As a pilot initiative, our key questions were:
- Is there a supply of new ideas that researchers have that are not currently being tried? Will researchers take the time to put these ideas forward?
- Is there a demand from operational teams and governments working on SME projects for new ideas in this space?
- Can we form matches between this supply and demand?
The supply of new ideas
We received more than 70 submissions from around the world – about one-third from within the World Bank, and two-thirds from outside researchers and organizations. These covered a wide range of different ideas and topics, with varying degrees of innovativeness. These were narrowed down to a set of 15 finalists, who were asked to prepare longer 8-9 page concept notes on their ideas. Examples of these ideas include several new ideas for fostering exports such as using prizes, online platform facilitation, and payment for results; ways to better connect firms with value chains including an innovative mobile-based ordering system for small-scale retailers, ways to connect the fashion value chain, and attempts to link SMEs to governments; new ways of targeting and offering financing including using social networks; and ideas of new ways to improve management, contracting, and guaranteeing a good business climate. A list of the finalists and a summary of their ideas is available here.
Matching this supply of ideas to demand
We have circulated these ideas to World Bank TTLs working on SME projects, and met with different regional managers to try and engage their staff. Last week the key event in the match-making was to hold a pitch event. This was structured like a start-up pitch event, with 5 minute pitches of their ideas by the finalists, along with 7 minutes for Q&A from the audience. About 70 people attended in person, with approximately the same number attending virtually by following the live stream from country offices and other locations. So there seems to be some demand for the ideas.
Participants in the pitch event
The pitches and other event proceedings can be viewed on the event homepage.
So what’s next?
So we’ve been successful at finding a supply of new ideas, have found there appears to be some demand for these ideas, and are now waiting to see if a match takes place. To try and incentivize these matches, we are offering two prizes of $100,000 each to finalists who manage to make a match with an operational project eager to test their idea. Teams have until July 16 to form these matches in order to be eligible for the prizes (of course we hope some of these ideas will be used by teams regardless of whether they get a prize or not, and realize projects can take a long time to get going, so that some of these ideas might find their match in a year or two). But if you happen to be a World Bank operational staff member designing an SME project and want to take advantage of this added incentive, please get in contact with the relevant research team to apply for this incentive (it is a super short additional application, since we already have all their technical details).
Lessons for trying to bring research ideas into operational practice
Since this is a pilot, part of its purpose is to see whether this approach works in fostering more collaboration between researchers and project teams earlier on in the project cycle. It is too soon to see the ultimate proof of whether these ideas get picked up into projects (look for an update in the future), but here are some preliminary thoughts for others interested in putting together such an approach:
- There doesn’t seem to be much else out there like this. My experience is that while there are now more opportunities to fund impact evaluations, many grant-makers are extremely reluctant to fund the intervention at all, or to fund development of an idea without a partner in place to test it. So just as in the start-up industry there is a role for angel-investors to fund early stage start-ups, there seems to be a definite space for a donor to fund idea development.
- As a public good, it is probably undersupplied. I’ve spent more time on this than I realized ex ante, and the personal payoffs are probably pretty low (for one thing, I couldn’t put forward my own ideas). So this might be a good thing for a global practice or consortium to run.
- It is not so easy to find out who is the potential audience, and to engage them. Work on SMEs takes place in several practices at the World Bank and IFC, and in all different regions. There is no one place where you can go and see what SME projects are currently in progress or in the pipeline, and so finding who the right people to contact took some work. Then because people are in lots of field offices, travelling for work, and otherwise very busy, trying to get them together in one place was tough. So thanks to all those TTLs who did attend physically or virtually, and for those who couldn’t let us know what more can be done.
- Be careful what you promise. The competition sought “innovative ideas in SME development”. We took a broad definition of innovation, to include both things completely untested, as well as those that were more refinements and tweaks to the way existing projects are run. And innovation here was “new to the Bank”, more than “new to the World”. But this does lead to the “how innovative is this anyway?” type of comment from people who focus on one or two of the ideas that they have seen versions of before. Not quite sure how to deal with this issue, except trying to be a bit clearer in language.
As I say, this is very much a pilot initiative, so any thoughts from those involved in any way as to what could be done to make this better, or any lessons of things done well that you appreciated, please comment.