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Labbing and Learning: Scaling Innovation at the World Bank Group

Aleem Walji's picture
Also available in: Español | العربية | Français

Aleem Walji, director of the World Bank’s Innovation Labs, recently gave an interview to Forbes and the Skoll World Forum on all things innovation and development. This blog post highlights some of the key points from that interview.

When I joined the World Bank at the end of 2009, I was asked how we could more systematically support innovation. We started by building on the Bank’s own “access to information” policy, which was foundational for our Open Data initiative. When we made our data available to the world in a machine-readable format, searchable, and reusable, back in April 2010, people came in droves. Within months, we had more traffic to our data catalogue than the World Bank homepage.

Another powerful insight we had was to link maps through “Mapping for Results” with poverty data and project results to show the relationship between where we lend, where poor people live, and the results of our work. While it may sound simple or obvious, even today development partners struggle to map the relationship between projects they fund and poverty indicators in a given country. We quickly realized the value of “mapping aid” and making aid data transparent and comparable. The Open Aid Partnership grew out of that impulse.

But the real game-changer is our ability to use simple technologies like mobile phones to “listen at scale.” How do we capitalize on global platforms like mobile telephones, mobile broadband, social media, or off-grid energy to accelerate the rate at which we can end poverty?

That’s one of the challenges before the World Bank Group. How do we reach our two new goals of ending poverty by 2030 and promoting shared prosperity of the bottom 40% of people in every developing country? And that’s what gets me excited every morning!

How can we use the vast resources that global connectivity puts at our doorstep and tap into collective intelligence to solve today’s hardest problems? Can we think about global knowledge as a distributed resource and invite solvers from everywhere to solve problems anywhere? The days of thinking about the World Bank or any single university as the global repository of knowledge and expertise are gone. The smartest person in the room is the room. How do we use it and “hack” for humanity?

We will need to collaborate and actively experiment in an unprecedented way. This is why we launched Innovation Labs. We need a new model, and we won’t know in advance what it will look like, but the urgency of the challenge is our call to action.

The World Bank Group can play multiple roles in this chain of public value creation. By using the “spotlight and megaphone” of the Bank, we can draw attention to a portfolio of promising experiments and capture what appears to be working, where, why, and under what conditions. This is the shift from the “Knowledge” Bank to a global “Solutions” Bank.