BLOG | Spiralling into progress

Innovation in a modern world


This blog is the second in a seasonal series on VIA Water’s experiences in the development sector

The introduction of colour TV did not happen overnight. In fact, its development took several decades. Even when the technology was finally available, it took more than 20 years to convince the majority of the public. In comparison, Facebook attracted 500 million users in its first six years of existence. It started out as a simple online university almanac, and expanded greatly from there.

Companies and organisations no longer have the luxury to develop an innovation project for years without connecting to their customers or potential partners. Innovations need to be developed with continuous feedback loops, in cooperation with several partners and above all: with the user in mind. This does mean that the initial stages of innovation need a lot of attention. In development work, this also means we cannot expect potential entrepreneurs to show up with a viable business idea at once. The evolution of these ideas – even before they are a product - is a large part of the process, and deserves to be supported as well.

10 steps for innovation development
In our Spring Blog* we indicated that innovations thrive in a flexible and creative environment without too many restrictions. This is especially true when generating new ideas. Once the idea has been ‘found’ though, it  can develop more easily into a proven concept through a more systematic approach.

Gijs van Wulfen, an internationally renowned innovation expert, discusses 10 consecutive steps for innovation development. He starts with an idea at step 1, going through the steps to arrive at experimenting/piloting in step 9 (step 10 is defining a new  business model). VIA Water has chosen to support innovations that are at the pilot stage, which is step 9 in Van Wulfen’s approach. Following Van Wulfens’ approach, step 2-8 must have been made at an earlier point. Where then can we place these first steps before a contract with VIA Water is signed?

This gap might be explained by our long application process (250 days on average). Most applicants had to make a frog leap from ‘just’ having an idea (step 1), to actually experiment with the idea (step 9) when applying to VIA Water.  Through our support and feedback, the project owners filled in the missing steps: together we defined their focus, checked their fit and drafted their business model or long-term goals. In many development funding schemes, the experimental/piloting phase VIA Water works on is actually considered early stage funding. In our experience however, all of Van Wulfen’s 10 steps are necessary for the successful development of ideas: starting support at step 9 or later leaves out an enormous potential pool of innovative ideas.

Adapting as you go along
There are more dynamics however to the process of developing an idea. Although Van Wulfen’s 10 steps seem to suggest a rather linear process, we believe the process of innovation requires several feedback loops. The innovator needs to check repeatedly whether the solution is still responding to the original goal or to the demand from clients. Perceptions and opinions need to be tested in reality. Real-life experience, designing solutions collaboratively with others as well as having a testing panel are all crucial to success. Another option is to create a hypothetical ‘model consumer’ to put yourself in the shoes of your consumer and visualize their behaviour.

He or she also needs to keep an eye out for possible missed opportunities. In the innovative VIA Water black soldier fly-based toilet project in Mozambique for example, the innovators realised that it would take much longer than expected to develop a good toilet pit that could host both the fly and the larvae. Meanwhile, they designed an attractive and affordable toilet bowl, which is responding to high demand. By developing a viable business through the toilet bowl design, the project is gaining time to improve the toilet pit design. 

Earlier introduction
Modern innovators also need to take into account that unlike former industrial innovations, nowadays innovations are often driven by start-ups and are introduced into the market much faster. This means your processes cannot be too slow if you are to successfully compete in the innovation market.

To combat this, innovators have to accept intermediate results or a Minimum Viable Product. In the smart phone industry for instance, many new models are introduced before the software is fully developed. Most consumers accept this, and while in use, products and services can continuously be improved. VIA Water’s PULA Faecal sludge management App in Mozambique uses this model: their app has not been fully developed yet, but has been put into use nonetheless. It does mean the project needs to put more effort in managing client expectations.

Another aspect of the current innovation process is that many innovations are not developed by a single organisation, but in coalitions of specialised partners. In VIA Water there are many international and cross-cultural partnerships, providing an interesting dimension to co-operation: there are differences in preferred ways of communication (face-to-face or digitally), in openness about failures and difficulties, and in the importance that is placed on building relationships with partners versus expecting quick results.

It is important to define in advance the purpose of the coalition, its leadership and everyone’s expectations and contributions. Both during the development of the innovation, and during the later implementation and possible success. Working in partnerships requires a certain methodology and know-how. Understanding how to work in Public-Private partnerships (PPP) has been well-studied by the PPP-Lab.

Innovation: spiralling into progress
Innovation is never a linear, straightforward job. It requires continuous rethinking, redesign and sometimes starting all over again. You need to work with partners and your future customers to help you develop the best possible product. And sometimes, you do all that while already being in the market.

 This process requires an enormous amount of courage and determination, and sometimes outside support. In the development sector, we often expect a project owner to come up with the end product of this entire process all by him or herself. At VIA Water, we believe the first 9 steps of the innovation process deserve – need! – support as well.