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From the ideal to the real: 20 lessons from scaling up innovations at the World Bank

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On a brisk February morning in 2010, a small group of my World Bank colleagues, a few AidData partners, and I were in brainstorming mode.  Our topic of discussion: how we could make a meaningful, measurable difference in making our development projects more open, transparent, and effective.

One idea lit us all up: putting development on a map. We envisioned an open platform that citizens around the world could use to look up local development projects and provide direct feedback. We were inspired by “open evangelists” like Beth Novek, Hans Rosling and Viveck Kundra.



  Testing of the citizen feedback platform with local community members in rural Cochabamba, Bolivia

However, there was one challenge: how could we help make the World Bank’s data and numerous data sets fully open, free, shareable, and easily accessible to anyone? At the time, the large majority of these data sets were proprietary, and those who had access to key data sets were a relatively limited number of technical specialists.


In addressing this issue, we were fortunate. We worked closely as a small, creative, and highly committed team of innovators from different parts of the Bank to gradually open up the Bank’s data. To be honest, no one on our small team of incubators could have predicted that we would be able to scale up our early innovations so rapidly and that they would result in such important changes in the Bank’s approach to data and openness.




Hence, we were delighted when the World Bank announced on April 20, 2010 that  openness and accountability were essential to development and, that it had thrown open the doors to its databases and called it the Open Data initiative. The Bank also challenged the global community to use the data to create new applications and solutions to help reduce poverty. Following the Open Data initiative came Open Finances, Mapping for Results (blog and news story), the Open Aid Partnership, and then Open Government programs, which help to open up budgets, contracts, and aid flow information.

How did such a radical change come about? How was it possible that our early very modest endeavors to implement innovations in governance could be scaled up and be replicated across so many different areas at the Bank? How could a vibrant community of innovators from within and outside the Bank come together share experiences, learn from each other and, most important, help to make an important institutional change -- launch an Open Data initiative and empower citizens to provide direct feedback on development programs?



Consultation workshop with rural youth in Tiwanaku, Bolivia

To answer these very questions, I’ve compiled below the top 20 lessons learned from our team’s collective journey over the last five years.

  1. Identify a clear gap that is operationally relevant and currently not being filled at least at the institutional level.
  2. Closely link  innovative approaches to a key corporate priority. Strengthening the results agenda and enhancing the effectiveness and inclusiveness of Bank-financed programs are key.
  3. Define the problem. Be as specific as possible about which aspect of the broader development challenge you would like to address. (i.e. improve Bank-financed programs at the sub-national level, enhance the inclusiveness of the delivery of public services).
  4. Be willing to take risks and learn lessons from early failures. In Silicon Valley, over 70% of innovations in the IT sector fail.  Public institutions by nature are many times risk averse- a key aspect of innovation however is ‘doing business differently’- and being willing to take on more risks is critical to provide innovators with the necessary space to experiment, adjust, iterate, incubate and scale-up.
  5. Start small but think big. It is key to first develop several focused pilots that have a demonstration effect, while having a clear strategy in mind about how these pilots can be scaled up over time. Implement several small-scale pilots applying a very flexible approach of rapid iteration, learning and adaptation.  At the same time, involve key institutional partners early on in the process in order to build strong partnerships that are needed to scale-up these pilots over time.
  6. Use a programmatic approach. Go beyond innovations at the project level. Frequently there are scattered isolated innovations underway, however they are often small in scale or limited to a single project. Aim for applying the innovative approach to a sector or country, not just one project.
  7. Identify strategic allies (reform champions) within the institution and connect the internal change agents with each other. Leverage thought leaders and innovators from outside the organization and connect them to your internal champions.
  8. Develop a clear and simple narrative early on. Identify the state-of-the-art know-how in the specific area of innovation and leverage external expertise to develop a clear and simple narrative about your program.
  9. Engage critics or skeptics early on and expose them to new ideas from outside the organization.  Spotlight cases that demonstrate that these innovative approaches have worked somewhere else, or are currently under way.
  10. Create an open, creative, and collaborative environment . Have management provide staff a working environment where everyone can  be creative, freely share ideas and think outside the box.
  11. Be selective and targeted. In the initial phase of developing your program ideas, it is key to allow for a very broad-based, open and creative brainstorming process to take place. In the second phase, it is critical to narrow down your ideas, be highly selective, and  focus on the programs you will support.
  12. Use both a bottom-up and top-down approach. Work together with peers and working groups to gain momentum from the bottom and obtain strong support from senior management. Many innovations fail since they are either ‘mandated’ from the top or only have support at the grassroots level.
  13. Take a look at the bigger picture. Remove yourself from the urgencies of daily operations. Frequently, operational staff is so focused on preparing or supervising a project that people don’t have the time nor the energy to see the big picture.
  14. Combine technical expertise with knowledge on institutional change. It is key to have technical competency and a very good understanding of both the institutional opportunities and barriers to the proposed reforms.
  15. Assemble multidisciplinary teams that bring together very diverse skill sets and have very different experiences inside and outside the organization.
  16. Document lessons learned and experiences from early stage innovations and listen in on expertise from strategic advisors on how these innovations can be taken to scale.
  17. Cultivate and maintain an institutional partner within the organization. Do not try to advance innovations in governance in isolation from operations. Aim for embedding these innovative approaches into operations early on in your program implementation.
  18. Develop a clear strategy  where institutional policies and systems can be changed in order for the innovation to be taken to scale.
  19. Think about both the individual agency (of change champions) and institutional structures and how they both mutually influence each other.
  20. Empower staff at all levels to take risks. Frequently the most creative and innovative ideas come from more junior level staff.
So that’s our list. While I still have your attention, here are two presentations on our Innovations for Open Development work and our Mapping For Results work. We’d appreciate hearing your feedback in the comment field below. And please feel free to share your own experience in implementing innovations for development in practice.


Soren Gigler

Senior Governance Specialist, Innovation

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