Case Study: Innovation in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene


This report analyses the humanitarian innovation ecosystem within the sub-sector of humanitarian response known as WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene). It is based upon 25 in-depth interviews with administrators, practitioners, and researchers, all with long and deep experience in the sector, as well as published and unpublished secondary source material.

Two main conceptual frameworks are used to understand the WASH innovation ecosystem. 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 system, and detail influences that facilitate or inhibit the various stages of the innovation process.

Overall the innovation ecosystem functions reasonably coherently, allowing the identification of needs to be translated into viable innovations through targeted allocation of resources, but it tends to encourage incremental innovations, rather than more radical ones. While continually improving the WASH humanitarian response, this may not match the increasing demands from the changing type, intensity and frequency of disasters. There are also some significant barriers to innovation, especially in moving potential innovations into widespread use.

Within this incremental change, priorities have shifted between subsectors, with a shift from focusing primarily on water towards encouraging greater innovation in sanitation (hygiene promotion remains a relatively small part of the overall effort). This shows the connection between resource allocation and innovation, as well as a degree of strategic direction in the innovation ecosystem. Nevertheless, the financial resources are small and not especially well designed for supporting the whole process: more resources are provided for the front-end of innovation, fewer for development and testing, very little for diffusion and adoption.

Although there is some level of coordination from key actors, the innovation ecosystem has mostly been ad hoc and informal. Some recent attempts have aimed to make it more systematic, especially in understanding user needs and building a comprehensive evidence base, but there is still a long way to go. The WASH sector exhibits innovation routines that involve both closed and open search and development strategies: the former reduces risk, is more likely to result in implementation, but unlikely to produce radically new ideas; the latter may open up the search space for interesting new solutions, but the risks of failure are higher. Funding rules, national government influences on procurement, and the need to manage risk during humanitarian crises, all place limits on the type and degree of innovation. This again encourages incremental innovations, discourages potential innovators from becoming involved, and limits the widespread diffusion of innovations that are developed.

The report concludes with eight recommendations aimed at improving both the efficiency and effectiveness of the WASH innovation ecosystem.


Rush, H.; Marshall, N. Case Study: Innovation in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. CENTRIM, University of Brighton, Brighton, UK (2015) 63 pp.

Case Study: Innovation in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

Published 1 January 2015