Innovation Through Failure, Mutation, and Flexibility

This week we feature another great piece  originally published by our friends at the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) with a focus on innovations in WASH in emergency settings. To see the original article, click here, and take a look at the last piece we featured by elrha on this topic here.

By Mambwe Chella

Having debunked a few myths around innovation in emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), and discussed some of the challenges innovators face, we bring this blog series to a close by focusing on ways to encourage innovation. WASH programming in emergencies is hard, faced with challenges and limitations. But we can’t let that stop us from always trying to do better and improve.

This blog series is based on advice given by our HIF grantees and working group of technical advisers, as well as audience members at the Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC) Conference in 2017.


One of the challenges facing innovators is the fear of failure. Ironically, failure is the best launchpad for encouraging innovation—and we need a change of vocabulary to reflect this. Talking about the ‘pivots made’ and ‘lessons learned’, even though a project might not achieve its aims, allows us to learn from others when they do well, and even when they don’t. This helps to ensure that we do not repeat our failures, or waste time re-learning the same lessons.

To reach a point where we can freely share lessons learned and accept that innovation can fail, we need a change in mindset, and in our cultural attitude. This was highlighted at the conference by Brian Reed

Peter Harvey from UNICEF stressed that, although a learning culture is one that accepts failure, WASH practitioners and innovators can often be driven and constrained by donors. The WASH sector itself, as we discussed in Blog One, can be risk-averse and restrict itself in this respect. One way to curb this constraint is by explicit inclusion of and elements of risk and learning from failure in funding proposals. Resources such as this report on WASH in urban flood emergencies, produced through the Global WASH Cluster Technical Learning Project, are a great way to share lessons learned and direct would-be WASH innovators to the kind of considerations necessary when implementing emergency WASH.


As we begin to share our lessons and experiences, we leave room for innovation to be adopted or ‘taken up’ by others, adapted, and grown beyond our own capabilities and reach. Supporting this is another way that we can encourage innovation, allowing it to evolve and be further developed by others. Examples include, the way UNICEF took the Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach, first introduced by Kamal Kar in 2000 in Bangladesh, and scaled it in Sub-Saharan Africa; or the way that Potters for Peace began training others in the use and manufacture of ceramic water filters which were first developed at a Guatemalan Institute and used at the community level. In both these examples, the innovations were developed at a local level and then taken to scale by other organisations with a greater reach.

Another ‘mutation’ might be when innovators introduce their solution into a different environment, or when innovators visit the field and see how the innovation is working in practice, bottom up changes can be introduced, and new ways of thinking and implementing continue to evolve as the innovation is in use.


We can also encourage innovation by being flexible. This can mean greater flexibility of donors, for example the Rapid Response to Movements of Population (RRMP), originally established as the Rapid Response Mechanism in 2004 by the DRC WASH Consortium. This mechanism, made possible through support and finance from the relevant donors, enables development programmes to be robustly built and better respond to sudden-onset emergencies, introducing much-needed flexibility.

Flexibility is also required on the part of innovators and WASH practitioners. For example, whilst establishing implementing their Tiger Worm Toilet project, the Oxfam team soon found that they had to be flexible and adapt to the different socio-political contexts of their different project locations. Additionally, they had to be flexible on worm supply. The team decided to grow their own worms, and, in so doing, were able to incorporate a livelihoods aspect into their WASH project

Innovation is difficult, but it is at the heart of building a humanitarian system that adapts and evolves to meet the needs of those it serves. In the HIF, we continue to explore ways of supporting innovation, and in our response to the recent independent HIF evaluation we talk about what we’ve learned and what we need to change for the better.

Mambwe Chella, HIF Programme Officer, who provides support to the HIF’s WASH programme.