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By Dave Prescott, Senior Associate 

Wednesday 18th July saw Lecture Theatre 4 of the Saïd Business School in Oxford packed to bursting with a highly energetic session focused on partnerships and innovation. Part of the Partnership Zone, curated by TPI and Ethicore, at the Business Fights Poverty Annual Event, the session gave a high-speed overview of innovation in partnerships; highlighted the work of six creative partnerships; and even inspired in real time a plethora of new collaborative ideas from the people in the room.

As introduced by session moderator, TPI Executive Director, Darian Stibbe, innovation is back in vogue. While everyone appears to want innovation, innovation is generally not well defined, incentivised or properly supported within organisations. The examples throughout the session demonstrated how partnerships can both be drivers of innovation, and themselves be innovative.

The multiple forms of innovation uncovered include new business models, products and services; new internal practices; new technologies; and the application of known solutions or resources into novel new areas.

Multiple examples of all these kinds came from both panellists and participants, including Project Hero, a collaboration between Jaguar Land Rover and the Red Cross which now involves the development of drones able to land on moving vehicles, a powerful asset in remote humanitarian situations.

Several partnerships revealed that innovation often happens when an existing problem or situation is viewed from an outside perspective (and of course partnerships with diverse partners are ideal for this). When an airport, for example, is viewed as ‘a shopping mall with a runway attached’ (one of the insights mentioned by the Innovation Gateway) a whole different set of perspectives and learnings from the sustainability experiences of shopping malls can be applied.

One of the keys for success for innovative approaches is being user- and problem-centric. In the context of partnership, this means that, rather than viewing a situation through existing organisational lenses, it is important to develop a clear shared understanding of the problem to be solved, and of the intended user group. The Water Explorer partnership, which brings together Global Action Plan and HSBC, is an education programme designed to empower students to act on water challenges. While global, each implementation was fully re-designed around the specific context of the intended users, the school children.

And once innovation has been identified, a whole range of other factors come into play in order to make it happen, include the drive and tenacity of committed individuals and champions, as well as senior-level support. For example, World Vision presented an innovative, free, 24-hour child helpline in Mongolia which they had developed in partnership with the government and Mobicom, a large mobile operator. It was noted that the partnership would not have happened without the ongoing support of the country’s president.

By definition, innovation involves doing things differently and it therefore entails greater risk. In situations where there is a lack of tolerance for risk, or where there is no permission to fail, innovation is usually stifled. This reinforces the need for senior-level buy-in, including within organisations. In the case of the Growing Together partnership between Syngenta and VSO, the company undertook one the most effective possible routes to engendering buy-in from senior managers: sending them to live with the smallholder farmers that were involved in the partnership.

Many of the examples presented involved large companies, NGOs and government partners. A significant level of resource may be required in order to support learning and iteration, though a recent Acumen report identified that it can be possible for companies to partner with smaller entities such as social enterprises. In fact, innovative partnerships can themselves yield social enterprises. For example, the work of Growing Together has led to the creation of Joikko, the first social franchise for farmers in northwest Bangladesh.

Another example came from primary healthcare, where GSK, Barclays and Care International have partnered on Live Well. This partnership involves providing the goods and training volunteer health workers in Zambia to sell products such as solar lighting and healthcare products resulting in improved health and creating a small profit for themselves in the process. GSK notes that this social enterprise approach (different from the company’s traditional donation model) has also created some changes within the parent company, with colleagues taking a different view of the company’s role – more as a genuine partner rather than a donor, and one with the patience to support innovations across the relatively long timescale required to make them happen.

The Enhancing Livelihoods Fund (ELF) highlights another element of innovation. This model follows the example of the iPhone – widely seen as a highly innovative product, but which in fact simply brought together in one place a number of features that already existed in separate places. ELF brings together Oxfam, Unilever and the Ford Foundation, not only providing finance from Ford to smallholders in the supply chain of Unilever’s tier one suppliers, but also technical assistance from Oxfam to ensure a gender empowerment lens is applied through the supported programmes.

It became clear from the highly interactive discussions that in order to encourage innovation and learning, partnership managers must be given the space and tolerance to invest time and resources, make the necessary mistakes, learn and improve. This iterative process means ongoing adaptation, steered by regular reviews and partnership health checks, covering not only what the partnership is delivering, but also how effectively the partners are working together. World Vision deployed a partnership health check in one of its partnerships in South Africa, including an analysis to assess the power dynamics between partners – leading to a number of course corrections as a result.

The power of partnership to deliver innovation was demonstrated in a highly practical way during the session. Audience members were asked to pair up randomly, with one person stating their biggest problem and the other thinking through how to apply their own approach or resources to solving that problem (a technique introduced as ‘lateral application’) – however diverse or seemingly unconnected those resources might initially appear to be. Even in this highly non-scientific exercise, a series of highly creative ideas were generated, ranging from a pro-gender media campaign in a highly conservative British news outlet through to the development of environmentally sustainable agribusiness projects in refugee areas.

If two strangers are able to innovate together with a chance six-minute encounter at a conference, are there more systematic approaches we can take to catalyse innovation? The Innovation Gateway mentioned earlier provides precisely a mechanism to do this. The Gateway partners are diverse, large organisations ranging from local authorities to airports, working together to ‘transform the performance of buildings with high-impact innovation’. The Gateway applies a highly structured approach through dedicated tools and methodologies to specifically cultivate innovations that are now saving companies hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

Partnerships, by their very nature, force us to work in different ways. If done well, partnerships, particularly across diverse organisations, can be hugely fertile incubators of innovation. And given the urgency of the problems facing the world today, we need all the new solutions we can find.


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