Student Research: The Future of the Innovation Lab Model in Cambodia and Beyond

by Katie Hallaran (MALD 2015)

The emergence of innovation labs in developing economies is an increasingly common phenomenon. We now see them across Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America with names like iHub, the Hive, Knowledge Lab, and Hatch. Governments are interested in harnessing the potential economic benefits associated with growing a technology sector, while private sector technology and telecommunications companies are seeing the value in creating local hubs for product development. Now, multi-lateral institutions are dedicating significant resources towards shaping these nascent sectors to produce social benefits.

Development Innovations Building in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Development Innovations Building in Cambodia

Multilateral support for these spaces is sprouting up with many big players launching labs and other technology focused initiatives. UNICEF, as one such institution, has launched an entire lab network on the premise that bringing a wide variety of stakeholders together to design and develop technology-enabled solutions to development challenges (ICT4D) will result in expedited positive change. The World Bank has similarly funded a series of labs called Mobile Application Labs (m:lab) and Mobile Social Networking Hubs (m:hubs) with the aim of fostering innovation in mobile technologies for development goals.

My research focused in on the future of these spaces – what of the sustainability and durability of the innovation lab model? If a multilateral is responsible for the launch of a lab, what entity should be accountable for its evolution and development? While the verdict on which model achieves the best outcomes is still out, I uncovered instructive trends and case studies to advance the knowledge base. I carried out research on lab sustainability alongside Development Innovations (DI), a joint USAID-DAI initiative aimed at empowering local CSOs to design and deploy ICT solutions. However, before I could recommend options for sustainable funding, I needed to analyze what the desired project outcomes were. Through my research I sought to map existing labs, identify lab features that deliver value, and determine which types of funding sources were prominent and effective.

The value of a lab like DI sits in its ability to facilitate powerful partnerships between civil society organizations and technology services providers. While civil society actors in Cambodia often have ideas about how they would use ICT to advance their missions, they lack both the technological dexterity to design, develop, and implement a tech solution, and the knowledge of local service providers that they could partner with. Similarly, technology service providers in Cambodia often overlook the local non-profit community as potential customers. Where DI aims to deliver value is in its role as a network facilitator, and a collaboration specialist. Keeping this specific role in mind, I tried to find comparative lab projects to draw parallels and discern lessons learned to inform my recommendations.

Finally, DI, as a USAID funded project, sought to achieve unique ICT4D indicators such as democracy, rights, and governance not typically pursued by innovation labs that seek out more popular outcomes in technology for agriculture and health. Since the mandate for DI was so particular, this made comparison across other labs a bit more challenging.

While in Cambodia, I met with technology and service provider experts as well as with civil society actors to understand their perspective on the value of an innovation space. These meetings helped me to understand whether Development Innovations was succeeding at delivering the value it set out to. If it proves successful, it will be easier for DI to solicit funding for a new model where it acts as a facilitator between funders and the local ICT4D scene.

In its current form, DI is a hefty project with several different components aimed at creating a culture of innovation in the development sector. These components include:

  1. A free-of-charge lab space for coworking
  2.  Events, workshops and seminars to promote various ICT4D tools and applications, and
  3. An ICT4D grant fund.

The assumptions behind these functionalities were slightly flawed. For example, the coworking space was meant to allow civil society organizations to work in a collaborative, peer-learning environment, but was used primarily by young aspiring techies. The events and workshops were meant to cater to civil society leadership by showcasing new and relevant technologies, but were attended by university students and the young, less experienced workforce. Finally, the grant fund was intended to encourage and financially enable civil society organizations to devote time and resources to developing technology-focused tools.

Digital Innovations (DI) Lab Brainstorm
Digital Innovations (DI) Lab Brainstorm

Because DI is required to juggle these aforementioned multiple initiatives, devoting enough time to any one program to ensure its success is almost impossible. The most successful initiatives for promoting a culture of innovation within development, I found through my research, were those that channeled funding towards a singular program or end goal. These often took the model of funding pools that were coordinated through multiple stakeholder partnerships.

SEATTI, or the Southeast Asia Transparency and Technology Initiative, a joint project initiated in 2013 by Omidyar Network and Hivos, has the the mission of encouraging the use of new and existing ICT tools for transferring public information among citizens and organizations to promote transparency and accountability. The SEATTI model is instructive as a potential way forward using a decentralized model where smaller organizations can benefit from a larger, locally managed pool of funding.

Asian Community Ventures (ACV) and the Rockefeller Foundation partnered in 2013 to establish the Impact Economy Innovation Fund (IEIF), a $400,000 grant fund to accelerate the use of market solutions to development challenges around East and Southeast Asia. The grant fund, which closed in 2014, supported four initiatives including Kopernik, an ICT4D focused organization operating out of Indonesia.

The IEIF initiative by Rockefeller is not limited to its partnership with ACV, and it undertook similar funds with local partners in other regions. With its aim of supporting local CSOs to use ICT through small grants, DI is in a unique position to attract funding from large funding bodies.

By establishing an independent fund, DI would be able to connect larger-scale donors with smaller, impactful projects in Cambodia. In the case of IEIF, the beneficiaries become the service providers while IEIF and its funders are the facilitators. DI should take note of how this kind of model would assist its current beneficiaries. For example, the organization World Education, with design assistance and a grant from DI, established a Technology for Education Systems Transformation (TEST) application. With the mobile TEST app, the organization is now able to help teachers to identify trends and use key classroom analytics to create teaching plans. The app also integrates directly with a larger Ministry of Education project that advances learning analytics for government-wide programming. Because of the success of the ICT4D initiative, World Education is in a position to provide technical and implementation guidance to organizations or public departments that would like to integrate similar platforms.

Instead of specializing in multiple and varied services as DI is currently doing, DI should specialize in connecting supply and demand, and creating a reinforcing and decentralized innovation system where civil society organizations become service providers.

In their Stanford Social Innovation Review article, The Ethics of Innovation, Chris Fabian and Robert Fabricant argue that a vast expanse separates technology from the field of international development; an inherent tension precludes the two from the necessary foundation required to collaborate. They put forth an ethical framework that they say will bridge this expanse built off of the nine operational principles set out by the UN. Though they have included four thoughtful concepts on how to think about innovation in development, I’m not convinced the framework is complete. Given my work in Cambodia, I feel as if a useful framework must also include a funder-targeted method for partnerships.

Katie Hallaran is a 2015 graduate of The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy

Katie Hallaran (right), along with Jessica Heinzelman and a winner of the Cambodian Innovation Award
Katie Hallaran (right), along with Jessica Heinzelman and a winner of a Cambodian Innovation Award

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