Program Details: Innovation Ecosystem Builder Fellowship


Goal: Promote Local Innovation for Social Impact

At MIT D-Lab we presume that to generate effective, sustainable solutions to global poverty challenges, the people experiencing those challenges must be central to the design process. Early research suggests that there are unique development advantages to promoting and supporting local innovation: individuals creating and adapting new solutions for their own communities. 

In launching this fellowship, we aim to increase the number of local innovators the ecosystem builders we engage as fellows are able to help succeed developing and deploying technologies that save and improve lives by ensuring access to clean water and clean energy, building climate resilience, and improving farming methods and health and education outcomes, while creating new jobs and increasing prosperity in their local communities. 

We equip and support fellows with the goal of building resilient, problem-solving communities, with citizens better connected to one another and the outside world. We hope to influence others around the globe, including actors within the government, education, development, and entrepreneurship sectors, to adopt collaborative design practices to accomplish the same thing. 

Strategy: Leverage Local Leaders & Systems

D-Lab has spent over a decade training, funding, and networking innovators and entrepreneurs around the world to support the development of their local innovations. But introducing a new product or service into any community is a complex process. Like the soil, rainfall, temperatures, and variety of organisms that make up a natural ecosystem, innovators and entrepreneurs are impacted by a wide variety of elements in their own surroundings, which may vary in availability, accessibility, quality, or cost: local infrastructure like roads, electricity, and internet; physical resources like space, equipment, and materials; formal and informal education and training opportunities; financial resources like loans, grants, seed funding, or a customer base; legal & regulatory barriers and support services; and people with relevant experience and similar values who can serve as collaborators, supporters, mentors, connectors or staff.

For us to provide all of these resources to communities around the world from our lab at MIT is impossible. In our experience, innovators and entrepreneurs are most likely to succeed when there are local organizations and institutions and a network of peers helping them to overcome challenges and access what they need. In the great hubs of innovation that exist around the world, there are many supporting entities and peers, interacting and overlapping to create a rich and complex ecosystem in which a dedicated innovator can thrive. In parts of the world in which the innovators and their customers and stakeholders are earning just a few dollars a day, however, where communities are most in need of creative new solutions but where the risk-taking associated with starting a new venture can have dire consequences, robust support ecosystems for innovators and entrepreneurs are particularly important, yet rare. 

Through this fellowship D-Lab will convene, equip, and support the local innovation ecosystem builders who are working to fill those gaps.

Methodology: Participatory Design for Programs & Systems

MIT D-Lab teaches, practices, and studies participatory innovation, a multifaceted methodology for improving effectiveness and increasing equity when engaging a variety of stakeholders in solving problems associated with poverty.

We developed this methodology originally to generate mechanical solutions and hardware products, but time and time again find that the problems we are looking to solve do not always have mechanical solutions. So over the years we have begun to adapt the process to generate solutions in the form of services, programs, and system changes. 

This fellowship is our first long-term project focusing on program and system innovation. It includes among its offerings all the types of resources we have, in our years of work with product and service innovators, found necessary to making collaboration and experimentation successful: exposure to new methods, ideas, and examples; practical experience; mentorship and peer-learning; funding; and social support.

Fellowship Structure 

Ecosystem Clusters

Three to five fellows will be selected from each of 3-5 ecosystems in developing economies around the world. Within each cluster fellows will have the opportunity to work together to analyze their shared ecosystem, identify challenges, and collaborate on potential solutions. Fellows will also have the opportunity to collaborate with fellows from other clusters who implementing similar initiatives.

The clusters selected may be all from the same region (3 cities each in a different country in Central America, for example) or each from a different region of the world (one from Latin America, one from Sub-Saharan Africa, and one from South-East Asia, for example). This decision will be made based on feedback contained within and geographic distribution of the applications received.

Ideal applicants for this fellowship will be working within a population larger than that of a single village or small town, but operating within an innovation ecosystem that is still small enough that it struggles to successfully provide all the resources necessary for supporting new ideas and ventures. 

The ecosystems we ultimately select fellows from will be ones from which we get a range of actors applying, from the grassroots and small-scale to the larger institutional. So we highly recommend to interested applicants that you reach out to other actors within your ecosystem that you might be interested in collaborating with and encourage them to apply. More information about applying on our Application Details page.

In-person convenings

Fellows will gather three times over the course of the year: one full-cohort gathering at MIT in Cambridge, MA, USA; a second full-cohort gathering in a robust innovation hub of the global south; and a third event in which each team will gather in its own ecosystem. 

At these events, fellows will practice collaboration and problem-solving techniques, exchange insights, and build connection with one another. Successful systems leaders and ecosystem builders will offer case studies from their experiences and coach the fellows as they identify and develop the next iteration of their new initiative to collaboratively prototype in their communities. 

All fellow expenses associated with these convenings (transportation, visas, lodging, food, materials) will be fully covered by the program. If Fellows want to add on additional travel time to these trips, they can do so at their own expense.

Design Iterations

Between convenings, Fellows will execute one or more experiments based on the planning they do during the in-person gatherings. 

These experiments will be designed to be cost-effective tests of more extensive potential new strategies and programs to serve local innovators and entrepreneurs at some stage in their pipeline, and as exercises in lean and effective data gathering and processing. 

They will be opportunities for the Fellows to collaborate with one another and also with other like-minded individuals and institutions in their home community.

D-Lab will work with the fellows to agree upon budgets for program funding for each design cycle, and will help to make connections with potential collaborators, mentors, funders, and other stakeholders.

Fellowship Timeline

                March-April 2018 — Introductions and preparations 
                           April 2018 — First Convening
                    May-July 2018 — First Piloting Phase 
                       August 2018 — Second Convening
     August-December 2018 — Second Piloting Phase
                     January 2019 — Third Convening
          January-March 2019 — Next-Stage Pilot Launch
                           April 2019 — Program Wrap-up & Connection with New Fellows