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Breaking Down Silos of ‘Innovation for Development’

May 4, 2016

By Andrew Thornley

Innovation is a tricky word to define. It has a whiff of excitement as well as – increasingly –inevitability, since technology is coloring our work and our lives. Development partners are adapting to explore the enormous potential of information and communication technologies. This, in turn, is introducing new actors, partnerships, approaches – such as InnovationXchange and the Global Innovation Exchange. It’s also generating tailored jargon, from tech for good, to data revolution for development and digital democracy and governance.

In a country like Indonesia, innovation is most often associated in the context of the relentless surge of social media use and a pivot toward open data and open government.

But there is another interesting phenomenon emerging here. There is broad incentive to innovate – but overexposure dilutes the brand. For example, tech events, including once-popular hackathons, have resulted in hundreds of zombie apps – often good ideas that have little uptake. And so “innovation” has become a dirty word among some who believe it has been debased through common application. (I offer “hacklash” or “app-athy” to describe this, as contributions to our emerging innovation lexicon.)

All this is shining a welcome light on two critical components of innovation that, inherently, are far from innovative: the importance of effective partnerships and the need to define and address sustainability.

Any partnership relies on confidence to give and take, a shared sense of purpose, and a pinch of personality. How often do civil society, government, technology companies, investors, academics, and others come together to explore and act on common ground around development solutions? Not often enough. We are comfortable in our silos.

Sustainability is a tougher nut. Does this simply mean financial security? Or should it encompass scalability with specific expectations of growth? And growth in what direction? Development partners talk of beneficiaries, while investors talk of markets. At least there is broad agreement that it is financially prudent to invest in remarkable people.

Taking all of this on board, The Asia Foundation launched Innovation and Collaboration for Development (In.CoDe) in Indonesia this past February. We highlighted “innovation” as a challenge to ourselves and partners to give context to the concept.

On April 30, In.CoDe hosted a day-long event in Jakarta that included a “speed date” involving over 140 participants as well as short panels and three-minute pitches by the top 10.

On April 30, In.CoDe hosted a day-long event in Jakarta that included a “speed date” involving over 140 participants as well as short panels and three-minute pitches by the top 10.

In.CoDe is an open innovation process that aims to catalyze the creation of new relationships, products, and services to address key development challenges. The goal is the creation of organizationally, politically, and economically viable innovations. A simpler objective is to bring diverse and dynamic people together.

In.CoDe has been designed as both a process and a competition. At its core, it is matchmaking –and therefore more about the personal than the technical. Results from In.CoDe have derived over a months-long process, rather than a weekend hacking event.

In.CoDe launched by inviting development partners – civil society organizations, local government and other state institutions, and universities in particular – to define development challenges they face. This ensures their engagement in any solutions that emerge. Challenges were featured at and invited partnerships (think Tinder for development).

We then engaged app developers and tech enthusiasts around the country to discuss these challenges and invited them to partner up to develop innovative solutions. Teaming was not forced—partners had to negotiate and agree among themselves. Over 50 teams registered within a one-month window. 130 people from these registered teams joined a Design Sprint in early April, in which teams were mentored and challenged to sharpen their solution designs.

Ultimately, 36 teams submitted prototypes that were ranked by a seven-team jury, which included representatives from venture capital, an innovation lab and international development partners. The top 10 selected by the jury included teams headed by leading civic society organizations as well as the country’s Ombudsman, Jakarta Smart City, and representatives from a leading university law faculty.

Teams hold discussions during the In.CoDe event.

Teams hold discussions during the In.CoDe event.

On April 30, In.CoDe hosted a day-long event in Jakarta that included a “speed date” involving over 140 participants as well as short panels and three-minute pitches by the top 10. Six of the 10 were selected for awards by The Asia Foundation and other collaborating partners. The event generated broad discussion – with #InCoDe2016 reaching the second-highest trending topic in Indonesia on Twitter that day.

Winners include:

Signteraktif, a mobile app that provides real-time sign language translation for Indonesians via a network of both professional and volunteer translators. Also includes online sign language training function.

MyREPORT, a web and mobile app that allows citizen journalists to file verifiable reports to –and receive payments from – Indonesia’s media.

Save Our Sisters, a mobile app that networks women migrant workers and provides a range of information and assistance functions.

SMASH, a cash-for-trash app.

Memperkuat Akuntabilitas Desa, a web and mobile app to promote transparency and accountability in village governance.

Cityplan, an app to facilitate urban planning and monitor urban development.

The process element of In.CoDe has been extremely valuable. From the beginning, the Foundation, with support from the Australian Government, convened an impressive coalition of the willing. This has included other development partners – notably, the British Council and a Governance for Growth program (KOMPAK) – as well as technology companies, such as Google and Twitter, venture capital, Open Government Indonesia, and others.

Different partners bring different skills. For example, Google and Pulse Lab Jakarta provided technical support for the Design Sprint and are invested in the follow up over the coming months. East Ventures, a VC firm with an eye to civic tech, provided an important reminder at several events that international donors are not the only potential source of funding for scalable solutions.

But In.CoDe also has a delivery component. The prizes awarded at the conclusion of the event were not simply cash rewards as is the case at many tech-related events. Rather, these are commitments from award sponsors to partner with the winning team on completion of the solution prototypes and then promotion, through technical support and mentoring. Investor and technology company colleagues joined the event, hoping to be impressed and with an eye to identify longer-term partners.

In.CoDe will continue building on these partnerships and processes. This initiative has provided interesting context and insight into promoting relevance, collaboration, effective design and user experience, impact, and sustainability when approaching technology and development.

Perhaps, after all, the degree to which any of this is judged as truly “innovative” is not that important.

Andrew Thornley is a program director for The Asia Foundation in Indonesia. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: Indonesia
Related programs: Technology & Development
Related topics: Civic Spaces, Civic Tech, Social Media


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