Innovation – the essence of learning in a changing world

June 29, 2011 | Manuel Flury | Learning Elsewhere |


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Manuel picture for sdclanBy Manuel Flury

 “The world is changing! Never has the challenge to a sustainable pathway been more urgent than today. Societies need to develop their innovative power. So has development cooperation to adapt. Innovation is key to future Swiss international cooperation.”  These were the words of a colleague when he came to my office some weeks back. “Give me some elements for what innovation for SDC should mean and link up with our practice and experiences with innovations” was what he asked us to provide him. Is he looking for the ultimate solution to a better world? Or for the golden eggs SDC should promote? “The statement should be programmatic, if possible told as a story and be at least as far-looking as what the cutting edge technology research in Lausanne or Zurich does!” Magics were expected from us! We immediately wrote to some of our mates asking them what being innovative as an agency would mean to them. What follows has emerged from this exchange.

 After some googling I found a quotation from the famous author and film director Woody Allen:  “The real innovator (only) comes out once you’ve screwed something up.”  (translated from “Wirklich innovative ist man nur dann, wenn einmal etwas daneben gegangen ist.“). Failure is the door to learning. Learning and innovation are the two sides of the same coin. Learning means integrating innovative, better insights, more appropriate solutions into one’s own world view or practice. For the organization, learning means adapting practice, processes or organization itself to what its staff learnt. Innovations are the essence of learning and adapting to “a changing world”.

Innovations are not just new things; they might even be “old coffee” to some. Innovations are things that make sense. They contribute to solving an urgently felt problem or improve a particular aspect of one’s own livelihood. New technologies are not necessary innovative if they do not make sense. Communicating via mobile phones in rural Africa is technically not more advanced than internet communication. Mobile communication is innovative because it provides services in a form accessible to the people.

Innovation is “opportunistic” in nature, it cannot be planned. Innovation happens every day, there, where people put their heads together in order to develop innovations from creative ideas. Innovation follows opportunities. Innovation requires courage to do the immeasurable we know that at the end it is what has an effect. And: Innovation requires the space and time to do so.

In the mid 1850ies the Gotthard railway crossing the Alps was planned. Originally, the engineers planned for 84 setting-back tracks (german: “Spitzkehren”) where the whole train would change its direction. It is thanks to the far-sighted engineer Louis Favre that even today, the trains run with a minimum speed of 80 km per hour through a small number of full-circle and half-circle tunnels (german: “Kehrtunnels”). Innovation needs ownership, leadership and institutions that know how to transform a particular need into a demand for a more appropriate railway line design in this case.

Responding to our colleague, innovation in the development business refers (1) to participate in innovations for poverty alleviation and sustainable development in the partner regions and (2) to intervene, to contribute and to participate in the social change processes in the partner countries in innovative ways.

  • For (1) I’d like to refer to what Amartya Sen postulates in order to achieve sustainable development: Developing and enhancing the freedom of human beings. SDC participates in developing a culture of research, education and training, including learning and reflecting; in building institutions that enhance taking (financial, social, political) risks; in promoting peer review and public accountability. Within such societal innovations, interventions need to respond to often unpredictable developments. Adrian Gnägi has talked in his latest blog posts about programme steering in such complex and “volatile” situations.
  • For (2) I refer to the role of SDC as facilitator, convener or even knowledge broker. SDC opens up access to expertise and builds bridges between experts, politicians and practitioners of development, this in order to enhance (societal) innovations in the partner regions. Assuming such a role, SDC is itself innovative. As an organization SDC knows its “creative heads”, provides room in order to allow ideas to develop into innovations, supports such “innovation and creativity cells” (could be titled: R&D) and challenges them in a competitive setting. It fosters a culture of curiosity and creativity, provides space for innovation in business processes and allocates funding for such innovations. SDC stimulates and builds partnerships and alliances with partners from different origins, civil society organizations, government institutions, public sector enterprises, private sector enterprises and provides platforms for collaboration and learning. SDC invests in new methods such as crowdsourcing open innovation (links below) and the like.

The SDC story is marked by innovations both in terms of participating in social innovations in partner regions and in terms of SDC’s own practices. Let SDC further develop its innovative capacities and competence and talk about it.

Some further readings
IFAD Innovation Strategy 2007
Minsch J., Heim Th., Kläy A. Innovation, eine Tochter der Freiheit. Mitteilungen der SAGUF. GAIA 20/1 (2011): 61-63

Links: Open Innovation
ATIZO (Switzerland)

Links: Crowd Sourcing


Comments to“Innovation – the essence of learning in a changing world”

  1. You might be interested in the 2009 ALNAP study on innovation in humanitarian responses – which builds on the learning approach.

    It suggests that innovation can be framed as one opf the ‘learning loops’ and uses a model of innovation to explore different case studies.

    This study led directly to the creation of the first Humanitarian Innovation Fund (


  2. I would like to add a thought about “the old coffee” and “the radically new” by the philosopher Henri Bergson:

    “A new idea may be clear because it presents to us, simply arranged in a new order, elementary ideas which we already possessed. Our intelligence, finding only the old in the new, feels itself on familiar ground; it is at ease; it “understands”. […] There is another kind that we submit to, and which, moreover, imposes itself only with time. It is the clarity of the radically new and absolutely simple idea, which catches as it were an intuition. As we cannot reconstruct it with pre-existing elements, since it has no elements […].”

    Henri Bergson, 2007: “The creative mind – an introduction to metaphysics”, p. 23. Dover Publications, Mineola/NY


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