Seeker Spotlight: Humanitarian Innovation Fund

Posted by Steve Bonadio on Jun 4, 2012 10:34:09 AM

We recently announced a Challenge with the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) to improve sanitation and containment of waste during humanitarian responses to natural or man-made disasters. A solution to this Challenge would benefit thousands of people displaced by these disasters, often in already-vulnerable communities. We spoke recently with Nicolas Kröger, Manager of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, about the Challenge and its potential impact. [Ed note: A press release of the Challenge announcement can be found here.]

Hello Nicolas.  There are clearly many immediate as well as long-term needs that people affected by disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis have. Can you tell us why you decided to focus this Challenge on sanitation?

Hello, and thanks for the opportunity to discuss this important Challenge. When we first looked at the possibility of organizing a Challenge with InnoCentive, we were aware that we would have to leave out many of the needs that people affected by disasters have. As a result, we knew that whichever sector we decided to focus on as a first Challenge would have to be built around a broad consensus within the sector.

We thus decided to survey the humanitarian community and ask where they thought innovation was most needed in the system. Unsurprisingly, we received many answers, but most were high-level and outside the scope of the HIF and/or the Challenge we wanted to establish. However, from the top three sectors coming out of the survey, the more specific and tangible Challenges suggested were to be found in the WASH area. For example, the appropriate water treatment technologies for immediate relief phase, an emergency toilet 'platform' that enables adaptations that are culturally appropriate, hand hygiene technologies for emergencies, and so on.

A gap analysis that had been initiated by the WASH sector further suggested that while a lot of effort and resources were being put into water treatment, hand washing, sanitation and hygiene promotion have been proven to have a much bigger health impact. Sanitation therefore seemed to be a good place to start.

The Challenge mentions particular issues with providing latrines in urban environments.  Can you say more about the limitations and obstacles in these situations?

With more than half the world population now living in urban centers, and the trend moving upward, an increasing number of disasters will have an impact on urban contexts and populations. These pose specific challenges for humanitarians responding to a crisis. Up until now, most tools and approaches have been developed with rural areas in mind and they need to be rethought for urban areas which pose a distinct set of challenges.

Urban environments are not all properly planned and developed: about a third of the urban population is actually living in slums or informal settlements with poor or no existing sanitation services. In these usually crowded and confined areas, the lack of both adequate water supplies and proper sanitation (e.g., open drains, sewers) increase the risk of disease transmission. This necessitates rethinking the way we build latrines. Additionally, existing solutions don’t take into account the specific nature of urban centers with their hard-to-dig pavements and concrete which make the current pit latrine design impractical with regards to time and resource constraints following a disaster.

This is a Theoretical Challenge with a non-exclusive license.  Has the HIF thought about what it will do to develop and implement the winning solution?

This is an important question. For us, this is not only about the Challenge itself but also about what comes after, once we’ve found the solution and given out the award. We want to be able to make sure that the solution is viable, made widely available, and is effectively used in disasters.

At the most simple level, we’d like to see that the solution is promoted and distributed as widely as possible through our and other networks to the wider humanitarian community. Additionally, we would like to see the innovation tested rigorously in emergency settings, so that we can build an evidence base on how  it compares to existing solutions and demonstrate how innovations can improve performance. This would include a prototype of the winning solution being built, possibly through additional support, and see it being used in upcoming disasters. Basically, we are looking at how we can provide additional support to the winning solution and make sure it is being scaled up properly.

The Humanitarian Innovation Fund is an initiative of ELRHA/ALNAP.  Tell us a bit more about the HIF and how this Challenge fits with your overall mission.

The HIF is a grant-making fund to support organizations working in countries and regions facing humanitarian challenges – such as Haiti, Pakistan, and East Africa – to develop, test, and share new technologies, products, and processes that will make humanitarian aid more effective and cost-efficient in the future.

However, this grant making function ultimately serves our main objective which is to support innovation throughout the humanitarian sector in order help find new and more effective ways to do things within the sector. We believe that there are a lot of ideas out there but that they are not being tested, implemented, or promoted adequately. For us, a Challenge such as this one is yet another way to tap into this ideas pool.

What prompted you to post your Challenge on the InnoCentive Challenge Platform?

As I indicated above, posting a Challenge is one of the ways to tap into an ideas pool and what better platform to use than InnoCentive's? With its wide ranging community of Solvers, we were confident we would be able to also tap outside the humanitarian sector and reach out to a much wider variety of actors and individuals (including the private sector, universities, research labs, inventors, and so on) who we believe might hold the key to this Challenge. Additionally, the resources and team at InnoCentive are making the Challenge development, posting, sorting, and solving a breeze for us and the Solvers alike.

Thanks very much for speaking with us.  Is there anything else you’d like our Solver community to know about this Challenge?

Hopefully this is the start of series of Challenges around sanitation in humanitarian response with this one being at the front end of the cycle. So watch this space for upcoming Challenges.

We are also very happy that it attracted interest from major publications such as Nature Publishing Group, Popular Science, and The Economist, which we have to thank wholeheartedly for extending the reach of this Challenge to an even wider audience.


Topics: Innovation Insights, Seekers

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