Review of DFAT’s innovationXchange sheds light on role of global development innovation labs

May 22, 2019   |   Australia

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Results for Development (R4D) has published a review of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) innovationXchange (iXc). The iXc is an innovation lab established in 2015 to catalyze and support innovation across Australia’s aid program.

This report was created with funding from the iXc. This is one activity under a broader strategic partnership between R4D and iXc. As a learning partner, R4D aimed to help the iXc reflect on their work and adapt their approach moving forward to achieve their intended impact. It was never intended, designed nor positioned as an evaluation. These findings and recommendations were intended for an iXc audience, but made public in the interest of full transparency — and in the spirit of supporting other innovation labs working on similar issues.

Over the last five years, innovation labs/units have sprung up across the development community. Catalyzed by the growing desire among both funders and practitioners to find better ways of delivering development impact, these labs have been introduced with a wide range of missions, resources and operating models — some focusing on nurturing stronger innovation cultures and ways of working within agencies, some on developing and testing new forms of partnership and financing between public, private and civil society actors, others prioritizing the search for new and game-changing innovations to accelerate and scale…and some attempting to do all of this and more.

Yet despite the prevalence of these innovation labs around the world, there have been few efforts so far to capture and disseminate the learning from these initiatives, and to understand what kind of contribution they are making to advancing development practices more broadly.

This report on the iXc’s first three years is based on data collected through desk research, document review, interviews and focus groups with different stakeholders within and external to DFAT. It describes findings and recommendations around nine key topics, including establishing and operating an innovation hub, understanding and building pathways to scale as well as approaches to monitoring, evaluation and learning, among others.

“Reviewing the innovationXchange was an exciting opportunity,” said Thomas Feeny, director of the Innovation Practice at Results for Development. “Not many innovation labs take the time to pause and reflect on their efforts — let alone invite external partners to help them do this — and the iXc was a great collaborator in enabling us to extract the many different learnings from their early years that are shared in the Review.”

Highlights from the iXc’s inception phase, which are described in greater detail in the full report, include: 1) building a diverse portfolio of over 100 projects operating in more than 50 countries and addressing a wide range of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals; 2) establishing external partnerships with private sector companies, global programs and philanthropic organizations, bringing fresh knowledge and ideas; and 3) experimenting in new or emerging policy areas for DFAT, such as social impact investing, workforce of the future, education in emergencies, digital technology for good, and innovation ecosystems.

Among the recommendations included in the report, two broad themes surfaced — related to the iXc’s future strategic direction, but also reflective of emerging areas of focus for the wider development innovation community:

  • Adopting a more holistic ecosystem model for supporting change agents in challenging contexts. It is clear that there is a need to drive market and policy-level change in addition to supporting specific innovations. The iXc is moving into this space, but it could be a clearer component of the iXc strategy, creating an enabling environment to indirectly support more innovators to progress to scale.
  • Articulating a clearer agenda around scaling. The iXc should consider the extent to which assisting innovators to advance through the scaling pathway is prioritized in its strategy. This would involve determining the optimal balance of innovations in the iXc portfolio, in terms of the number of earlier-stage versus more mature innovations. It would also call for reflection on the different mechanisms through which the iXc might support innovators to scale, for instance focusing on facilitating links to external scaling partners (e.g. funders, incubators, accelerators) versus directly supporting innovators through providing funding or technical assistance.
  • Embedding innovation culture and capability across DFAT. There is clear appetite across DFAT for advice and capability building on innovation tools and skillsets. The iXc should consider the best way to amplify their existing approaches to building capability through program partnerships with alternative methods. To target and inform their work, they could begin by surveying DFAT staff to understand where the biggest capacity gaps are, and to inform the design of culturally appropriate solutions.

Many of the recommendations from this review have been reflected in DFAT’s Innovation Strategy for 2018-2021. It is also hoped  that this report contributes to a growing body of knowledge and learning that can be shared among similarly situated innovation groups, such as the International Development Innovation Alliance (IDIA).

  • To read the full report, click here.
  • To read DFAT’s official response to findings from the review, click here.

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