November 2013 Feature Story: What is an Innovation Incubator?
By Dustin Mix
As I said in my last post, one of our goals in the coming year is to use Innovation Incubators to source solutions from the local community to challenges that E2E faces. In an effort to move beyond a “question and survey” community engagement strategy, we believe strongly that the best solutions to these challenges will come from those that experience the problems firsthand. In theory, this all sounds great. But how does an organization actually go about sourcing these solutions in an effective and successful way?
The above question is something that we are working hard to answer. Building on elements of incubators used to support entrepreneurship and strategies in the area of design, such as Human Centered Design, we are crafting a series of pilotInnovation Incubators here in Léogâne. Here is the basic idea:
1. Problem Definition:
The first step is to define a challenge. This may be a challenge within an existing program, or it may be a general challenge in a subject area that an organization is interested in. For example, one of our challenges is detailing of window and door attachment within our frame and panel construction system. We know where we want the windows and doors to go, however, we feel that local experience and knowledge will be able to answer the “how” question much better than we can.
In the first step of the Recruitment phase, an innovator profile must be created. This profile gives a broad idea of the type of person suited to participate based on skill sets, experience, and personal characteristics. Building on the window/door example, this profile may designate someone with experience in construction, metalworking, carpentry, furniture building, or something of the like. It might also specify that the person can work well in a team and understands the importance of aesthetic appeal in their work.
In the next step of the Recruitment phase, we must go find the people that meet the profile. This portion of our process is currently under design, however, you can imagine that there has to be a vetting process, while maintaining transparency in the selection process. This may include relying on local leaders and partners to suggest members of the community that fit the profile.
4. Initial Challenge:
Once a large recruit pool is formed, it’s time to find the best and the brightest that you would eventually like to work on the problem previously defined. We think the best way to do this is to hold an initial challenge competition. This challenge will be much smaller in scale than the overall challenge, however it will allow the most creative problem solvers to rise to the top. One can imagine holding a series of these initial challenges throughout different areas of a community, and taking the top one or two performers from each to form the team assigned to solve the organization’s problem. Back to our window/door example, an initial challenge may consist of having the recruits build a small bench from a predefined set of materials in a span of a day. The person (or team) that can make the bench to meet specifications, using the least amount of materials, and winning a community vote on aesthetics, would be ideal to move into a challenge concerning window/door installation. The small challenge tests all areas important to the larger challenge, i.e. functionality, cost, and aesthetics.
5. Innovator Team:
With the Innovator Team now formed from the winners of the Initial Challenges, focus can shift to the original problem defined previously. Knowledge, background information, and mentors can be assigned to this team, and they can be prepared to participate together to solve the larger challenge at hand.
6. Main Challenge:
With the team in place and prepared, the main challenge can begin. Unlike the Initial Challenges, which were based on competition and little outside guidance, the Main Challenge takes on a much more incubator-type feel. Using structured activities borrowed from aspects of Human Centered Design, as well as mentors, the innovators will work in a team to research the problem, prototype and iterate ideas, and eventually suggest final solutions. In order to not deter the best and the brightest from participating, those that make it to the Innovator Team will be compensated for their time in the Main Challenge. By removing barriers that usually stifle innovation (e.g. time, resources, and support), we hope to provide the best possible environment for organic local innovation to surface.
The end result of the process is obviously a solution to the original problem. However, along the way, we have also produced a system for community engagement and participation, as well as identified some of the best innovators and therefore prospects for future employment. The process produces the solutions sought, but also creates a system to capture the rich inventive and creative nature of the community being served.
There are many details to be sorted out in this model, and hopefully the pilots will be an excellent way to let best practices filter to the top. We have plans to run three such pilots this year, each based around a different problem definition. Stay tuned to see the successes and challenges faced of this important aspect of E2E’s work!
E2E In-Country Director