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Why Donors aren't Investing in Innovation

(and with it meaningful change)....


Katy Grennier, DSIL Global

Human-Centered Design (HCD) is a creative approach to problem-solving that leads to new innovation. Sometimes innovation is incremental and at other times it creates a huge breakthrough. Human-Centered Design can be used to bring in many different actors to solve challenges and create innovation. It can also be used as a research method—one that looks a lot like action-based research. At DSIL we use HCD for both reasons, and always involve the humans who are experiencing a challenge as a part of the design team to ensure their perspective remains a guiding lens from which we design a solution together.

We see consistent success in HCD projects in terms of metrics, capacity building of both organizations and communities, and increased trust levels of everyone that’s involved that lasts far beyond the project end. That trust lays roots for long-term transformation. Not a deliverable you say? I say it should be.

However, getting development organizations on board to start to design WITH people, instead of FOR people, has been an uphill battle and our friends in development continue to say it won't fly in many traditional organizations. The biggest block (drum roll please…….) investors and/or donors were perceived to be unwilling to fund innovation at all.

So the DSIL team set out on an HCD process of our own and decided to get curious about why this was the case. Time to task more questions! We engaged with 33 donors and investors inquiring about their feelings and perceptions towards funding innovation processes such as HCD.

It didn’t take long to see emerging misconceptions held by many- regardless of location.

Here are the top 4.

1. Innovation process are too complicated.

Like it or not our world in more and more complex everyday. Serious challenges are affecting people every day in different ways. It’s can be easy to say that spending money anywhere outside of relief efforts or program maintenance may seem misguided, take too long, and be far too complicated to request from the hierarchies we must cope with in our workplaces.

But what would happen if we weren't scared of complexity?

We believe that many problems could be solved if we didn’t insist on keeping a lid on them or only seeing a slice of a challenge that makes finding a solution easier. If we are not inviting in the complexity, our solutions are misguided and time and money is spent on paperwork instead of experiments to prove what works and what is not.

2. There is no data in innovation, and data must be collected.

The first significant misconception among donors is that there appears to be no statistical proof in the Human-Centered Design process. While HCD is something that we go through to create innovation, it is also a research process; meaning that in all the phases of design there is opportunity for data to be collected from the communities involved in rich ways. For example, the stories of people’s experiences collected during the empathy phase can be used to help teams find themes in pain points we couldn’t otherwise see, unlock hidden resources, see closed but powerful structures, and identify core needs that are spoken not prescribed to a community.

I will give you one more great example of data that emerges. Brainstorming walls during the ideation phase (when done with communities) give us a huge insight into what resources are available and what is important to the people.

Data is flying all over the place in HCD; you just have to be intentional about collecting it in each phase using the right tools- and be clear on the front end about it is important to the project. Our teams are developing lots of ways to continue to collect rich data in each phase.

3. HCD lacks "enough" expert involvement.

Another misconception is that HCD lacks expert involvement in solving challenges. However, the process stands on the principles that everyone involved in this world is an expert in their own lens- and I don’t say this lightly. For example, a 5th grader is an expert on how his classroom runs, from what the other kids think about their teacher, to the schedule, to whether it’s a safe place for her or not. The principle would not know these things; although, she would most definitely have an expert lens about managing the school. We need people from all lenses and getting enough "experts" is the key. Not just the ones from one organization or those rich with knowledge in one topic; although, we need them too.

We also need expert designers who can facilitate the process and make sure we stay on course. One more point on this! Expertise is not always reflected in traditional education or years of experience--and that is the thing I love the most about HCD. The right experts at the table ensure that bias does not lead to misinformed or biased solutions that waste time or money and that are, ultimately, not sustainable.

4. Innovation is too uncertain.
Next up, innovation is too uncertain or risky. This is a big misunderstanding. The uncertainty does not lie in the process- that is certain- but rather in what will emerge as the many possible solutions. The process itself has been well tested by the best universities and design companies in the world. We have endless case studies for you.  The proof is the last thing HCD needs when done right. For example if you decide what the solution will be before you even engage in HCD, there is no point in doing it. So save your money and don’t put people through a process you will not authentically allow them to build. To create change, risk is required! Being adverse to risk does not solve challenges; it only wastes money. We need change because what we have been doing hasn't been working on large enough scales to solve things. 

5. There is nothing new about Human-Centered Design.

The last misconception is that there is nothing new about Human-Centered Design. That’s not entirely wrong! Now a days inspiration for everything comes from somewhere.

Co-creation processes have been around since the 80s however, the way we move through these processes and who we include have changed dramatically. Our team uses the process to experiment with more people much faster in changing conditions. HCD is able to harness all the "new" diversity collisions of the world- from an ever-increasing influence of globalization that is not going to stop.

I think the missing links I see in the world of innovation in development are people getting in the way; having pre-set solutions, not making the time to engage in the process authentically, blaming budget constraints, and being shallow about designing with communities instead of trusting them to drive the process with a few good facilitators. If Human-Centered Design is empty, we have ourselves to blame for making it shallow.

Pass the quick infographic above to those you know in development. Our hope is that when people start challenging these misconceptions, we might be able to re-engage with HCD designers on a new path that is paved with more open minds and hearts dedicated to creating more sustainable solutions than we ever had before.

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