Unearthing a Theory of Change for Creative Capacity Building

Unearthing a Theory of Change for Creative Capacity Building


In the fall of 2019, a team of researchers at MIT D-Lab embarked upon a journey to develop, field test, and refine a methodology to evaluate programs aimed at strengthening local capacity for innovation. This project interested us not only as researchers, but also as practitioners. Since it was first developed in 2007 by Amy Smith and Kofi Taha, our team at MIT D-Lab has been implementing the Creative Capacity Building (CCB) methodology, an approach that explicitly seeks to strengthen local capacities for innovation and promote community-driven problem-solving. Although we were invested in measuring the outcomes of CCB, we had long grappled with the challenge of assessing its results consistently across contexts.

Over the course of more than a decade, D-Lab staff, instructors, researchers, and colleagues have implemented CCB workshops and methods in diverse locations around the world. Because of this, CCB interventions share certain core elements and differ in important ways across distinct local contexts. This presented the first challenge for our team: what did all of these efforts have in common? What specific skills, capacities, and mindsets did these programs aim to develop? How might participants continue to develop and use these capacities after the workshops ended? If they did, how might that affect the households and communities where they lived? Finally, how had each program been designed to accomplish these goals? Our point of departure was to uncover the program theory under which practitioners were operating.

Practitioners have an implicit understanding of how a long-established program works. This understanding is developed through lived experience and passed from practitioner to practitioner, even if it is not documented in a formal evaluation framework or directly measured. Eager to tap into the wisdom of program implementers, we decided to frame the first phase of our work around this foundational question: What is the existing state of program theory around CCB at MIT D-Lab, and how did that theory come to be?

This question led us to look back to 2016. At that time, we had set out to unearth the implicit theories of change driving three different CCB programs in Tanzania, Ghana, and Uganda. That effort had two objectives: first, to build out localized theories of change for each CCB program to use in their everyday work; and second, to develop a unifying theory of change for the CCB methodology informed by these practitioners’ experiences.

This process was messy, and it revealed how pinning down an intervention’s theory becomes even more slippery when it has been adapted to completely different contexts. Still, in the end, it resulted in a shared, working framework sourced from practitioners and participants. Documenting this participatory process, and the theories of change that resulted from it, became a logical starting point in our quest to identify the existing program theory informing CCB.

This report shares the results of that effort. In the following sections, we describe the process used to elicit site-specific theories of change for CCB programs in Tanzania, Ghana, and Uganda, as well as the process used to synthesize these findings into an overarching theory that describes how the CCB methodology works in general. Finally, we share the reflections we gained through this process, in the hope that it can guide other researchers, evaluators, and practitioners seeking to undertake similar efforts.

More Information

Evaluating Capacity Development for Local Innovation


Elizabeth Hoffecker, Lead researcher, MIT D-Lab Local Innovation Group