Case Study: Shelter Innovation Ecosystem


This case study presents an analysis of the innovation ecosystem within the shelter sub-sector of humanitarian response. It is based on 25 in-depth interviews with administrators, practitioners, and researchers, all of whom have long and deep experience of working in the sector, as well as both published and unpublished secondary source material.

Two main conceptual frameworks are applied. The first is an idealised model of the system dynamics of innovation, identifying different stages and activities typically involved in innovation. The second (the Rs framework) seeks to uncover detailed factors influencing system operation and uses the following headings: resources, roles, relationships, rules, routines, and results. Taken together, these frameworks characterise the main elements of the shelter ecosystem and the influences that facilitate or inhibit the various stages of the innovation process.

The study presents two overarching and interrelated findings relating to the predominant focus of innovation in contemporary humanitarian shelter. Firstly, that innovation in shelter is today more likely to be concerned with improvements in process than it is about the introduction of new products. And secondly that, because of urbanisation and the increasingly spatial nature of disaster response and recovery, innovation in shelter is increasingly focused more on facilitation than with direct action. This is because, although the humanitarian endeavour’s primary concern is the saving of lives, quality humanitarian shelter programming as presently understood has explicit links to issues such as long-term post-disaster developmental needs and disaster-proofing as well as the interaction of those affected by displacement with their communities, public services and the built environment.

The study also reveals that while there clearly is an innovation ecosystem in the shelter sector, its optimal functioning is impeded by: (1) the demand-driven nature of shelter activity; (2) the ad hoc nature in which participants engage with shelter activities; (3) the sector’s historically limited professionalism; and (4) the lack of emphasis on formal learning.

It further shows that while there is still a need for improvements in physical (i.e. product-orientated) emergency shelter, many of the solutions proposed are either inappropriate or unaffordable, and that this can be attributed to the weaknesses of the sector listed above.

The study argues that the existing constituents of the innovation ecosystem and aspiring new entrants have clear potential to lead the sector in interesting and important new directions. However, the institutional funding architecture is an impediment in an urbanising world as long as it continues to treat the process of shelter response and reconstruction as a continuum, instead of adopting a holistic approach to solutions addressing a multitude of simultaneous and parallel shelter needs.


Gray, B.; Bayley, S. Case Study: Shelter Innovation Ecosystem. CENTRIM, University of Brighton, Brighton, UK (2015) 48 pp.

Case Study: Shelter Innovation Ecosystem

Published 1 January 2015