Humanitarian Innovation Ecosystem Research Project Final Report


There is growing awareness of the need for transformational change in what the international humanitarian community does and how they do it. This report focuses on efforts to achieve such change through humanitarian innovation. The overarching aim of this report is to analyse the ecosystem of actors and factors shaping innovation within the humanitarian sector. The objective is then to recommend how improve the humanitarian innovation ecosystem so it can make the best possible contribution to overall humanitarian effectiveness.

Innovation ecosystems vary considerably between sectors, industries and countries, but the most effective have a number of common features:

  • a clear overall strategic vision to focus innovation search and selection behaviour
  • sufficient resources (especially financial and human) and clear routes for them to flow into the system
  • a high level of openness on the knowledge supply side, with networks feeding in and recombining ideas from different sources
  • a well articulated sense of end-user needs, achieved through intensive consultation, involvement and co-creation, and
  • ‘ambidextrous working’ that enables both incremental and radical innovation processes to ensure the mainstream can assess and quickly assimilate new ideas.

The report finds the humanitarian innovation ecosystem contains these necessary features to varying degrees. But, in a number of critical ways, it falls short of the ideal. In particular, the report identifies the following issues:

  • Resource, information and capacity gaps (notably in financing, information and skills): resources need to be expanded and more predictable, to provide end-to-end pathways for innovation; to become more diverse in scope and more tailored to specific innovation efforts.
  • Innovation information (‘intelligence’) needs to be strengthened, to make the case for specific innovations, support innovation processes and assess the efficacy of new approaches.
  • Innovation management skills and capacities: the sector needs to attract people with new skill sets and to train existing staff so that the best available knowledge can be applied in operations.
  • The innovation ecosystem is weakly integrated and needs active facilitation, networking and brokering of relationships. A key priority is to strengthen and facilitate interactions across the ecosystem, within and across subsectors.
  • The innovation ecosystem should be more open to new and excluded actors: end-users, scientists, private-sector operators and non-traditional partners.
  • Innovation processes are idiosyncratic, and subject to multiple interests and biases which play a role in what is picked up and used; there is little consistency or predictability in how the ecosystem supports innovation processes. Innovation management processes should be strengthened, made more objective and less partial.

These issues are due in part to the relative newness of the humanitarian innovation ecosystem. With sustained investment in innovation resources, processes and learning systems from a diverse pool of actors, the ecosystem can be moved onto a more comprehensive, systematic and predictable footing.

This report identifies six specific priorities for improvement, as follows:

  • address resource gaps and approaches
  • address the lack of innovation information and evidence
  • strengthen skills, capacities and enablers of innovation
  • strengthen and facilitate ecosystem interactions and relationships
  • strengthen innovation management processes
  • build a global alliance to strengthen the innovation ecosystem.

Addressing these issues will be necessary to cement the role of innovation as a key element of aid effectiveness. If the sector does not adapt, capitalising on the opportunities afforded by the emerging innovation movement, humanitarian actors will have missed an opportunity to have more relevance, be more appropriate, have greater impact, ease more suffering and save more lives around the world.


Ramalingam, B.; Rush, H.; Bessant, J.; Marshall, N.; Gray, B.; Hoffman, K.; Bayley, S.; Gray, I.; Warren, K. Humanitarian Innovation Ecosystem Research Project Final Report. CENTRIM, University of Brighton, Brighton, UK (2015) 52 pp.

Humanitarian Innovation Ecosystem Research Project Final Report

Published 1 January 2015