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Trade-offs and considerations for the future: Innovation and the COVID-19 response 

As part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and in the lead-up to Government After Shock, OPSI is seeking and collecting different reflections and perspectives about the crisis and its implications for governments – particularly around their need to take a deliberate and consistent approach to innovation). This guest post by Benjamin Kumpf, Head of Innovation at the UK Department for International Development, provides a perspective from the international development angle.

Trade-offs and considerations for the future: Innovation and the COVID-19 response 

COVID-19 is unfolding a human development crisis across the globe, exacerbating existing inequalities and deprivations. The crisis might also create opportunities for transitions. A key starting point to successfully advance progressive transitions is to challenge our collective imaginary crisis and dare envisioning radically different futures.   

It seems obvious that innovation is required to do so and to address the direct needs of people during in this crisis and beyondSurely, we need innovation to advance new thinking and creating new normals’. But as someone working on development innovation, I perceive the current crisis also as a ‘confirmation crisis’. The massive challenges we face seem to reinforce, not challenge worldviews, values and approachesThe current crisis heightens and at times creates new forms of stress, requiring all of us to take decisions under increased uncertainty. This has negative effects on our abilities to weigh and judge information effectively. This in turn results all too often in reflexive responses in governments, resorting to established paradigms and practices.  Accordingly, I want to challenge us to not merely argue for more innovation. Rather to question our approach to innovation to date.  

In late June, the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) launched the new report Innovation for Development Impact: Lessons from the OECD Development Assistance Committee and convened a virtual seminar to present main findings and discuss next steps with representatives of DAC member states. The event was framed around the question of the purpose and the role of innovation to advance sustainable development and to enhance our COVID-19 response. Furthermore, it challenged participants to explore what we can learn from each other in the bilateral donor community and from other players, including from grassroot and frugal innovation practices.   

I was asked to share reflections on innovation and the COVID-19 response at the UK Department for International Development (DFID)To support a reflective discussion on development innovation, I decided to not share specific examples. Instead I shared reflections on trade-offs I observed over the last three months. 

It is important to frame these trade-off’s in the context of DFID’s support of meaningful innovation to address direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19 in low- and middle-income countries.  

Our support is guided by these principles: 

  • Invest in ensuring the best-possible evidence-base, draw on lessons from past pandemics, cross-fertilize analysis with expertise and evidence from different domains and challenge over-confidence in single data-sets and models. 
  • Focus on the most urgent needs and people living in or at risk of falling back into poverty and draw on experiences and understanding of partners and people affected in programme countries. 
  • Dedicate substantial budgets to research and development, including to support the development of a possible vaccine, rapid diagnosticstherapeutics, and other COVID-19 R&D.  

The opportunity to share DFID’s support for COVID-19 response innovation made me pause and reflect. Here are some of the relevant trade-offs I identified. 

Rigour vs. Speed

How to best balance high-quality rigorous research and the need to gain actionable insights rapidly?  

Responding to a pandemic requires working at pace, while investing in ongoing research and the cross-fertilization of disciplines. In our response, we witness the importance of strong networks with academia and DFID’s focus on high-quality research. In parallel, we invest in supporting partners with rapid data collection through methods such as phone surveys, field visits, onsite interviews where possible as well as big data analysis and more. For example, through the International Growth Centre, DFID has supported a Sierra Leone COVID-19 dashboard, providing real time data on current economic conditions and trends from phone-based surveys from 195 towns and villages across Sierra Leone. This enables government and development partners to design policies and services for poor people faster in response to changing needs. In Indonesia, the Jabar Digital Service partnered with the UK Behavioural Insights Team to develop and test posters to encourage people to comply with the mudik ban, walking the talk of rapid learning through process evaluations. Working with partners that bring expertise in data science, behavioural insights and ethnographic methods and established practices in appreciating local power dynamic and politics is key to operating and learning at thepace required.  

Breadth vs. depth

How to best balance providing services to large proportions of populations in need, while addressing challenges of specific communities?  

We are seeing emerging evidence that the virus and measures to prevent spread aredisproportionately impacting marginalized communities and minorities. For example, in indigenous people are disproportionallyaffected by the virus in Brazil, Dalits are among the worst affected in India. In development and humanitarian contexts, it is paramount to guide innovation efforts with explicit values, including on the trade-off between scale and addressing last-mile challenges to leavenoone behind. For example, to facilitate behaviour-change and embed insights from behavioural science and adaptive practices, DFID is supporting the Hygiene Hub, hosted at the London School for Hygiene and Tropical MedicineThe Hub provides free-of-charge advisory services to governments and non-governmental organizations working on COVID-19 related challenges in low and medium-income countriesbalancing the need to reach large audiences and to design bespoke interventions for specific communities.  

Exploration vs. adaptation

How to best diversify innovation efforts and investments between searching for local solution and adapting proven approaches?  

Advancing innovation with a science and tech focus is a necessary part of the equation. But it does not suffice as it risks over-emphasizing the supply side of innovation, with disproportionate attention to research and development and support for private sector players including social entrepreneurs. Adapting proven solutions and investing in the supply-side needs to be complemented with structured inquiry for local solutions, the search for positive deviants with scalable responses to context-specific challenges. DFID and partners launched the #COVIDAction initiative. A structured inquiry to identify local innovators and production capabilities for essential health equipment, based on lessons with a first global ventilation challenge which was launched earlier this year. Lessons from this challenge showed the need to further invest in exploration and structured support for local solutions.  

Adaptive vs. locally-led

How to best learn and adapt, while providing ownership to local players?  

At a recent learning event on adaptive management during COVID-19, hosted by DFID and our partners Brink and ODIwe explored challenges of adaptive management during the pandemic. Particularly Rose Pinnington’s observations that a focus on ‘test, learn, adapt’ can actually help external actors become better at implementing their solutions, rather than pushing design and decision-making authority down to the local level. In other words, creating complex systems for testing, learning and adapting, risks further exclusion of local solutions and local initiatives. 

Single-point solutions vs. systems-practices

How to advance specific tech and non-tech innovations that address urgent needs, while further improving existing systems?  

Our innovation investments focus on specific solutions, mainly technologies. However, the COVID-19crisis demonstrates that meaningful innovation efforts need to be embedded in larger, intentional portfolios; that we need to innovate in how we navigate complex systems to unfold impact at the desired scale. Lessons from the Ebola crisis include the need to reject overly complicated tech solutions, to ensure integration in national systems and to plan for unintended consequences. The challenge is to embed innovation practices and capabilities in the heart of portfolios and programmes with a strategic intent, to weave technological innovations into our programmes that address challenges at the systems-level and to diversify our innovation portfolio. This is especially important for innovations that might create positive epidemiological outcomes but negative effects on human rights, citizen trust and governance, such as track and trace systems 

Supporting domestic innovators vs. strengthening local solutions and ecosystems

We need explicit conversations to ensure better transparency about this trade-off in innovation investments generally.  

The COVID-19 crisis demonstrated the need to be explicit about priorities and trade-off choices between national interests and support for domestic innovations and providing these to low- and middle-income countries lower middle-income countries, or to invest in local solutions and ecosystems. 

Critical reflections on our very own innovation practices need to be the starting point fostructured discussions on trade-offs These can help shape and improve innovation efforts in response to COVID-19 and wider innovation, emerging tech, data and digital agendas in governments. Your thoughts on how to best address trade-offs and your considerations on meaningful, diverse innovation for outcome-oriented development and humanitarian objectives are highly appreciated.