D-Lab Innovation Practice and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic



D-Lab has an academics program, a research arm, and you manage a group of programs called Innovation Practice. What does Innovation Practice mean?

MIT D-Lab’s Founding Director Amy Smith has argued that “impact is not just the product of innovation – it is the process of innovation.” In other words, how you design solutions – and who you include in that design process – can have an even more important effect on the world than what you design. That “how” is Innovation Practice.

At D-Lab, the Innovation Practice team helps to develop, refine, and test approaches to inclusive innovation. It’s the testing ground for approaches like Creative Capacity Building, Co-Design, Innovation Centers, and Innovation and Entrepreneurial Ecosystems, all of which strive to incorporate the needs and visions of everyday people in solutions to global poverty. We work with partners around the world to explore how these processes can build better products and services, more equitable value chains, more dynamic local innovation ecosystems, and more resilient communities.

We’re a team of doers, and as we “do,” we engage D-Lab students in our work and share our lessons and approaches through D-Lab classes. In this way, our team is a little bit like a bridge between the Institute and communities around the world.

What kind of programs make up this area of D-Lab’s work and what ties them together?

The Innovation Practice team does two types of work:

First, we apply and test inclusive innovation processes in our own programs. Our three programs are Humanitarian Innovation, which builds the creative capacity of refugees and displaced people to design solutions to the challenges they face, Inclusive Regional Economies, which works with informal sector workers to co-create more equitable businesses and market systems, and the Scale-Ups Fellowship, a global accelerator working with local entrepreneurs bringing poverty-alleviating products and services to emerging markets at scale. What ties these programs together is the focus on building the capacity of local innovators, supporting local solutions, and catalyzing the local innovation ecosystems that enable grassroots problem-solving in the long term.

Second, we inspire and enable other practitioners to incorporate inclusive innovation processes in their work. One major way we do this is through capacity building initiatives like global workshops, professional education courses, and facilitator certification programs. A second way we do this is by convening communities of practice that share lessons and cases from their work and then publish what they learn for others to learn from. Increasingly, we’re finding ways to work hand-in-hand with organizations as advisors and collaborators as they implement their own inclusive innovation programs.

Who are your collaborators and beneficiaries?

That’s an interesting question, because we don’t really distinguish between the two categories. For instance, a local entrepreneur may be the “beneficiary” of one of our design trainings, but ultimately we are collaborating with her to design a solution to a problem in the refugee camp where she lives.

In our Humanitarian Innovation and Inclusive Regional Economies programs, we typically work with and through community innovation centers and NGOs. In the Scale-Ups Fellowship, we work with social entrepreneurs and impact investors. And the practitioners in our workshops and communities of practice run the gamut! D-Lab students also engage in all aspects of our work, from serving as remote design consultants in their classes to delivering and participating in workshops in communities.

This diversity is by design. If you attend one of our Co-Design Summits, you may find yourself on a team that includes a farmer, a computer programmer, a water engineer, a corporate marketer, and a government minister. All have something to contribute, and all have something to learn, and the solution they produce is the better for it.

How is the Covid-19 crisis affecting those collaborators and beneficiaries?

In some ways, what we’re seeing in the places where we work is an amplified version of the daily disruptions we’ve experienced here in the US, as people struggle to protect their health, feed their families, and preserve their livelihoods. In refugee camps in northern Uganda, where social distancing is all but impossible and NGOs providing essential services have been ordered to leave the camps, refugees are seeking ways to protect themselves from the virus. In rural Colombia, small-scale mining communities are facing food shortages due to transportation shutdowns. The Scale-Ups Fellows, who run social enterprises in emerging markets, are grappling with how to keep their businesses afloat in the midst of commercial sector shutdowns, supply chain disruptions, and sharp declines in revenue.

We have also seen a remarkable amount of local problem-solving. Entrepreneurs are introducing creative pivots to stay viable and, in some cases, to respond directly to the crisis. Makers in refugee camps are producing and distributing face masks themselves. Community innovation centers have rapidly developed training modules that can be delivered over WhatsApp.

How is the crisis affecting the delivery of your programs? What is changing and how?

Like every other team, we found ourselves torn between feeling the impulse to immediately jump in and do something and feeling so overwhelmed that we hardly knew where to start. In that fog, our instincts told us that it was a good idea to fall back on our design process: learn, imagine, create, test.

First, our team took a pause to listen and learn. What are the problems currently facing these communities? What responses are our local partners already mobilizing? By quickly and frequently reaching out to our partners via Zoom, WhatsApp, and cell phone calls, and by keeping a pulse on reports being shared by other global agencies, each program has been able to piece together a clearer picture and starting point.

Next, we reflected on our assets: our design methodologies, our facilitation tools, our global network, and our connection to MIT. How might those assets amplify the work of our partners? How might they also be useful to others?

Then, we began to adapt and pivot: going virtual, shifting our content to be relevant to the moment at hand, and providing additional support. The Scale-Ups Fellowship repurposed internal budget and has begun to raise additional funds toward a Scale-Ups Bridge Fund, which will provide small grants to Fellows to help them weather the crisis. The Inclusive Economies program quickly designed a Tele-CCB to provide design modules for household food production. The Humanitarian Innovation program is working on design modules not just for masks but also for handwashing stations, soap, and other critical needs in refugee camps. These responses continue to evolve day by day as we learn more.

Finally, and critically, we are looking ahead. The economic and social aftermath of COVID-19 will be felt for a long time. Once the immediate health risk is gone, there will be work to do – not just to rebuild what was broken, but to imagine anew so communities are better prepared for the next crisis.

What do you fear losing in the short term?

Beyond the immediate, tangible worries about the wellbeing of our partners, we are also grappling with losing, for the moment, the fundamental way we work. In normal times, our team travels around the world to facilitate hands-on and collaborative design processes – literally getting people together to work with their hands – and it’s going be a while before we can do that again. We have felt (and measured) the impact of those moments, and we will feel the loss of them.

I also feel that, in this moment of fear, we are at risk of losing the mindsets that are critical to creative problem-solving. D-Lab’s work operates high on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: participatory design processes they tap into and tend to people’s self-esteem, agency, and creativity. These days, the world is focused further down the pyramid, on physiological and safety needs like shelter and protection from illness. It’s hard for those of us with access to the Internet and reasonably stocked grocery stores to think creatively right now; it’s even harder to ask people who cannot social distance and are facing food shortages to tap into their creative brain and innovate solutions. One way to curb that is to stay connected, to think of our global network as a buoy of support and optimism.

Are there any silver linings, and if so, what?

The first silver lining is the problem-solving energy we have seen already bubbling up from the grassroots.

Second, this crisis has put into sharp focus the importance of community resilience. Some of the most inspiring stories we’ve heard are those of local innovation, collective problem solving, resourcefulness, and mutual support. Communities are asking themselves, “What can we do with what we do have?” These are the mindsets and capacities that are built and strengthened through inclusive innovation processes, and they’ve never been more critical.

Third, we are at a crossroads. The novelist Arundhati Roy ended her April 3 Financial Times essay with these words:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

In other words, we could approach life after COVID-19 as a design challenge.

It’s a chance to ask a hundred new “How might we…?” questions. How might we enable local manufacturing of essential equipment? How might we ensure access to hygiene for all? How might we build more resilient local food supply chains? How might we ensure that an economy’s most essential workers share in the benefits?

And, critically, it’s a chance to include many voices in the answers.


Laura Budzyna, Associate Director for Innovation Practice; Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Manager