘users’ and ‘purchasers.’ From the outset of a project there is a need to develop appropriate, rigorous, and actionable evidence in a timely manner, to inform decision making and advocate for uptake and scale. This requires access to specific skills and capacities, realistic but ambitious time frames, and a commitment to sharing results regardless of how positive they are.

The contexts in which humanitarian actors work are complex and fast moving. Recognising this, working to embrace such complexity is important for innovators and project teams. In practice, this means seeking to understand the systems in which innovations are emerging, the actors within them, and the nature of the relationships at play. Such ‘systems curiosity’ is important for navigating the uncertainty and risk inherent to innovation, but requires simple, practical tools to equip project managers.

Even after gaining initial success, there are many examples of innovations failing to take the next step and reach scale. There are particular challenges limiting the growth of even the most promising ideas such as developing sustainable business models that can ensure continued growth and evolution of an innovation. This is not just about bringing in additional funding but exploring the full range of business model options available, which may go beyond those that are familiar to humanitarian actors.

Ethical Guidelines for Humanitarian Innovation

There is growing evidence to suggest that humanitarian innovation practices are exposing vulnerable populations to new risks, especially when aid agencies and private sector partners experiment with emerging technologies in operational environments.

What does it mean to experiment when lives are at stake?

This is a question that is often going un-asked, with the risk that innovators will at best develop solutions that are ineffective or irrelevant, and at worst expose vulnerable people to new threats or undermine their capacity for self-protection (Guay and Rudnick, 2017).

The following six guidelines are drawn from ethical standards and procedures for human-subjects research, and build on a number of recent initiatives that have attempted to translate medical and research ethics into a framework for responsible humanitarian innovation (see Further Resources below).

Experimentation, trials and research that involve people should be undertaken in conformity with internationally recognised ethical standards, should be subject to some kind of ethics review process or audit, and be been undertaken with the appropriate risk, harms, and benefits assessments to identify and mitigate potential risks to crisis affected people and other participants.

Research and experimentation must have a defined humanitarian purpose, and be based on (and considerate of) demonstrably defined need. Experimentation must be as consistent as possible with the humanitarian principles (humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence), and the dignity principle. Where questions arise, efforts should be made to articulate all potential tensions, conflicts, and challenges to such principles and the strategies that innovators will use to resolve such tensions.

Experimentation must be based on a ‘do no harm’ principle. Under no circumstances should humanitarian innovation lead to intentional harm, unintentional harm, or other negative externalities that could have otherwise been avoided through appropriate review, responsible processes, and proper consideration of local contexts. Applying ‘Do No Harm’ necessitates an anticipatory approach toward identifying, describing, and analysing intended and unintended impacts that might arise as a result of research and experimentation.

Responsible experimentation requires a capacity to change the shape or direction of a project in response to stakeholder perspectives, social values, and changing circumstances so that efforts can be made to respond appropriately. For example, when negative externalities are made known, efforts should be made to change course or make the appropriate adjustments – if this is not possible, projects should be shut down.

Equity and fairness should underpin the distribution of benefits, costs, and risks resulting from innovation. Innovation should be sensitive to, and useful for, the most marginalized populations, including sensitivity to age, gender, and disability. Affected populations have the right to inclusion during the process as well as to benefits from the outcomes of such a process. Affected populations have the right to rectification and redress when harm is caused as a result of the innovation, experimentation or research process.

Further Resources

Various authors (no date) The Principles for Digital Development
[A set of living guidance intended to help practitioners succeed in applying digital technologies to development programmes.]

Betts, A (2015) Principles for Ethical Humanitarian Innovation Draft.
[A set of principles derived from a World Humanitarian Summit workshop convened at the University of Oxford by the Humanitarian Innovation Project in 2015.]

Sheather, J et al (2016) Médecins Sans Frontières’ Ethics Framework for Humanitarian Innovation.
[An ethics framework for humanitarian innovation developed by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) that is intended for self-guided use by innovators or project owners to enable them to identify and weigh the harms and benefits of such work and be attentive towards a plurality of ethical considerations.]

Owen, R et al (2013) A Framework for Responsible Innovation
[A framework for responsible innovation, based on four dimensions‐anticipatory, reflective, deliberative, and responsive.]

Elrha (no date) R2HC Research Ethics Toolkit.
[An ethics toolkit developed to provide guidance on research ethics for researchers working in humanitarian crisis contexts.]