Webinar recap: Response Innovation Lab

  • Seth Otto
  • October 26, 2016
Webinar recap: Response Innovation Lab

“It’s a wicked environment. There are a lot of problems, and there’s not a lot of time to solve them.” – Jennifer MacCann on the unique context of emergency response.

This month in an exclusive NetHope Solutions Center webinar organized by NetHope’s Isaac Kwamy, Director, Global Programs, Disaster Preparedness and Response, and Response Innovation Lab Director Jennifer MacCann shared insights and stories from the first year of this exciting program.

In the field of humanitarian relief, Innovation Labs are just beginning to emerge with a range of needs, but the interagency Response Innovation Lab (RIL) is unique. The RIL supports the development and use of innovation within the context of chaotic relief environments. MacCann has nine years of experience in disaster areas and emergency response situations. Her approach to the work of emergency response is to ask the question, “How can we do our work better? One answer to the question is innovation,” said Ms. MacCann.

Kwamy and MacCann worked with the Humanitarian Innovation team in Haiti, whose projects met with some success. MacCann’s impressive resume also includes time in Palestine with Oxfam on interdisciplinary projects, and she experienced frustration in the wake of typhoon Haiyan attempting to set up a small grants mechanism which provided new insights into innovation in response work. As the Nepal Response Director dealing with the devastation of the 2015 earthquakes, the question remained: “How are we going to do better?” and so the Nepal World Vision team set up a pilot Emergency Innovation Lab. The Nepal Lab is now producing a range of success stories that led MacCann and others to ask “How do we scale this across the sector for all organizations?” The RIL is that answer. The RIL is a team focused on interdisciplinary innovation in crisis response building on the outcomes of international pilots. Plans are in place to scale out two kinds of labs in 2017: Rapid Onset and Protracted Crisis.

“We want to develop tests and roll out scalable innovations in crisis. And we want to do it in a safe, supportive, ethical and evidence-driven environment.” – Jennifer MacCann.

The Response Innovation Lab began by looking at underutilized assets and missed opportunities in a crisis. They learned that academia generally didn’t have the access needed to test new innovations in the field. Likewise, both local and international private sector firms lacked access to the humanitarian sector. Companies like Google, Cisco and Facebook, companies defined by their innovation in the private sector, have skilled humanitarian teams ready to deploy. New ideas and technologies that could help were often abandoned due to time constraints. Innovations got lost in the crush of an influx of workers, and the focus on pushing forward with aid. Innovation takes support, and good ideas languish without the time and money that implementation requires.

Ms. MacCann emphasized that the RIL has responded to their findings with a collaborative approach focused on lasting, scalable results. “The underlying ethos at the RIL is real problems, real people, real time,” she said.  “This approach is derived from observing the private sector that focuses creative and innovative product development on the end-user experience. The humanitarian sector has had some catching up to do in this regard.”

How is the RIL unique? Think: skunk works.

What sets the Response Innovation Lab apart from other innovation labs isn’t just its focus to reduce suffering and save lives with relief aid, but to do so in the midst of a chaotic relief environment. Innovation labs are emerging to deal with a range of humanitarian relief efforts, but gaps persist on the ground level of humanitarian action. MacCann is attempting to fill those gaps. “In the last few years, there’s very little high-level innovation in the areas of slow and rapid onset crisis, recovery and rehabilitation, and spikes in protracted crisis,” she said. “That’s really where we need innovation. It’s a wicked environment. There are a lot of problems, and there’s not a lot of time to solve them.”

The RIL provides the creative space needed for innovation in the midst of the fast-paced environment of an emergency. Instead of outsourcing local problems to New York or London, the RIL is in the localized context of the emergency to support collaboration with the end-user and bring in the skills of the local private sector, academics and community organizations. Solutions are developed on the ground along with the ability to deploy them and the tools to evaluate results and improve the approach. Nothing is wasted. Innovations that work in one location are possible candidates for scaling up across that country and to future emergencies.

In collaboration with World Vision, the Nepal Innovation Lab (NLab) was established to foster inclusive and innovative solutions for effective post-earthquake humanitarian action. The NLab provides a space for innovators to develop and test their ideas to effectively overcome local problems with the guidance and support of experts from both Nepal and abroad.

What does the RIL look like?

MacCann illustrated what a possible deployment of the RIL would look like in the field: A diverse group of specialized actors from NGOs, innovation experts and academics, to local community and business interests working together in the field during an emergency response. She used the example of the pilot emergency innovation lab in Nepal as a case study. The lab is focused on serving populations affected by the earthquake, often living in remote areas of the Himalayan mountains. Examples of those collaborating in the Lab include UN agencies, large NGOs, local and international reconstruction firms, local tech and innovation organizations, the Harvard Design School, and a range of international organizations working on anything from reconstruction to digital manufacturing. The challenges addressed include permanent reconstruction, accountability to communities and supply chain management. The groups problem-solve, test different options and assess success or failure. The Nepal Lab is now looking at how to scale up its successes with permanent reconstruction and digital manufacturing in hard-to-reach places in to different countries.

Looking ahead, MacCann posited that if the successes seen in Nepal are to be repeated, innovation has to be a normalized facet of emergency response. She explained that a disaster response characterized by innovation must be deployable so that responders are equipped with solutions going into a disaster area instead of starting from scratch each time. An innovation response should be inter-agency (private sector companies, NGOs, academia, entrepreneurs) so that the successes, as well as the failures, are shared. Learning becomes collaborative, and improvements can be carried forward to the next response.

Current needs

MacCann shared plans to deploy the RIL into crisis areas in 2017 in order to test, assess and learn from the ground breaking work of innovation in an emergency humanitarian aid context. In order to successfully do this, MacCann and her team are currently looking for investment of talent and funding. “I think this is where the most vulnerable people in the world are. It’s where we need to be showing the most progress, the most support in order to reduce suffering and save lives,” said Ms. MacCann.

To get involved with the Response Innovation Lab, contact Jennifer MacCann directly. Her email address is located toward the end of her presentation.

To learn more about NetHope Disaster Preparedness and Response, and the work they’ve been doing to enable faster, better-coordinated responses to manmade and natural disasters, explore their Community Page.

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A recording of this webinar, as well as a PDF of the presentation, can be found here.

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