Aleem Walji is the new Innovation Practice Manager at the World Bank Institute, which includes the secretariat for the Development Marketplace consortium and other innovation platforms. He is former Head of Global Development Initiatives at Google. The peripatetic Walji sat down for this mini-interview as DM2009 was winding up:
Q. Development Marketplace stresses innovation, both in projects it seeks and how they're evaluated. Why is innovation so important?
A. The need for solutions, and fast, is urgent. Business as usual is simply not sufficient. We’ve got to look at new ways of doing things -- things that have worked in one part of the world that may work in another part of the world, or are entirely new. We put out a call to the world, particularly the developing world, to say what are your ideas, what are you doing, what can you do? How can we support you, adapting to a rapidly changing climate? This competition was to shine a light on those ideas.
Q. We hear a lot about scale. What does it really mean?
A. Scale is a term often used and misused. When I think about scale I think about a pathway to reach the maximum number of people possible. It doesn’t necessarily mean an organization has to become extremely large for an idea to scale. It could mean that an idea is adopted by a small organization but relevant and replicated by other groups in other parts of the world. When I think of the Development Marketplace, we want to get to the point where we can connect early-stage ideas to the people, money, and partners who can help see ideas through to execution and grow them to their optimal levels.
Q. What factors are important for success?
A. In many ways we’re really betting on leadership, we’re betting on people who we think are going to deliver an outcome, and are going to be flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. The projects will change, they will adapt, they will grow. What we’re really talking about is how do we position our winners to be able to benefit from our support, then really leverage it, along with partners. We want to be connectors in an ecosystem. We want to be connectors in a cycle of growth and scale.
Q. Most of the DM2009 projects came from NGOs and academic institutions. There weren’t very many from entrepreneurs...
A. This is a little bit of concern to me. When you look at the viability of any project it has to have a pathway to sustainability, and commercialization is one pathway. When there are ideas that can be commercialized and have revenue models that can be sustained, that is a very positive sign. For those that don’t, there have to be other paths to viability like public-private partnerships for example. For those that don’t have one or the other, I worry how they will sustain themselves. That's where partnerships becomes key and our role in creating an "enabling ecosystem" of seed funders, debt financiers, equity players, and capacity builders is very important.
Q. There’s talk about forming a community that would include both winners and the other finalists. What happens post-competition?
A. I understand that 20 percent of winners from past Development Marketplace’s have been able to sustain themselves, able to grow, and able to attract other funding. But what we don’t know is how the others fared. Just because they don’t get a prize from us doesn't necessarily mean they wither away. I think we have a responsibility to try and support this entire community of finalists. We went from 1,750 applicants to a hundred finalists. What can we do to connect these hundred finalists to everyone who we know who can help them go forward -- funders, capacity builders, past DM winners, each other. The real power is in networks and linking communities of practice. Our comparative advantage at the Bank is our ability to convene people and create connections between the DM community, other parts of the Bank (lending operations, for example), jurors, winners, and finalists, past and present. The power of that community could be much greater than any prize we can award.
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