5 Principles for Open Innovation in International Development


The internet is ablaze with tutorials and commentaries on “open innovation.” Since Dr. Henry Chesbrough coined the term in 2003, how to best integrate innovative concepts into business models has been a hot topic. I recently attended the Open Innovation Summit, which brought together a diverse group of presenters and attendees, from General Electric to AT&T, all interested in learning about and sharing how to integrate the principles of open innovation into their corporate structures. I began to wonder: How can the global development community apply lessons learned in other industries about open innovation?

What is open innovation?

Dr. Chesbrough defines open innovation as “the use of purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation and expand the markets for external use of innovation, respectively.” There are two facets of successful open innovation: the “outside in” aspect, whereby ideas and technologies from outside a company’s walls feed into its innovation process, and the “inside out” aspect, whereby firms share ideas and technologies with the outside world.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have made this continuous flow of ideas in and out of organizations, and across technical siloes, more important than ever in international development. The development challenges identified by the SDGs are interconnected, and the global community recognizes that their solutions will require cross-disciplinary collaboration. In the context of the SDGs, then, we can think of “open innovation” as the cross-pollination of solutions across traditionally siloed technical fields.  

Open innovation in international development

Just like General Electric and AT&T, the global development community has been grappling with how to embrace innovation. There are some intrinsic challenges. In particular, the appetite for risk is typically small in the international development community, which emphasizes evidence-based approaches because failure can negatively impact people’s lives and result in a perceived waste of donor funds. Given these realities, an emphasis on effective monitoring and evaluation is especially crucial to ensuring that when an organization does invest small amounts of capital into unproven concepts, there are clear metrics of success and sustainability to ensure ongoing funding of those that demonstrate meaningful impact.

To make open innovation a sustainable approach, those within this space must start by creating a culture of innovation internally. There are five key principles (including robust monitoring and evaluation) that the global development community can embrace to nurture innovation in our work:

As other industries have continued to adapt their business models to embrace open innovation, we in the development industry should continue to weave innovation into the core aspects of our work. Creating an innovation ecosystem that encourages ongoing knowledge sharing of both successes and failures as pillars of success will propel the industry forward, ensuring the highest caliber, most innovative approaches to sustainable development reach those who need them most.

Stewart Jones is a manager on Chemonics' Management Solutions for Development Practice. 

Posted in: Strategic Solutions
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