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

Written by , Head of Innovation on 24 July 2020
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 visitsonsite interviews where possible as well as big data analysis and moreFor 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 phonebased 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 banwalking 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 betweensearching 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 yearLessons 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. 

  1. Dear Benjamin
    I have shared your article with some of my colleagues at the UN because I liked it.
    Why I like the article
    It departs from the notion that all innovations are necessarily good. You introduced a series of trade-offs about handling COVID-19 in various situations, including developing countries. It introduced a positive analytical approach towards understanding policy choices.
    How I think the article could be improved
    The article would greatly benefit from a clearer and simpler expression of trade-offs in terms of concrete actions. First respondents in least developing countries are eager to establish protocols based on accessible and affordable do’s and dont’s. These should not be necessarily prescriptive but could contribute towards reflections leading to more effective action in the field. For instance, the earlier protocol advising people to “stay home until breathing problems develop” caused countless unecessary deaths and was quickly replaced by massive testing and distribution of PPEs. In some countries (France, Brazil) preventive treatment with hydroxicloroquin and zinc is being gradually recommended in some cases – this could shift policy responses towards domestic prevention rather than increasing the number of ICU beds in hospitals. These are action-oriented trade-offs that most first respondents would understand and need, while vaccine attempts are tried. Please note that I work with public institutions, I do not have a medical background.

    A sentence like “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” reads very well but is not necessarily conducive to improved innovative policies and practices.

    My constructive comment would be for you to distill the smart analytical trade-offs described in the article into practical innovative guidance, to the extent possible, in an expanded policy paper (perhaps you are doing it already). For instance, the good examples from Indonesia and Sierra Leone could be much more useful if described in terms of HOW the challenges were addressed.
    Thank you for the article. I hope you will find this comment useful.
    Best regards
    Jonas Rabinovitch

    • Dear Jonas,
      Thanks for your reply and constructive comments. Your suggestion to convert this blog post in a more detailed brief is really interesting and useful. Interestingly enough, I drew the inspiration for this post from DFID’s work on several policy briefs in response to direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19 along several dimensions. DFID experts worked on epidemiological, on community-response, behaviour-change, health-system strengthening and local PPE production briefs, to name a few. In this context, I observed the trade-off’s outlined in the blog. In my view, each of these areas is complex enough and requires context–specificity and therefore I am not sure if a general policy brief outlining all the trade-off’s described would be of practical value. I am discussing this with colleagues though, based on your suggestion.

      Your observation on the questionable utility of the rather general phrase on embedding innovation in portfolios that address challenges at the system-level is spot-on. This deserves a much more nuanced and elaborate description. The point this sentence intends to drive home is: I observe an over-emphasis on technological innovations and an under-emphasis on innovating in how we understand systems and systems-challenges, how we test emerging novel models such as alternative frameworks to advance human well-being (with the City of Amsterdam having endorsed the ‘Doughnut Economic Model’ for its recovery planning being one example), and how we weave various innovations together to address various components in a system – as opposed to a single issue such as track & trace or PPE production.
      The OECD Development Directorate is currently producing a paper on innovation in the COVID-19 response. This will include a much more detailed discussion of different innovation facets and portfolio approaches. I will share this with you once it is published.

      Thank you again for your comment.
      Kind regards – Benjamin
      Thank you again for your

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