At USAID, the U.S. Global Development Lab is the seat of innovation. The Lab grew out of initiatives to re-position USAID to meet the 21st century challenges for development. In 2010, the USAID Office of Innovation and Development Alliances and the Office of Science and Technology were established with the goals of sourcing new development solutions, encouraging scientific inquiry, and creating a culture driven by entrepreneurial ingenuity. In April 2014, the two offices evolved into the Global Development Lab. (Source: U.S. Global Development Lab, " 2015 The Lab Year in Review: Accelerating Development through Science, Technology, Innovation, and Partnership." 2015).

The Lab's mission – to accelerate development impact – is channeled through two primary avenues:

  1. Produce breakthrough innovations. Using open and directed innovation methods, source new solutions, evaluate them, and scale those with proven impact.
  2. Transform the development community. Open up development work to anyone with good ideas, create new and sustaining existing partnerships, apply data and evidence to decision-making, and harness advances in science and technology.

The Global Development Lab seeds innovation across USAID through a three-stage process:

  1. Source new ideas, tools, or approaches that could be innovative; test as many as possible, as quickly as possible, to identify which ideas have promise. Failure is common and expected.
  2. Identify early stage successes; work with the rest of AID to apply insights to the agency's most pressing problems, and embed elements within existing programs.
  3. Continue to gather evidence of impact. Idea iteration and refinement continues, and eventually the successful and validated concepts are mainstreamed into standard best practices

Discussions of "innovation" often emphasize disruption and newness. The Lab's approach underscores the entire life cycle, with particular on ensuring that impactful innovations are actually integrated into the rest of USAID. "What we're trying to do at the Lab," explains Executive Director and Chief Innovation Officer Ann Mei Chang, "[…] is really look at how do we change the culture of the agency, the systems, the incentives and the mechanisms – so that we can be more agile, and open, and adoptive and data driven, with the result being more cost-effective and sustainable solutions." [Source for all Chang quotes: 7/9/16 interview]

Tools and Approaches

The Lab organizes its work across four priority areas; Science, technology, innovation, and partnership (STIP). The Lab enables the work of the rest of USAID by providing numerous toolkits, trainings, guidance, staff support, and communities of practices to help introduce and diffuse innovative tools across the Agency.

Within the Lab and across USAID, innovative initiatives include:

Key Insights

  • Understanding innovation is the instrument for greater mission impact
  • Investing in partnerships amplifies reach
  • Building momentum for adoption relies on evidence of success
  • Leading with strategic vision sets the tone for transformation

Innovation is the instrument for greater mission impact

"Often, we [incorrectly] think of innovation as the thing we're trying to do," explains Chang. But the right way to understand innovation is as an instrument for achieving greater impact. It's about finding more effective approaches, better ways of doing that return greater value for the dollar. The Lab understands innovation as a force multiplier for achieving mission-driven outcomes. "Innovation is the path and impact is the destination," Chang asserts.

Investment in new kinds of partnerships amplifies reach

Through open innovation and deep partnership engagement, USAID has sourced more than 10,000 ideas over the past few years to address some of humanity's greatest challenges – with more than 300 innovations in various stages of testing (Source: The White House, " A Strategy for American Innovation," 2015). USAID has built a rich expertise in building public-private partnerships in the past 15 years, but beyond their know-how for formalizing partnerships, the experience at AID is a story of a shift in mindset. The agency understands its role as one element of a multi stakeholder, sector-based coalition, and the Lab has further emphasized partnering with new, non-traditional partners. This engagement has required deep work on operational innovation and support from contracting officers: "[These] new non-traditional actors, they don't know us, and they don't know how to work with us," explains Seema Patel, Division Chief, Innovation Design and Advisory at the Lab, Old ways of working—like putting out a RFP—aren't the most effective ways of reaching new audiences. Guided by human-centered design principles, the Lab has thoughtfully assessed the positioning non-traditional partners engage with, and begun applying different methodologies (including broad agency announcements) to encourage open innovation co-creation. The new mindset has enabled "very different types of conversations with potential partners," encouraging stakeholders to team in a new way (7/19/16 interview).

Build momentum to drive system-wide adoption

Success breeds success. The Lab understands that to encourage agency-level change, their job is not to describe "how to do innovation." Their job is to provide the principles, space, and support systems to help their colleagues design and problem-solve solutions. "We start with one program to build momentum, then shine a big spotlight around 'What did we learn?', 'What was the evidence?,' 'What was the value proposition?' and we use a little bit of fanfare to get others to pick up on that approach," explains Seema Patel. [7/19/16 interview] Quick wins help to build momentum by creating a positive feedback loop; as the value of new approaches becomes self-evident, teams and sub-units become enthusiastic champions.

Leading with strategic vision sets the tone for transformation

The Lab is guided by a strategic vision for holistically engaging the entire development ecosystem. This understanding is integral to the process of agency-wide adoption and adaptation of innovative tools. Specific tools – like Grand Challenges [CROSSLINK to V3 AID case study] – act as a galvanizing force to bring partners together around the broader goal. Multiple types of innovative methodologies are deployed for the purpose of tackling different elements of the broader challenge. The intent is not just to source new supplies of innovation but catalyze collective impact.

Next Steps

The Lab has aggressive five-year goals for diffusion innovative approaches across the agency and for advancing progress in each priority focus area. Broadly, the target is for sixty of AID's operating units to fully integrate STIP as a framework in their strategic, programmatic, and organizational work. In addition:

  • Science: Increase agency investment in research 10 percent per year
  • Technology: Increase the use of digital tools and data analysis for decision-making
  • Innovation: Deploy ten innovative solutions widely, with direct impact on a million or more people.
  • Partnership: Continue leveraging PPPs for mission impact, with emphasis on ensuring that high-potential pilots supported by the Lab secure follow-on funding from partners.

Successful diffusion and mainstreaming innovation will critically depend on changing the incentives within the agency, Chang observes. It's not enough to developing great tools and knowledge support, or to create a permissive environment. Currently, incentives still revolve largely around compliance; "There's not an incentive either in the staffing reviews or in the bureau reviews to actually continually improve your impact or your cost effectiveness." There's no incentive to innovate in an environment where risk-taking isn't rewarded, or where the dominant expectation is to cyclically repeat last year's performance. To move beyond the enthusiasm of early adopters and champions and Mainstream innovative approaches, the organizational incentive structure must be re-organized to reward experimentation. Changing the default ways of working can be uncomfortable. Employees need to be rewarded for investing the time – and the risk – in trying something new.