The word innovation is being used more and more in our sector, but how many of us honestly have a clear understanding of what it means and why it is important for us?

At the Academy, we have a new Innovation Approach which outlines the kind of innovation work we want to focus on. Learning about innovation is a core part of our approach and we believe that our role is to help people within the humanitarian sector to understand what innovation means and why it is so important.

For us, innovation is simply, the process of creatively solving problems to build new value. These solutions can be in the form of new products, new services or new processes. It is important to remember that although many exciting new ideas feature a new piece of technology, innovation does not equal technology. And this is even more important to keep in mind when using innovation to solve problems in the humanitarian sector where we frequently face infrastructure challenges in the wake of a crisis – i.e. unreliable access to electricity and the internet.

So, now we know what innovation means, what does it look like in practice? Well, for most successful innovations there are usually five overarching stages in their journey.


What problem are you solving? It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But this is the most crucial building block that the rest of the journey relies upon. If you don’t have this question figured out at the start, then everything else can lose its focus and the ideas you come up with could be weaker whilst trying to solve too many problems at once. Keep it simple and keep it focussed – What is at the heart of your problem?


Insight is what gives understanding of the problem you’re solving and puts it into context. To come up with the most impactful ideas, it is crucial to fully understand the people who will use your innovative solution. For now, let’s call these people ‘users’. Insight is about gathering the knowledge and experience of users and using it to create the best possible solutions to your problem. You could interview users directly, or talk to the people that know them best like family, friends, teachers, colleagues, etc. You might want to bring in experts in the area related to your problem or you may wish to try out being the user for a day or two and see what the problem feels like from their perspective.

Insight is so important that it should be gathered, referred to and revisited throughout all the stages of the innovation journey. This is where the terms ‘user testing’, ‘co-creation’ and ‘human centred design’ come in. They are all about putting users at the heart of your problem solving.


Ideation is the most creative stage. This is the part of the journey where you think expansively and come up with a range of solutions that might help solve your problem. There are many ways and methods of going about ideating, but the most important thing to bear in mind here is the end user; always keep your insight in mind. Better yet, why not bring in experts and users to help you think of ideas by running a co-creative session with them?


Once you have narrowed down the ideas that you came up with in ideation, you will be left with one or a small number of possible solutions that seem worthy of testing. Incubating is all about bringing your idea to life in the simplest, cheapest and quickest way so that users can give you their feedback and you can understand how your idea might work in real life. In the design world, this is where you would start to build your prototypes and in a business world, this is where you would work out your Minimum Viable Product. This stage is all about the feedback loop – testing, receiving feedback and improving your idea until you are satisfied that you have a solution that will work for your users.


The last stage of the innovation journey is about building out your idea, bringing it into the wider world and making it available to your users. Depending on the solution, there are multiple skills needed and various people that could be required at this stage. If your innovation is a physical product you might need a designer, production, logistics, etc. If your innovation is a process you may need to convince stakeholders of the ideas’ value, train colleagues in the new process and troubleshoot any problems that arise. Whatever your innovation, this stage is where your idea becomes a reality and will need focus, drive and a lot of hard work to keep the momentum alive. But it is also the most rewarding stage as you finally see your idea come to life.

So, that’s it! In the tech world, they live by the saying ‘always in beta mode’, so remember to not get complacent. Your idea might work for your users now, but as time goes on, they might need a tweak to your innovation, or a whole new idea to replace it. Keep close to your users, keep asking them questions and understanding how life is for them and what problems they face daily. That way you can make sure you’re coming up with the best solutions that will really impact them for the better.

If you’d like to more about the Academy’s innovation approach, you can access a summary here which gives you an understanding of the kind of innovation projects we are involved in. And in the meantime, feel free to contact us at

Lucy Hall
Global Innovation Officer
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