Innovation is often in the eye of the beholder - what may be new and radical for one person, may be old news for another. Despite this subjectivity in identifying and classifying innovation, there has been useful work in thinking about the focus of different innovation processes, guided by the question: what is it that innovation processes seek to change and improve?
The ‘4Ps’ model developed by John Bessant and Joe Tidd provide a powerful tool for such analysis. It builds on the hypothesis that successful innovation is essentially about positive change, and puts forward four broad categories where such change can take place:
- 'Product innovation’ – changes in the things (products/services) which an organisation offers
- 'Process innovation’ – changes in the ways in which products and services are created or delivered
- 'Position innovation’ – changes in the context in which the products/services are framed and communicated
- 'Paradigm innovation’ – changes in the underlying mental models which shape what the organisation does
Perhaps the most commonly understood form of innovation is that which introduces or improves a product or service – a change in what is offered to end users. The Bic ballpoint pen is an example of a product innovation, which has also benefited from a range of incremental innovations since its original invention. The emblematic humanitarian product is food, which is the dominant form of assistance. Different forms of food aid might be seen as incremental innovations.
There may also be innovative products which help to achieve humanitarian goals. For example, the LifeStraw is a portable water filter developed by Vestergaard-Frandsen which enables individuals to drink clean water from almost any source. Another example is PlumpyNut, a therapeutic food which is both durable and can be dispensed outside of traditional medical settings.
Innovations can also focus on processes through which products are created or delivered. Because so many of the products used in relief settings are initially developed for non-relief contexts, a natural focus for humanitarian innovation is to consider how an existing product might be used in resource-poor or rapidly changing settings. Examples of process innovations that have had a positive effect on the humanitarian sector are the increasing stockpiling of goods in strategic locations, or the use of pre-made packs and kits.
The third focus of innovation involves re-positioning the perception of an established product or process in a specific context. Position-based innovations refer to changes in how a specific product or process is perceived symbolically and how they are used. For example, Levi-Strauss jeans are a well-established global product line, originally developed as manual workers’ clothing materials, but then re-branded as a fashion item.
In the humanitarian context, position innovations include changes in the signals that are disseminated about a humanitarian organisation and its work. This may relate to the way in which aid is marketed and packaged for potential donors. Alternatively, it may involve a repositioning of humanitarian assistance within a particular operational context or for particular users. An example of the former can be seen in attempts by humanitarian agencies in different complex emergencies to develop principle based cross-agency positions in relation to belligerent parties in complex emergencies which amount to a set of conditions under which humanitarian aid would be delivered, and a clear articulation of the situations where it would not. Agencies such as Disability International or HelpAge International are position innovators in that they call for the delivery of humanitarian products and services to groups that are often excluded.
The final ‘P’ relates to innovation that defines or redefines the dominant paradigms of an organisation or entire sector. Paradigm-based innovations relate to the mental models which shape what an organisation or business is about. Henry Ford provides a pithy quote, when talking about the development of the Model T motor car: ‘If I asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a five-legged horse’.
Examples of paradigm innovation in the international humanitarian sector include an increasing emphasis on local ownership and leadership of responses to crises as an alternative to internationally dominated responses. A greater and more central role for aid recipients is another example, and finally, perhaps the most radical innovation is the idea of disaster risk reduction approaches, which if successful can negate the need for any kind of response.
The development of community-based feeding therapy is one of the most recent examples of such innovations, with the combination of a product (PlumpyNut), a process (community-based distribution) , a re-positioning (the idea that aid agencies do not need to do the feeding themselves directly) and a paradigm shift (the notion that families and communities can treat malnutrition at home). Similarly, cash-based programming at its most radical involves a new product (cash), new processes (means of distributing cash), new position (a change in how aid is perceived by donors) and new paradigms (a change in how recipients are perceived by aid agencies).