The how’s of Humanitarian Innovation for NTNU and other academic ‘engineering’ institutions

1 How do we link contribution with goals?

NTNU can be a driver for the creation of academic knowledge on how technological innovations can impact humanitarian goals. In order to do this, we must build understanding of what the specific challenges of the humanitarian market consist of.

There is agreement that currently, HI collaborative projects have trouble documenting that their ideas actually have impact on humanitarian goals. Unfortunately, humanitarian practitioners is of the understanding that new technologies and services introduced by private enterprise in relief settings, more often than not fail once the innovation has passed the pilot-phase. Once the solution has to be sustained by local communities, these fail to make a difference. Many private enterprises and humanitairan actors avoid the humanitarian market alltogether due to this problem.

This is one of the fundamental challenges that humanitarian innovation is facing. NTNU can, through cross-disciplinary thinking, help to link contribution and learning from our ‘donor country side’ with impact on change practise at the other end.

2 How do we connect research on product, service and systems level?

In a recent blog-post by UNHCR Innovation , recommendations following joint innovation initiatives emphasize the use of holistic approaches, inclusion of actors, definition of roles and responsibilities, monitoring and financial mechanisms. These recommendations agree with the recommendations in the theoretical framework suggesting an agenda-space approach to humanitarian innovation. Due to the complexity of the humanitarian market, the impact of an innovation does not depend on the quality of the technology alone, but on a large set of interests on global and local level. These include political and financial interests. These agendas and the complexity need to be understood and included into research frameworks for humanitarian innovation. Reducing the complexity to hands-on tasks for researchers at NTNU will require project leaders that are able to communicate and include these agendas in a useful way so that we can have research that combine product, service and system innovative thinking.

Innovation must focus strongly on service- provision and system level. Innovation from private sector in humanitarian relief has largely focused on products/technological innovation. Yet stakeholders agree that if contributions from designers and others are to make a real impact on humanitarian objectives, focus must be shifted from product-oriented to service- and system oriented innovation. That humanitarian sector and experienced private sector representatives express that too much focus has been on products when talking about HI, is of fundamental importance to NTNUs future approach. How do we make sure that the technologies developed at the mechanical engineering departments are fit to the relief settings and how do we make sure that these research projects benefit from the extensive knowledge and research methods created for contextual understanding in the more human-centred disciplines?

The challenge of bringing technological innovations to field, or to create better and sustainable services, depend on the creation of people-centred business models or other types of interventions that take into account motivations of local partners. This means that entrepreneurial researchers and intervention-focused thinkers (such as design thinkers) would be relevant to have onboard when taking on this challenge.

3 How do we create people-centered innovation processes for humanitarian relief settings?

Currently, knowledge about humanitarian relief settings, particularly about those in the most vulnerable, poorest development settings, is not well represented at the engineering departments of NTNU. Contextual understanding is seen as the only way to understand the ‘real challenges’ yet academic institutions are reluctant to travel to relief settings which are often dangrours. Ethical aspects also limit the aiblity of academic staff to enter emergency settings. How we can achieve the necessary hands-on experience to build understanding must be discussed. ‘Sound data management’ is seen by the humanitarian sector as one of the areas of interest where they believe humanitarian action can be made more effective and efficient. Data management and the gathering of evidence to support innovation processes is highlighted during the seminars as a way to connect knowledge on what works with people trying to solve challenges in humanitarian action.



About Brita Fladvad Nielsen

I'm a Postdoctoral researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. My focus is on Smart Energy Communities in urban settings as well as design of energy-devices for emergency settings and design for humanitarian markets, especially for refugee camps in rural areas of Africa. I blog about my research approach Design Thinking on and about humanitarian design at . I am also a mother of a child who is deaf, and I blog about her language development on
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