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Innovation and development: What I learnt from going back to university

As the saying goes, you’re never too old to learn.  Something I was reminded of recently when listening to a debate on Innovation and Development, run by University College London’s Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy. Not only did I meet an enthusiastic and outspoken group of students, but I learnt a few things about working in the sector and in Save the Children: things that I’m really proud of, and a few things we can do better.

Being inspired by young voices

I was invited to help judge a debate on Innovation and Development. Master’s students were split into groups representing the public, private, educational and third sectors. Each debated that their sector was responsible for the biggest contribution to innovation in the development and emergency response fields. As I was listening to some really great arguments, I also realised that they were setting up competitions about who did the most and best, who felt really under-appreciated and who could come up with the coolest example of individual innovation.

As I laughed at the good-natured back and forth, I suddenly realised how often we do this in our sector too – letting our competitiveness or frustration blind us to opportunities for working better with others.  Like the debate, in the end it comes down to who works hardest together to identify and then to solve problems.  Who listens most carefully and who is most open to truly trying new things: not just the bright and shiny innovations, but also the big and small improvements to existing ways of working.

I learnt a huge amount and was reminded of things I sometimes struggle to make time for in my day to day.  That passion can be productive, that listening to the voices of young people tells you which direction you should go in, and that sometimes the best contribution you can make is to just shut up and let someone else get on with it!  All good reminders for me as an individual, and maybe reflective of some of the lessons for us as an organisation that our new strategy tries to address.

One of the other brilliant things about my afternoon at UCL was what it taught me about Save the Children.  Before the debate I emailed a few colleagues and asked what they thought our role was as an organisation in relation to innovation; what we did well; and what we need to do more of. I received more ideas and opinions than I could ever have imagined. We don’t realise just how innovative an organisation we are.

Save the Children as innovators

So many of the students I met want their future careers to make a difference to children and their families around the world.  I really hope that each student took away something inspiring from the examples of innovation in our work.  Some of my favourites were:

  • protecting children via collaborative Family Tracing and Reunification programmes – an innovation that we helped develop after the Rwandan genocide to reunite children with their families which is used in almost every emergency response today.
  • challenging existing ways of working to develop cash-based responses in emergencies – 15 years ago, imported food aid for distribution was the default response in emergencies. Save the Children (and others such as Oxfam) challenged this, piloted cash transfers and worked with think tanks such as the Overseas Development Institute to demonstrate the case for change to the likes of DFID and WFP. It took time, but cash is increasingly the default choice now.
  • Wonder Words – one of our UK programmes using behavioural science-based approaches support parents to improve children’s language development.
  • working with Save the Children Vietnam on advocacy-based programming supporting children and young people whose sexuality and gender identity leaves them vulnerable to living on the streets.
  • developing surprise soap – last year, Save the Children partnered with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and humanitarian manufacturing experts Field Ready for a pilot study in Iraq looking at how we can increase handwashing in emergency settings. Findings are incredibly promising and show that children are four times more likely to wash their hands using this fun, engaging and innovative new approach.
Surprise soap as part of save the children's WASH programme
Surprise soap – as part of Save the Children’s WASH programme

We do so much – from supporting others to innovate through direct development, to testing and refining ideas.  We help identify evidence gaps and problems through our global presence on the ground; we carry out operational research on innovative ideas from others; and we use our relative freedom and autonomy to innovate in our programmes and advocacy, building on what we know works to design interventions that can make huge change.

So I’m going to keep asking colleagues what they’re up to and keep getting out of the office whenever I can.  Then try to shut up and listen carefully…

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