Field notes from COP26  —  how to fund ‘Innovation for All’

Climate change is already here and for some of us that reality is more stark than others. COP26 has increased the volume on climate justice over the last few weeks. For the more hopeful amongst us, it seems that those in power will finally be taking action on the tangible ways to right the wrongs of how more prosperous nations have lived well at the expense of others. A key way to do this is through investment and global partnerships that reach those in lower-resource settings.

If you’re not motivated by the ethical question of justice, let’s switch gears and examine the opportunities of making these global investments. The places worst affected by climate change are often poorly equipped for solutions thanks to poor infrastructure. Working in these low resourced settings presents an opportunity to leapfrog the out-dated systems that dominate the developed world. With infrastructure comes incumbency. Just like rural African communities were banking on their mobiles before Europe, when it comes to climate innovation, there are opportunities to harness 5G networks, build new systems around renewable energy and network the collective brilliance of small-scale projects.

A day after the UK government announced investment in this space, I had the distinct pleasure of joining a panel, hosted by InnovateUK, to talk about the role of UK taxpayers money in ‘Innovation for All’. These are the headlines of my contribution to the panel’s discussion on what good looks like when it comes to making these investments and setting up funds.


Be clear on what you’re funding, at which stage and to what end

Announcements coming out of Number 10 during COP for additional funding on climate efforts are well received. But money alone isn’t going to make the progress required. Public funds alone don’t have what it takes to shift or make whole sectors. Investment vehicles like grant funds need to be designed with clarity about how they interact with other types of finance, services and support. To do that, we need to answer a fundamental question: what is government grant funding is uniquely good for?

While private finance invests in innovation with proven returns, I believe it is the role of government to prioritise the global good on behalf of its citizens and invest in…

  1. Riskier, unproved innovation de-risking it for private sector finance down the line
  2. Great teams who have reached the innovation stage called the ‘Valley of Death’. This nickname exists for good reason. Innovation projects at this stage are too established to be considered novel or new but not funded enough to scale. Public money used to bridge this valley to other forms of finance is a value-add

Blend the money you’ll invest with money-can’t-buy investment… and actually deliver it

Every innovation team I’ve met has told me they need funding — and they do. On the ground though, the thing I see becoming more valuable is the money-can’t-buy support that can create a real step change for teams. This money-can’t-buy investment includes things like providing routes to market, brokering partnerships with NGOs and local organisations on the ground, creating awareness for ventures and putting them on a stage, embedding academic talent to vouch for the rigour of their impact and acting as their coach, critical friend and champion all round. The Brink team calls this role a ‘dedicated hustler’ for ventures, which sums it up quite nicely.

There are also a great many funds who promise this kind of value-add and while it makes their website look pretty, in reality they don’t actually deliver on any of it. Don’t be that outfit.

Remember you’re nothing without people on the ground

You plainly cannot make a venture work in Africa — and I don’t care how well funded you are — without deep and meaningful connections to local people, not as subjects of your work, but as partners, collaborators and guides to your work.

If you want to ‘scale tech’ as a veneer of something meaningful then go ahead, buy it cheap, pile it high and publish neat vanity metrics on how well you’ve done. If you want to build something that sustains and makes an impact that endures, you have to get to work with the people in the place.

You’ll need to think about who’s going to fix things when they break, who’s going to pay for stuff, and where resources and materials will come from. What are the distribution channels to make sure customers are reached? How will you make sure they know about you in the first place?

All of this demands a rich understanding of place and people. Partner with people, give them a seat at the big table, listen (genuinely) to their insights, change your plans based on what you learn, build service and business models that depend on local people. Defer to and depend on those with lived, contextual experience.

Check your bias and your privilege. If someone in Freetown wanted to invest in an idea to make a difference in New York, for instance, what would you recommend they do to get their heads around the reality of the city and its people?

The real innovation is invisible

In the United States, at the start of the industrial revolution it took the creation of the limited liability company for people to actually start building rail tracks. Until that point there was too much risk and disincentive involved in creating something that would penalise an individual if there was an accident. It was too risky. Now we need to ask what new incentives, structures and invisible innovation will help those who are talented and willing to try new and better things.

Today there is much attention placed on technology for change, inventions and so on, but where the magic really lies (I believe) is in the business model or the governance frameworks that make doing hard things possible. It’s not as sexy as new fangled tech that you might parade or showcase, but it’s the invisible that makes the rest possible. Like the limited liability back then, today company subscription business models or even the (typically prohibitive) procurement, monitoring and evaluation process designed for agility could be where the real step-change is made.

For the British government, funders and those involved in designing grants a good start is to evaluate ideas and support work that doesn’t assume fixed milestones or results — simply doesn’t chime with the real work of innovation. Instead we need grants that are innovative in themselves, allowing for pivots, budget flexibility etc.


Why am I talking about this?

Brink is an innovation practice that believes the art and science of scaling great ideas is part of how we can make a positive dent in the world. We’re lucky enough to design and run funds that now support a total portfolio of 160 talented teams across Africa, South Asia and the Middle East.

A large chunk of our climate related work is done through a pioneering FCDO-funded programme called Frontier Technologies Livestreaming. The fund was set up to support FCDO staff to apply frontier technologies to the biggest challenges in development, including climate.

The fund has supported a range of work in the climate space: new kinds of business models between off grid solar and electric motorbikes with PowerHive in Kenya and electric motorbikes with the talented team at Ampersand in Rwanda. Our most recent cohort includes the use of sensors to manage wildfires in Pakistan, using satellite imagery to support farmers in Uganda to access carbon credits for growing trees. There’s a great spread of technology and the invisible innovation that we know makes things work.

I’d like to close by thanking all of those who I’ve learned from over the years. The team of Brinksters who I’m lucky to learn from every day. My colleagues at FCDO David Woolnough, Steven Hunt and Magda Banasiak — without whom I would not be thinking about or doing any of this work. Long time co-conspirators like Tamara Giltsoff, who is always bringing a fresh perspective and new ambition into the mix. Friends who have held me to account for doing more and better work like Leni Wild and Ann Mei Chang. These recommendations have your fingerprints all over them.

If you’ve read to the end, what do you think? What have I missed? I’d love to hear from you.