As the world faces Covid-19 together, innovation is key

April 15, 2020
The Covid Connection platform homepage.

While none of us would ever wish for it, the Covid-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented opportunity for global innovation. Never in modern times has the international development sector been faced with a singular challenge in every country around the globe. This offers a glimpse into a world where we have a better sense of our combined humanity—where one problem levels the playing field and unifies us in a search for solutions. As such, innovation is key in the fight against Covid-19. 

Recognizing this, Pact’s innovation practice made an intentional pivot from our 2020 strategy to focus our efforts on responding to Covid-19. We began with a brainstorm as a team, during which we decided to turn our open call for incubator applications, due to close at the end of March, into an organization-wide Rapid Response incubator for Covid-19 ideas. Based on our experience in open innovation and crowdsourcing, we soon chose to go a step further and develop a Rapid Idea Exchange mechanism to globally share potential programmatic solutions and responses. 

The need for a mechanism like this is critical. Like at many large global organizations, it can be easy to unintentionally work in silos. The need to respond quickly to a health crisis closes and centralizes our communication circles. We worried that Pact could end up with 25 country offices innovating on their Covid-19 response project activities without properly sharing those ideas or learnings. Never before have we seen all of our offices iterating their programming at the same time on the same topic. Best practices in innovation dictate that we need to crowdsource ideas fast and democratically, rapidly operationalize some experiments, and then iterate and share those learnings widely to ensure we are not duplicating efforts in our silos, allowing us to make sound, strategic financial and business decisions about what ideas advance. In the words of the innovator, we need to fail fast and fail smart.

We decided to create an open innovation platform for Covid-19 as a place for Pact’s global staff to find inspiration, share ideas and tests they are running, interact with other’s ideas, find sources of funding and access the Rapid Response incubator to make requests for support. Wanting to deliver quickly, we went into hyperdrive and tested 14 possible platform solutions, including prototypes of off-the-shelf open innovation software, Google Docs, Facebook and Pact’s internal knowledge management software. 

Ultimately, the most important feature that arose during testing was accessibility, so we went with our existing knowledge management system. We launched “Covid Connection: Pact’s Rapid Idea Exchange and Incubation Process,” on March 30. 

After one week, the site had 215 active users and 132 contributions, including ideas, resources, discussion topic posts and requests for support. Our Eswatini office, for example, shared an instructional video on how households can make “tippy tap” hand-washing stations even if they lack running water. A staffer in South Africa shared a concept note on how to continue to engage vulnerable youth during lockdown. A team member in Washington posted an idea for making Covid-19 health messaging more compelling. A staffer in Cambodia posed a question about supporting women entrepreneurs to ensure their businesses survive. Already we are seeing viable ideas rise to the top and country offices thousands of miles apart learning from each other’s failures and successes. 

There are three components of a successful open innovation initiative: platform, process and behavior change communication. We were able to tackle the first two in six days. The final piece is one that we will need to stay resilient about as we navigate through the diffusion of innovation

As we continue, we are constantly reminding ourselves of this fundamental: Perfect is the enemy of innovation. We tend to be a risk-averse sector, and often a cumbersome one with cultural quirks and nuances that can impede us. Our agility can be hindered by our donor-based business model. But we must remember that Covid-19 doesn’t care. It moves fast and claims lives indiscriminately, so we cannot wait to act until we feel 100 percent ready. 

We must take small, agile risks through experimentation. We must put people first, stay empathetic, share what we learn and focus on impact.