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Let’s be boring. Using Digital Innovations Unlock Partnerships to Scale Impact

Ashley Thomas_SWF Blogger

Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.

1+1 MBA student and Skoll Scholar, pills Ashley Thomas gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar sessions focused on design and innovation.

As I assume is the norm for Skoll World Forum, I found myself struggling to decide between two parallel sessions. In my case they were, “Can Digital Innovation Unlock Partnerships to Scale Impact” and “Design for Action: Innovation Interventions.” The metaphor was not lost on me- in one room we have the designers talking about how to use design thinking to create solutions for complex problems and in the other room we have implementers using innovative systems to scale operations.

As a mechanical engineer, I entered international development with the perspective of design- looking for solutions to be engineered and silver-bullet products to be made. It took the experience of working on the ground, trying to scale those products to realize the clear need for context, and for an integrated systems approach, where a product is a single player in the overall design. This systems approach cannot happen if we have the implementers and the designers in different room.

While hopping between sessions, I heard the same conversation in both rooms. We need to have a systems approach to designing innovations and using those innovations to scale. How do we do that? We need to be boring and we need to be intentional.

We need to be boring. There’s a long history of social enterprises focusing on the cool app or in-vogue cause, but impact comes from unlocking how to do the boring things well. It is about creating systems, about driving institutions, and building supply chains. How it is about excellence in routine, and striving for ensuring operational effectiveness. It is through tackling the nitty-gritty details that once can design those systems for scale.

We need to be intentional.  Tim Brown said that “Design is being intentional about how you want to shape the world.” It is this long-term vision about shaping your piece of the world that’s critical. Tim’s vision doesn’t focus on the innovation, but the ecosystem around that innovation that allows practitioners like Andrew Youn from One Acre Fund to bring their projects to scale.

To truly unlock the partnerships that enable digital innovation to scale, we need to ensure we are thinking at an ecosystem level. WE need to get the designers and the practitioners in the same room, and have the system-level discussions together, intentionally, rather than in parallel. Much of this is not sexy- there is no shiny prototype, no cool digital platform. However, it is through achieving excellence in the mundane and tackling problems at a systems level that we can achieve impact at scale.

Follow Ashley: @aethomas