Brian Banks, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Global Environment and Technology Foundation (GETF) spoke to the WASH team at Results for Development (R4D) about systems innovation, the need for feedback loops, and the dangers of chasing after the ‘new’.What do you see as innovative in the WASH sector?
The kind of innovation that really excites me focuses on models and approaches. Technical innovation is important, but a lot of the real opportunity is in developing models and approaches which change and create innovation in the way we do our work. So it’s not about a specific technology or an intervention, but more about how we do it and how we think about the role of the stakeholders in the space we are operating in.
A lot of people think you need to be a scientist or an engineer to come up with an innovative idea, but that’s not the case. You don’t need a technical degree, you just have to be able to critically look at the problem, how things are working around you, and imagine solutions other people haven’t thought of – then you’re an innovator.Can you give an example of innovation applied to changing the way we work in practice?
To give an example, GETF supported The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation’s Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN) on a program in Uganda to develop a pre-paid water meter system. It was an exciting project because we weren’t just going in and doing what outsiders thought was best. Instead, RAIN was supporting the existing water utility to implement its own master plan. RAIN’s value add was to match private sector funding that allowed for space for innovation and exploration around how to implement the master plan to reach new customers in poor urban areas. RAIN also brought additional expertise to the project through a partnership with Water and Sanitation For the Urban Poor. As a result, a lot of the work we ended up funding focused not on the water meter system specifically, but on understanding the broader systems at play, for example how could users let the utility know when repairs were needed. This turned out to be as straight-forward as making sure there was a phone number that people could call, and ensuring that that the utility had the capacity to provide support.
The big take away for RAIN was reinforcing this need to look at the broader system within which an intervention is taking place in order to work out their role. Clearly the private sector can play a big role in supporting innovation in a way that the local public sector may not be able to support.What are people working in WASH sector getting wrong?
One of the biggest mistakes we see is not using evidence to inform decisions. In many cases the feedback loop is fundamentally broken and so ideas that seemed promising on paper but are found wanting in practice aren’t being shut down in time or aren’t rigorously verified.
Although things are getting better - people are beginning to ask the right questions about evidence, and donors are funding more evaluations - we are not where we need to be. It’s still the case that a proposal which is polished but lacks robust evidence can win approval, and this is worrying. I think we need to be more evidence focused as a sector, and get those feedback loops in place so that we are getting the right information from the right people at the right time.
Beyond just getting data, it’s important that if we do establish feedback loops, we then need to leave space in our plans to react to the data we are finding and change the intervention/approach accordingly - it could be a minor tweak, trying something vastly different, or even shutting the idea down.How does the donor community fit into the WASH innovation ecosystem?
Donors have a key role to play - they can inspire innovation and enable innovation to build up, but they need to keep a close eye on the evidence to make sure they aren’t just funding something new, but something new and valuable. I think there are definitely cases where the new has trumped the valuable.
One of the best things we can do is innovate in an iterative way – we don’t need to start from scratch, there are a lot of things out there which already show promise, and minor tweaks can create enormous change. But from there, we need to be open and make sure we talk about why we are making those specific changes, what evidence we are using, and why we think this will work better than before. Donors have an opportunity to support and create space for this discussion.