What are innovation labs and how can they improve development?


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This summer in Addis Ababa, 12 organizations including the World Bank Group launched a call for increased innovation in international development to solve the world’s most complex challenges, including the new sustainable development goals.  There is a need to invest in new technologies and innovations that have the potential to deliver both social impact and economic returns. One of the ways the Bank Group is tackling this challenge is through “innovation labs” that help integrate emerging innovations into our work.
We’ve had a lot of questions about how we define and integrate innovation in a large institution. Here are some answers:  

How do we define innovation?
Simply put, innovation is finding and applying new approaches to address existing problems or serve unmet needs. From a development perspective, an innovation is a new solution with the transformative ability to accelerate impact. Innovation can be fueled by science and technology, can entail improved ways of working with new and diverse partners, or can involve new social and business models or policy, creative financing mechanisms, or path-breaking improvements in delivering essential services and products. Innovation has been and will be pivotal for reaching sustained, scalable solutions to the world’s complex problems. This definition was published in the call for innovation in international development by USAID, Gates Foundation, DFID, Canada, Sweden, UNICEF, Canada, Australia, Rockefeller Foundation, Results for Development, and the World Bank Group.
What is the objective of the World Bank Group Innovation Labs?
Our objective is to: (i.) accelerate the adoption of emerging innovations in Bank operations; (ii.) create a culture that’s more conducive to innovation and informed risk-taking; and (iii.) develop institutional capabilities to make innovation more strategic and systematic, in the World Bank Group. We have seen in numerous surveys over the years that there is wide recognition from our staff of the need for innovation to solve the intractable problems that our clients face. However innovation remains ad-hoc, fragmented, and often under the radar.  
What role does the Innovation Labs play?
We act as a bridge between our project teams and these emerging innovations that we believe could have big impacts on development. The Bank Group could play a pivotal role in bringing these innovations to our clients and helping scale them up. Almost all of our work is demand driven, with strong support  from senior management in operations.
How do you work with World Bank Group Operations?
We focus on select areas — emerging innovations (for example, big data, social enterprises) — and work towards accelerating their adoption in and through our operations. We do this by creating awareness and providing knowledge, expertise, tools, and connections with relevant external actors. We support our operational colleagues’ efforts to incorporate these in their operations. We believe that for any innovation to matter it has to be field tested and must offer potential to be scaled up.
What are these areas of emerging innovations?
They include:  
  • Big data analytics focusing on specific sector problems in energy, urban, transport, poverty, and other areas.
  • Social enterprise innovations that bridge the service delivery gaps
  • Open data and geo-mapping for improving aid effectiveness and transparency in client countries.
  • Other areas we are looking at including: unmanned aerial vehicles (aka friendly drones ), advanced manufacturing (e.g. 3D printing, robotics), artificial intelligence (e.g. IBM Watson, Google self-driving cars), digital economy, clean tech (e.g. solar, wind), as well as financial innovations (e.g. crowdfunding, social impact bonds, mobile money).
 Why do the World Bank and other development institutions need Innovation Labs to focus on this?  
 Emerging areas that could have a big impact on development are not always adopted quickly. Some of the reasons we found are: 
  • Emerging innovations seem initially far-fetched and therefore appear less relevant; however these things grow exponentially – 1% penetration means you are already half-way through to 100%
  • They are seen as more relevant for the developed economies; however some of these actually offer opportunities for low and middle-income countries to leapfrog the more traditional paradigms (e.g. mobile vs landline)
  • There is a perception that it’s largely the domain of the private sector, and development impact or policy implications, aren’t immediately evident. 
Emerging innovations often cut across several sectors. The Bank’s Innovation Labs can help the Bank’s teams consider whether innovations such as advanced manufacturing or artificial intelligence have relevance and impact across various sectors including urban, education, skills, jobs, social protection, trade and competitiveness, climate, transport, and others.


Join the Conversation

December 22, 2015

Why do we have to use trendy names for the work we do? Isn't pretty much every place where a development program or policy (aka "intervention") is implemented a laboratory in itself? On the other hand doesn't it seem odd that we are experimenting on people in these "labs"?

Joel P
December 22, 2015

All sounds great - I would love to read more about the work of the labs, but aside from blog posts like these, they appear to be somewhat Google-proof. Where can we find more about the labs' work?

May 23, 2019

Dear Joel P -- thanks for your comment. We haven't focussed on communicating much about the 'lab' itself, as we think it's less relevant. We have therefore focussed much of our communications on projects and initiatives we support (for example see the links in the above blog). In the coming weeks I intend to share a bit more about our experience and lessons of running an innovation lab. Hope you'll find that useful. We will also soon launch a new site with more information about our work on social enterprise innovations. We have recently launched a WB site that covers innovation more widely (here's the link), http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/innovationsindevelopment

Tara R.
December 24, 2015

Super exciting focus for the World Bank! Will the labs work with start-up and individual organizations working to provide innovative solutions in your emerging areas? And if so, how would an organization go about sharing its work to be considered for a partnership?

May 23, 2019

Thanks Tara. We no longer directly fund individual organizations. We support and build the capacity of the local and regional funding partners and governments who in turn offer funding. You may share your work through the Contact Us link on the Development Marketplace site (http://wbi.worldbank.org/developmentmarketplace/).

Henry Okech
December 24, 2015

Prof. Yunnus has setup many very innovative ideas without the need of a lab; same with other serial entrepreneurs. what makes the lab agreat idea; and what makes a lab different from other long-term studies?
Lastly, before you setup another site, what has been the biggest discovery that you amde in your lab

May 23, 2019

Dear Henry, thanks for asking these questions. The word 'lab' often conjures images of scientists in white coats doing invention, which isn't the case with us. We do not think of us as an inventor. We believe lot of innovation is happening outside and inside. Some of which holds good promise for development, but which doesn't always scale. We primarily focus on surfacing these innovations and seeing how they can be scaled up using Bank's operations. For example, we have identified several social enterprises delivering basic services to the poor through innovative business models. We are developing this knowledge base, evidence, and lessons which we will share publicly in coming months. We are also working with local and regional partners, governments, and World Bank operations to see how these service delivery models and enterprises can be scaled up. Another example is our work with the Bank teams to identify problems where big data can offer a solution which is better, faster, cheaper, or more real-time compared to traditional means. The areas we are supporting range from using GPS data from taxis to better understand traffic flows, use of night time satellite images to monitor electricity in rural areas, use of cellular data for understanding poverty, etc. In the past, we advocated for the bank to adopt Open Data policy, mainstreamed the use of geo-data for mapping Bank's operations, as well as incubated models of using ICT for citizen engagement in Bank operations which has now been adopted as as a policy for upcoming Bank operations.

Chandana Kiran
January 04, 2016

This a great platform which enables / bridges the pioneers gap - rapid development , co - creation and solution's approach to name a few. whom do we contact for further discussions?

January 05, 2016

Thanks Chandana. Could you share a bit more of what you are thinking? We could also connect on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/adarshdesai) and take it from there.

Sam Miller
February 26, 2016

Thanks for the thought provoking article.