Designing for impact: a relevant read and some obstacles
In the past week there were two deliveries of a PIPA “sort- of -training”: one, which i consider of great relevance, was for DAPA facilitators. By this i mean a group of us in DAPA who find ourselves needing to use theory of change and helping partners and other CIAT researchers in planning and monitoring projects, initiatives, activities, or any other form of group work. You can find the PPT here. The other one was in Medellín, with the Innovations for Social Impact of the Corporación RUTA N. For this one, RUTA N gathered a group of Medellín (remember this Colombian city won the Wall Street Journal and Citi Group prize “City of the Year” for being the most social- innovative, over Tel- Aviv and New York, if you’d like to know why, read here) entrepreneurs and representatives of the city’s businesses: the idea here was to hold a conversation on PIPA and designing for impact.
I wish before these two events i had read this blogpost by Rebecca Webber of Devex. Although the focus of the post was regarding the design of development aid, i found many parallels with our work on research for development (R4D). The post is about the difficulties of incorporating design principles into the traditional structure of aid delivery- much the same as these difficulties for us in the traditional structure of R4D delivery. As a part of my new job 🙂 as a CIAT M&E officer i want to understand better the obstacles there are to scientists unconditionally and first- thing adopting this kind of design- for – impact thinking, especially as it seems like such a logical thing to do, and we are all so intelligent… what are the attitudes or behaviors blocking us, that it is key to change? How, what are the incentives for this change? (by the way, any conversation on this, any insights you can give- coffee’s on me! It’s a date!)
Although the above mentioned problems have already been found (if anything over-diagnosed), and there are winds of change and goodwill to change coming from donors, in my own experience the solutions coming out are not really very good. New funding arrangements (see descriptions in the Devex blogpost) have a distinct feel of “patch- up” work- the full risk is still not being taken by either part. These “solutions” still give the lion’s share of resources to the “safe- bets”, and require of proponents nothing more than token descriptions of outcomes, as opposed to the past more general ones. Still risk, innovative thinking and participation in planning remain largely unfunded taboos.d has to do with donors and what they are able? willing? to fund, and the projects we are able? willing? to design. We are each starting from a very different place as far as concerns design. Donors are setting out with a plan (usually very unrealistic and ambitious!) of what they want, with most times the main worry being that what was initially proposed gets delivered. We (let us call ourselves “solution providers”) are setting out with a clear hypothesis of what will work- usually setting out to prove our hypothesis, coming from our field of work (rather inflexible and single minded). For researchers to get away from this model of “knowing the best answer in advance”, they need flexibility to not always have to deliver exactly what they set out to deliver, and funders need to start funding more of the experimentation and less of the set delivery. This implies breaking two strong paradigms at the same time in the search for common ground.
My two- cents come each from conversations and conclusions in each of the two last week PIPA events:
1st cent: We need to be able to articulate better what we need, and ask it of donors. How can we find funding for all those things we consider so crucial (participatory planning, flexibility, investment in partnerships and M&E and KM, incorporating feedback in all stages of a project, etc. etc. etc. etc. – because there are so many more) if we can’t present an organized plan? We seem to be saying: “we don’t want to commit to deliver the pre-set outputs you want, because they may not be what is really needed- but we don’t know what we will deliver, if anything”. Nobody got time to fund that!
2nd cent: Our conversations with the private industry need to stop being token. Entrepreneurship already finished inventing, so to speak, design for impact, and they are willing to invest in more of it. So for an outfit like ours, a proposal: why not concentrate on dual functions of things? I love the 10 ton/ 10 ton equation i heard from Hernán Ceballos, of CIAT Cassava and RTB fame: a farmer keeps growing his 10 tons for subsistence, but who will fund the whole 20 tons, of a better variety, for their own benefit? Not to save the farmer from starvation, to “do aid”, but because there is gain potential for a business? True public- private partnerships, that’s how… and to do this, we (and i mean everyone involved) need to start to get over our intellectual property rights issues, a huge gray zone to work in.
OK, i am no genius and don’t have the perfect solution for either of these, but these are what i would focus on right now to start breaking the deadlock.
Some of this discussion is already included in Webber’s post, so i encourage you to read it, replacing “aid for D” with “research for D”.