Three things I learned from building a humanitarian innovation community

Three things I learned from building a humanitarian innovation community

What’s the first thing that comes to mind if I ask you what innovators need to test and scale their ideas?

Now what happens if I ask you to answer that question again, but this time you’re not allowed to answer ‘money’?

As a Community Manager that’s been working with Humanitarian Grand Challenge: Creating Hope in Conflict (CHIC) for the past three years, when I ask myself this question, I immediately think of people like Suzana and Sash.

As an Associate Professor at The State University of New York based in South Korea, Suzana received funding from CHIC to test 3D-printed customisable ‘shoes’ for crutches and canes. The use of these shoes aims to make walking with crutches on the uneven grounds often found in refugee camp settings easier for those with disabilities. But, with the onset of the pandemic, Suzana and her colleagues weren’t able to travel to one of the camps for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh where the shoes were supposed to be made and tested. 

To overcome this challenge, the project hired local engineer Prithwiraj Nandy, and when Suzana raised their challenges with the CHIC Community, another funded innovator, Field Ready, was able to step in and help. Field Ready had experienced success with their 3D printing, which included the likes of basin taps, foot-operated taps and ramps into latrines that were also used in refugee camps. Field Ready printed one set of shoes for SUNY's project, and advised Prithwiraj on further 3D printing, enabling the project to move forward.

Sash is the co-founder of Surgibox; an organisation which has created an ultraportable, sterile operating field that fits in a backpack: the SurgiField. It’s a very novel innovation, so in order to pass usability tests the device needed to be used and validated by 30 surgeons and, as Sash says, “Finding 30 surgeons is quite a task!” 

Thankfully Sash was able to reach out to the CHIC community and that led to him connecting with Nahreen Ahmed, a Pulmonary and Critical Care Specialist and Medical Director of MedGlobal, a non-profit which works with local orgs in crisis and conflict zones towards reducing health inequities, based in Philadelphia. Sash says that the best moment was when Nahreen told him that she was willing to help. “She immediately sent emails to like five surgeons, and then in a week's time, we actually got commitments from surgeons to use this. I thought ‘Wow, this is beautiful’.”

Nahreen (right) tests the Surgifield with Debbie (left) from the Surgibox team. Photocredit: Atif Rakin, CTO at Surgibox

In early 2022, Sashi’s team travelled to Philadelphia to conduct the tests with surgeons at Nahreen’s hospital. Thanks to her introductions, Sashi finished the usability tests they needed to be able to certify the product, obtain a CE mark and start surgeries on patients. Sash and Nahreen went on collaborating, and MedGlobal ultimately deployed the Surgifield in Ukraine and through multiple deployments where their volunteers were providing trauma surgical skills training in Kyiv.

It’s these kinds of people and these sorts of experiences that have shown me that, if you want to truly support innovation and innovators, then you must invest in creating a genuine community; once capable of providing invaluable advice, guidance and connections and that can ultimately enable its members to overcome challenges and reach individual and systemic impact quicker.

Three insights from three years of building a humanitarian innovation community

It’s a sad truth that many innovation, development and humanitarian funds do not provide  support for projects beyond funding. CHIC is different in this respect, as the team there knows that the support needed to help innovators operating in conflict zones requires much more than just a financial element.

Brink worked with CHIC between 2019 and earlier this year to build an innovator community; bringing together peers, workshops, connections and tailored content to ensure innovators can explore and learn more, get practical support and connections and, ultimately, for their work to thrive.

Over the last four years I’ve learned a lot about what it means to create environments that drive value for innovators (and ultimately the people they are in service of); but for the purposes of this article I’ve boiled it down to four key takeaways which I’ve supplemented with some real world examples of the kinds of initiatives that we have employed with the teams at CHIC. 

1. Make it personal and flexible: Because success means different things to different innovators

CHIC works with projects at various stages of their development. Some might be at the seed stage, trialling ideas or concepts that still need to be tested in the real world; while others might be transitioning a project to scale. One team might be attempting to bring a proof of concept to life in a laboratory on the other side of the world to the conflict zone where it will eventually be deployed; another might be launching an existing technology into an environment where it has never been applied before.

Whatever their immediate aims, the team will need an almost bespoke level of support to be wrapped around their grant funding in order to ensure that the maximum value and impact can be achieved.

But, as well as being personalised, this support also has to be able to adapt to innovators in a variety of environments; from a busy office life with tight deadlines to those travelling in conflict affected areas with frequent power outages and a limited internet connection.

When innovation teams are largely operating in fragile environments affected by conflicts, things are far from static. Indeed, situations are constantly evolving and shifting, which requires the innovators to adapt and iterate along with them. Developing a reactive layer of support for these types of unpredictable, fast-moving environments becomes even more challenging when you realise that the scope of support required is incredibly broad. While one project might need help with communicating their idea, another might need support with shipping and logistics, and another might want to understand a new suction technology.

In this kind of situation there is no handy, generic FAQ that you can turn to! Instead the platforms we create need to be capable of meeting this huge range of needs quickly, with confidence, and with a tailored response.

Some of the ways we’ve achieved this at CHIC:
💡 Offering tailored and specific community sessions by
- Geography (eg working in Yemen; working in the Democratic Republic of Congo)
- Theme (eg mis- and dis- information; monitoring and evaluation)
- Big picture topics (eg localisation; the emotional impact of working in humanitarian crises)
💡 Providing 1-1 problem solving support by matchmaking innovators with other contacts.
💡 Supporting new collaborations between innovators by brokering and supporting connections.

HGC-funded innovators and others from the humanitarian ecosystem gather in Gaziantep, Turkey, to learn about each others' work facilitated by Musab Alsayd, pictured third from right. Photo credit: Musab Alsayd

2. Be here now: Because there is no substitute for real life

The very first cohort of innovators who joined the programme in 2019 faced even more difficult and unpredictable circumstances than anyone could have imagined, due to the emergence of Covid-19.

The team adapted quickly to the virtual-first environment by creating a support service that could be accessed by innovators in different time zones, with different needs and with different internet connectivity. The experience really drove home the immeasurable value of being together in a physical space.

Zoom calls require a lot of facilitation to be genuinely useful, but in physical spaces people are free to move around, overhear the conversation at the next table and to bump into people who might have similar aims or interests in the queue for coffee. When these serendipitous moments occur, we find that innovators naturally start to collectively create and use the group dynamic to meet their own needs. This has the added advantage of benefiting innovators’ sense of autonomy, not to mention their mental health, and allows for meeting spaces to be decolonised, creating the kind of psychological safety that fosters the best work. We saw the results of these in-person connections when three innovation teams who met in 2019 partnered to transform humanitarian aid in the wake of the pandemic.

We have retained some of the benefits of the virtual-first mindset we had to take during the pandemic, for example, the ability to quickly connect otherwise disparate experts and create much more of a global conversation. But we’ve also been sure to recapture those ‘real world’ benefits that only come when people gather in the same location and can inspire and spark off one another.

Some of the ways we’ve achieved this at CHIC:
💡 Enabled in-person connections between innovators. Innovators often refer to these experience and resulting partnerships as pivotal moments of the programme.
💡 Created opportunities for innovators to use the community to facilitate sessions that meet their own needs. When innovators noticed that conversations about working in certain geographies often included people not residing or working there, demand arose for specific geographical sessions. So, Musab Alsayd of WATAN facilitated sessions for the humanitarian innovation ecosystem in Gaziantep, Turkey, and Humam Dawood of the White Helmets ran a session in Sarmada, Syria, enabling frontline workers to directly engage with each others' innovation and discuss an ecosystem approach.

3. Tell stories: Because these stories need to be heard 

When you’re deep in the day-to-day of a program like Humanitarian Grand Challenge, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the incredible ambition and inspiring personalities that you are surrounded by. But if you take a moment to step back and take in the human stories that drive these technological innovations, it’s not hard to see that there is an extremely powerful set of narratives at your disposal.

Once you begin collecting and curating these stories you will find that people not only want to have their stories told, but that there are collective benefits of hearing them. After we focussed an entire year of newsletter communications to the CHIC community on stories and connections, without asking innovators to take an action, we started to see innovators use this platform to share their own stories and actions with us, unprompted. At the end of three newsletters containing collaboration stories like those we shared at the start of this blog, I asked innovators: Is there something you want to discuss with other innovators funded by CHIC? Reply to this email with your ideas and I can help bring them to reality.

In response we heard needs, updates and appreciations: 

"Thanks in millions for sharing with me a very interesting work. As usual, you are very active in making innovation with CHIC."

Once innovators had shared their needs; for connections in South Sudan, and with clean lighting organisations outside Kenya, and their celebrations of completing a solar project, we were able to support innovators with responses to these needs, and celebrate their successes wider than the community.

Some of the ways we’ve achieved this at CHIC:
💡 Shared insights from innovator events both through the innovator community and more broadly, including through the CHIC blog.
💡 Introduced a human element to the CHIC portfolio through the "meet the innovator" series.
💡 Modelled community collaboration to the innovators through sharing real world stories, as outlined via our community newsletters.

We know that communities are not copy paste, and these learnings are specific to the context of this programme, and the unique membership of the group. I have found the essence to be transferable to other communities I have since facilitated and I hope that there's something for you to take away here too, for your communities, groups or networks.

If you are reading this and are seeing elements that resonate, things you want to try, or have ideas to add, I'd love to hear from you. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

Interested in this topic, want to know more, or have some thoughts? Drop us a line at [email protected] and let's chat!