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Amphibious academics: making research matter

By Julian Cottee, Skoll Centre Research & Insights Programme Manager

Our previous blog looked at ‘Six Reasons Why Research Matters for Social Entrepreneurship’, ranging from gaining a deep understanding of problem and solution landscapes, to innovation, and a critical birds-eye view of the sector. The Skoll Centre has since been exploring research for social entrepreneurship through a series of seminars led by impact-focused early career researchers from across Oxford University. Each has discussed their own research experiences and drawn out lessons for better aligning research with the needs of the social innovators.

Evidence and impact

Evidence and impact evaluation are top of the list for many practitioners when asked how research can help their work. Anna Custers, a Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow, explored this topic in depth through her experiences with a number of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) assessing the impact of poverty reduction measures in the Global South. The RCT methodology, originally designed for evaluating the impact of medical interventions, is now becoming more widely used outside of clinical settings. Social scientists in a range of fields are adopting RCT approaches, and while many policymakers view them as a ‘gold standard’ for evidence of impact, they are not uncontroversial. RCTs are complex, lengthy and expensive to set up, and they can only be used to evaluate a narrow gamut of interventions. Their strength in demonstrating the counterfactual – what happens in groups not receiving the intervention – also raises significant ethical questions. If demonstrating impact through RCTs were to become a routine part of the funding and policymaking landscape for social entrepreneurship, the range of projects would be curtailed, the speed of implementation would be reduced, and additional research funding would be needed. Further discussions revolve around the question of how much evidence is ‘enough’ to demonstrate impact, and to what extent this differs depending on the scale of the initiative being assessed. An expensive RCT might be appropriate for a highly scalable ‘big bet’ intervention that can be widely replicated if impact can be robustly demonstrated, but many, if not most, projects are smaller and more locally specific.

Ideas around the role of research in evidence provision were further developed by Dr Jenny Tran, speaking about a recent Skoll Centre-funded research project that interviewed 31 policymakers, funders and practitioners in the field of social innovation in healthcare in low- and middle- income countries. The interviews probed attitudes and beliefs relating to evidence within these three groups. Among practitioners for instance, responses ranged from seeing research and evidence as an accountability mechanism – “Research is a tool of justice…how are we holding ourselves accountable to our patients?” – to something that just needs to be done to satisfy the expectations of funders – “We do what we have to do”. The funders interviewed also had mixed attitudes towards evidence, with some admitting candidly that gut feeling was as important as data in making funding decisions. Organisations spoke of a lack of time and expertise to collect good data on their impact. One theme that clearly emerged from the interviews was a lack of consensus on how to operationalise a model of data generation and use amongst all three groups that is of an appropriate scale in terms of the time and resources demanded, as well as being robust and rigorous. RCTs were rarely seen to be the answer. Tran’s paper recommends a number of future pathways for improving research in this space, including further elaboration of the concept of ‘lean research’ striking the balance between appropriate scale and rigour; better technical education; and changing the way evidence generation is funded. All of these are ripe for future exploration. In addition, there is little or no attention currently paid to how organisations measure negative impacts, or their incentives for doing so. This too is an area that deserves further study and the development of practical tools for the generation of objective impact measurement.

Research for Action Partnerships

Oxford University’s Smart Handpumps project

Oxford University’s Smart Handpumps project. Image credit: www.oxwater.uk

Two other seminars in the series focused on the role of research not in the generation of evidence, but in others kinds of knowledge creation, through embedded partnerships between academics and practitioners. Kate Roll, Senior Research Fellow at Saïd Business School, spoke on the Oxford-Mars Mutuality in Business project, a large multi-year research project exploring the idea of mutuality as an organising principle for business. The project is unusual in that it is carried out by an academic team in collaboration with the Mars in-house think-tank, Catalyst. The allure of the set-up is clear from the point of view of carrying out research guided by real-world priorities – there is potential for unique access to knowledge, skill and legitimacy on both sides – yet challenges are also many. In particular, spanning the research-practice boundary brings to the fore different perspectives on questions such as:

  • When is work finished? (medium-rare or well done)
  • With whom can we meet? (negotiating internal access)
  • What is a good output? (collaboration, consultancy, opportunism)
  • Who needs to be involved? (setting boundaries in joint research)

Drawing on the theory of organisational hybridity, Kate explains such collaborations as a case of striving to effectively bring together differing ‘institutional logics’: “as the degree of incompatibility between logics increases, hybrid organisations face heightened challenges” (Pache and Santos 2013). In order to realise the unique opportunities for insight and impact, researchers are obliged to adopt the character of the ‘amphibious academic’. Even if they might be happier in water, like the frog, they too can cope ably on land.

Successful examples of such collaborations are not numerous. They require connections, funding and abundant engagement and amphibious capability from all partners. Alex Fischer and Heloise Greeff, members of the Skoll Centre’s Research for Action Network, spoke about Oxford’s Smart Handpumps project, a long-running collaboration with NGOs and government. While the project began by exploring the causes and impacts of broken water pumps in rural Kenya, it has since transitioned to address how broken pumps can be fixed quickly and cost-effectively. The project is now driving technological and systems innovation to the point that it has led to the creation of a social enterprise that will service the handpumps sustainably into the future using the technical and institutional knowledge generated in earlier phases. Alex and Heloise described a ‘research-action spiral’ in which innovation and research have circled around each other in a productive dance. These impactful outcomes of the project could not have been anticipated at the beginning of the research process – a powerful argument for research led by problems and not just solutions. Often, following intuitions and blind alleys was just as important for the development of the impact of the project as any planned research pathway. This highlights the value of flexible funding and creative leadership in action-research projects. Universities are an important ingredient in this kind of innovation and research, as they provide safe spaces for the exploration of novel ideas that may not otherwise be pursued. The role of PhD students too is of significant value – unlike research assistants or employed post-doc researchers, PhD students follow their own research agendas within the wider project, generating new ideas and possibilities.

For more Research for Action from the Skoll Centre, sign up to our RfA Network Bulletin.

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From the United States to Oxford

Skoll Scholar, MBA and above all, Engineer, Ashley Thomas, shares her story, not of HOW she got to be at Oxford, but WHO.

As I sit in a 150-year-old book shop (very new by Oxford standards) listening to Duncan Green, Oxfam GB’s chief strategic advisor, discuss his book How Change Happens, I’m again struck by how lucky I am to have ended up here, at Oxford, and as Skoll Scholar. In thinking through how I have managed to arrive at this moment, my instinct is to create a neat narrative: In 2008, as a freshly minted mechanical engineer, I moved to Ethiopia to work as a product designer at iDE, a NGO building social enterprises and agriculture value chains in Africa and Asia.  Since then I have worked as an engineer and innovation project manager for some of the best (in my humble opinion) social enterprises: Evidence Action and MKOPA solar, and dabbled in some policy work managing the DFID resource centre on climate and environment. Building on my experience in the water sector, I then read for an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management prior to my MBA as part of the 1+1 programme at Oxford, in theory preparing me to solve the worlds’ water problems through my own social enterprise.

However, after listening to Green’s view of the non-linearity of change, I am tempted to reframe my story not as a narrative but as the summation of ripples in a web of complex relationships and interactions. If you can forgive my ramblings in non-linear narrative, I want to tell the story of my path here framed through the relationships that don’t make it onto a CV, and instead focus on the cast of characters that sent the right ripples into the network that guided me to this fantastic place.

Katherine McIntyre: My grandmother is the embodiment of tenacity. She was a flight controller in the Canadian Air Force during World War II, a travel writer in the USSR during the 1980’s, current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line, and in few days, at 93 years old, will be travelling from Toronto to Oxford to see my MSc graduation. She has traveled to more than 45 countries, published in over 30 newspapers and journals and has founded 3 companies.  I can only aspire to emulate her singular focus, fearless independence, and her lifelong curiosity.

Left: Ashley Thomas, Right: Kirstie McIntyre

Left: Ashley Thomas, Right: Katherine McIntyre

Left: a young Kirstie McIntyre, Right: Kirstie McIntyre holds the current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line

Left: a young Katherine McIntyre, Right: Katherine McIntyre holds the current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line

Paul’s enabling, entrepreneurial approach strongly resonated and has become central to my own philosophy.

Paul Polak: I met Paul when I was nineteen, naïvely aspiring to fight global poverty, but I only knew about top-down traditional development organisations. From attending his lectures, receiving his mentorship through the Intentional Development Design Summit (IDDS), and ultimately collaborating at iDE, Paul introduced me to a new way of thinking. Instead of a charity approach, Paul showed me an untapped market of 1 billion people seeking to lift themselves out of poverty. Paul’s enabling, entrepreneurial approach strongly resonated and has become central to my own philosophy.

 

Paul Polak

Paul Polak

Carlos Machan: Carlos is one of the most creative product designers I have ever met. Born in rural Guatemala, his engineering knowledge is all self-taught. I met Carols in 2007 while he was an instructor on the International Development Design Summit at MIT and continued to work with him in Guatemala, where he taught me how to weld, design, and build my first water pump, the very skills that landed me my first job at iDE.

Carlos Machan

Carlos Machan

It was here, in front of this bonfire, where I first heard about the Skoll Scholarship, and began dreaming of becoming a Skoll Scholar

iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: In Addis, our engineering team founded a workshop/office/guest house that was the backbone of our product development. It was also the location of many bonfires, beers, and late night pontification. It was here, in front of this bonfire, where I first heard about the Skoll Scholarship, and began dreaming of becoming a Skoll Scholar. It took 8 years of indecision, dreaming, and three failed attempts at the application before it became a reality.

iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

MKOPA Engineering Team: This crew is one of the brightest, most driven, and friendliest teams I have ever worked with. From Eric, standing at 6’2” and with a sense of humor to match, to Berita, easily a foot shorter in stature, but making no compromises in heart or brains, this group of people embodies the types of teams I hope to continue to work with. They also solidified my desire to get an MBA. While they were begrudging the fact I’d “no longer be an engineer”, working with them made me realise that if I hope to run a company like MKOPA and a team like this one, I have a lot of learning left to do.

ashleymtblog-mkopa

MKOPA Team

While this is absolutely not an exclusive list, these are some of the threads in fabric of the story of my path here. From the nascent daydreams over Ethiopian bonfires to making the decision to come to Oxford after working on a manufacturing line in Dongguan, China, studying an MBA at Oxford through the Skoll Scholarship is the realisation of the network of friends, colleagues, places, and events that have guided me to this fantastic place.

All photos above were provided by Ashley Thomas.

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Water: Tenacious, Collaborative Responses to a Global Crisis

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

MBA student, malady Sean Peters gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Water: Tenacious, sales Collaborative Responses to a Global Crisis’.

Access to water has never been more critical. The 2016 World Economic Forum Global Risks Report Water lists water as among the top 3 risks for negative global impact, and is ranked as the highest perceived risk over the next ten years. The newly minted Sustainable Development Goals list goal number 6 as to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”.  But how do we get from where we are today to a world where everyone has access to clean water and sanitation? And what can we learn from the last twenty years of work by development organizations, foundations, and social entrepreneurs?

Starting off Day 2 of the Skoll World Forum, J. Carl Ganter (Managing Director and Co-Founder, Circle of Blue) opened our discussion with three accomplished panelists:

  • Eleanor Allen (CEO of Water For People), journalist and photographer, reports on global freshwater issues (competition between water, food and energy
  • Neil Jeffery (CEO, Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor), WSUP
  • Gary White (CEO and Co-Founder, Water.org).

Water - Sean

The discussion opened with an overview of the differences that have emerged over the past twenty years in trying to manage water globally. The first major difference is that there are many more organizations paying attention.  Gary White, who started this work in the 90’s, noted the incredible proliferation of water-focused organizations in recent years. “When we started, we were one of the only ones,” White said. ‘Today, there are hundreds.”

The tone has changed as well. Twenty years ago funders didn’t understand the problem. “We used to spend 90% of our funder meetings simply explaining the problem to them, and in the end funders just wanted magic bullets in the form of new, catchy technologies” noted Jeffery. “Today, this is no longer a technical issue. The problem now isn’t that we don’t have the technology – we do. The next hurdle is trying to stimulate the demand side.”

So how do we stimulate demand? Part of the problem is access to financing. Currently low income people around the world pay a premium for water or sanitation services, but don’t have access to financing that could make these costs lower for higher quality access. By opening up financing and providing access to high-quality technology (water pumps, toilets, etc) at affordable prices, the short run benefit is healthier communities that are spending less of their time and money on getting access to water and sanitation. The hope is that over the long run these kinds of models will “pull” future financing and greater impact. “At this point we know what works and what doesn’t on the technology side”, said Allen. “We need to build these markets so that access can persist beyond the engagement with NGOs.“

While much progress has been made, there’s a long way to go. The session concluded with a universal message that is important for all of us to remember:  The importance of collaboration between people, between organizations, and between institutions. “At Skoll, we build relationships,” White said. “We’re all in this together. It is critical that we work together to solve these problems.”

Follow Sean: @sean_robert

Determinants of Customer Payment Behaviours

Research Fellows, Aaron Krolikowski and Robert Hope of The Skoll Centre’s Small Grants Research Programme, have contributed to The Smith’s School of Enterprise and the Environment Water Programme by leading a focused research topic on determinants of customer payment behaviours.

Aaron Krolikowski writes for the Skoll Centre Blog, an introduction to the research paper.

Wards and Offices

Fig 1: Wards and Offices

Water customers in urban Africa often struggle to pay their monthly bills, so much so that an estimated 500m USD is lost annually to nonpayment. Due to an inability to pay or a reaction to unsatisfactory service provision, these losses contribute to critical gaps in financing and further reduce service reliability. Skoll Centre-funded research has found that the expansion of mobile money and other electronic payment options across East Africa may partially address this long-standing problem.

Pay Points

Fig 2: Pay Points

Using a unique dataset containing over 500,000 water payment transaction records from Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), researchers from the Water Programme at Oxford’s Smith School for Enterprise and Environment found that mobile payment systems are positively influencing customer payment behaviours. Water customers that integrated mobile payment systems into their payment practices paid water bills more frequently and made greater contributions to overall utility revenue when compared with those who only paid water bills at utility offices.

Mobile Money

Fig 3: Mobile Money

Dar es Salaam’s water utility was the first in sub-Saharan Africa to offer customers mobile payment options. In 2009, a new business facilitated the integration of the utility’s billing system with mobile payment channels like M-PESA and Airtel Money. Focused on mobile payment aggregation, Selcom Wireless helped the water utility 1) expand physical payment locations beyond 14 brick-and-mortar payment offices to encompass over 2,000 wireless pay points scattered throughout the city at pharmacies, kiosks, and grocery stores; and 2) to enable bill payment from anywhere and at any time using mobile money.

Improvements to payment behaviour were most evident when customers used both water offices and mobile-enabled options. Distance matters as well; customers living far from water offices were more likely to use mobile money and pay points. For water utilities, or any public service provider, mobile payment options can support improvements in financial stability while simultaneously extending the reach of service delivery.

Payment Options

Fig 4: Payment Options

Diversification of the payment landscape enables the creation of new models of service provision and increases customer choice in where, how, and how much they pay. As populations around the world become more familiar with electronic payment options and other mobile-based innovations, new opportunities continue to emerge in the water sector. One example is from Nairobi (Kenya), where the city’s water and sewerage company partnered with social enterprise Wonderkid to provide SMS-based meter-reading (Jisomee Mita) and complaint lines (Maji Voice). Another initiative from Bengaluru (India) is NextDrop, which works with utility staff to alert customers to water provision schedules. Mobile innovations like these bring water utilities closer to customers, help to increase operational efficiencies, and improve revenue collection; all of these are necessary if universal and equitable access to water services will be achieved by 2030 (Sustainable Development Goal 6.1).

Read or download the report here.