Published on Voices

Is it Innovation if it Has Been Done Before?

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When I joined the World Bank five years ago, I remember someone telling me that we love innovation as long as it’s been done before. Having been hired to manage an innovation practice, I was puzzled. Wasn’t innovation about risk and venturing into the unknown? But as counter-intuitive as it sounds, I’ve come to understand the spirit of the idea and recognize that any innovation ecosystem needs early adopters and scalers.

Large institutions like ours can’t compete with smaller, nimbler, and more risk-tolerant firms and social enterprises when it comes to innovating at speed. But when it comes to recognizing models that work, what we can do is evaluate them rigorously, share widely what we learn, and adapt them to a variety of contexts. That’s innovating at scale. It’s less about early adoption and more about global adaptation. It’s about anchoring and contextualizing policy and business model innovations within a variety of geographies with different political, social and economic realities. What would it take to surface such high potential innovations more often and reduce the cycle times for them to spread?

For example, we see a huge need for improved water and rural sanitation in South Asia. India’s Prime Minister Modi has put improved sanitation and ending open defecation at the top of his development agenda. If we scan the globe, we see examples of improved rural sanitation in places like Indonesia which has in turn built on successes in Bangladesh and Vietnam. How can we take these learnings, distill them down to their key constituent pieces, connect practitioners to one another, and support local adaptation in other contexts?

Retrospectively, lessons are seldom earth shattering and usually intuitive. We hear things like design for growth and scale from the beginning, recruit leaders with strong social and political capital, learn and adapt as you implement, pay attention to process and product, work the system top-down and bottom-up simultaneously.

What we do know is that markets and governments are the two surest pathways to scale. What we need to do better is surface the most promising models to arrest poverty and enlist the private sector and the government to accelerate their spread. Where possible, we need to enable private and public actors to work together in ways that leverage the strengths of both. It sounds simple. But it requires discipline in identifying the most promising models no matter where they come from, a willingness to test them and evaluate them rigorously, a commitment to learning what works and doesn’t work, sharing this knowledge widely through communities of learning and practice and getting really good at adapting models to local contexts. None of that is easy but it’s essential.  

Each of us needs to figure out what we do best. For large organizations like the World Bank Group, it’s mostly about recognizing what works, evaluating those models, generating and diffusing knowledge, and adapting approaches to local contexts. Innovation doesn’t have to be about creating new things all the time. It’s just as important and valuable to take something new in a particular context and make it work.



Aleem Walji

Director, Innovation Labs

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