Using innovation to target some of the world’s biggest problems
Kate Sutton prides herself in solving tough problems. Hailing from New Zealand, Kate worked across the Pacific region running cross sector partnership programmes, working in the corporate and political sectors. Completing her MBA in 2014, Kate founded a business and development consultancy in Malawi, while also helping to establish an entrepreneurship accelerator and impact investment fund. Most recently, Kate spent three years as Head of Corporate Social Innovation at the UK’s Innovation Foundation, Nesta where she was responsible for leading programmes with the private sector for social change and building cross sector partnerships. Kate has since joined the UN Development Programme as the Head of the Innovation Centre, based in Bangkok. We spoke to Kate about what this latest role will look like, how the private and public sector can work together to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, and her view on New Zealand’s approach to innovation.
Can you talk a bit about what the innovation centre does. How does this fit into the work of the UNDP and the UN as a whole?
The Innovation centre is a unique and special part of the UN Development Programme. It is funded specifically to develop new products and services to support innovation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in countries and also to support innovation within the UN Development Programme itself. On a day to day basis the centre currently does many things to support innovation, but the main role is supporting governments across the Asia/Pacific region to innovate for social and environmental good. This is done through practical support, capability building, providing inspiration, funding etc. We have colleagues across the globe who are also working to support innovation and the Secretary General of the UNDP has innovation as a priority so it’s a great time to be joining and be leading this agenda.
How are the innovations you champion prototyped and tested. Can you explain the process from idea to implementation?
The innovation process is partly science and partly art and generally the process is pretty easy, but what you can’t control is the outputs and outcomes of that process! Finding innovations can happen in many ways. Many readers will be familiar with the idea that an innovator comes up with an idea and then “pitches” that idea to funders or people who can help execute that idea. This is a process we use in development but we also use others like co-design (where people work together to design new solutions), and various competitions and prizes (where people compete to solve problems). There are many ways of bringing together teams to generate new ideas etc. Once those ideas have been generated we develop a prototype which is generally a small and inexpensive version of an innovation and then give it a go, try it in place, see what we learn and what sticks. My focus however is on strategic innovation so seeding the frameworks, protocols etc that are needed to change the very systems that we currently live and work in.
How do you diffuse and scale innovations across countries when each country is so unique?
When thinking about scaling innovation you need to think both bottom up and top down. Top down includes sharing what works in other places and a bottom up approach is adapting those solutions. This sounds easier writing it down than in practise! One of the biggest barriers to scaling innovations (besides money and people) are our own mental models and culture and how we feel about innovation that comes from other places. The key is to look for the elements within any innovation that can be contextualised or can be replicable and be really open to where good ideas come from. For example moving goods such as blood around via drones, in Malawi, Africa we did this with ease because there are few obstructions in the airspace and air controls are still evolving. In London it requires a new level of thinking about airspace and managing obstructions etc but the principle use of the innovation, moving blood via drones is the same.
How do you think the private sector can work within the development space to create better outcomes for people?
It’s very old fashioned thinking to think that only civil society or government can solve social challenges and quite frankly the power we have given to private enterprise means that we are the private sector that needs to help solve our biggest challenges anyway. It’s also very naive of the private sector to think they have all the answers to problems and know the right way to embed sustainable change. Most problems that the private sector are very good at solving are technical ones but the big challenges we are trying to solve are adaptive ones so what this means is that we need the power of the private sector, its resources, skills, expertise etc but we also need the skills, expertise and resources of those who understand social change such as citizens, civil society and governments. Fortunately there are many many world class CEOs and boards who are willing to invest time and energy into understanding what leaver they can best pull to create sustainable change.
Have you noticed a shift in your career in the private sector moving more into assisting with social initiatives and greater world problems e.g. climate change. How does innovation tie into this?
World leading businesses now invest in social change. It’s no longer just good enough for businesses to think about how they can make money while working within the law of their given country. Consumers, governments, the public all expect more and a new social contract is being woven between the private sector and citizens. You will often see businesses working out their “purpose” beyond “selling X thing” which is good but many struggle when they get to the next step which is asking the question “How will my business play a positive role in the change we want to see?” as often Key Performance Indicators and Board expectations are not aligned with the purpose. Innovation is required to make this change and for businesses to be able to see where they can contribute to the systems change required. The climate crisis is a very good example here as we all contribute to the crisis. All businesses must now assess, “what contribution are we making to this world scale crisis and how can I eliminate this impact.” The climate crisis opens up many opportunities for businesses to grow but most will require some form of pivot. Having the agility and capabilities to change is essential for the future growth of business in this context and at the heart of this is innovation.
Where do you believe the future of innovation is heading?
The future of innovation is definitely moving towards more open and collaborative innovation. More strategic and what some call “mission oriented innovation”. For business, the future is open which means that innovation happens both inside and outside of a company and the inputs of innovation can happen outside the boundaries of a company. It’s now more common to collaborate with other organisations, to develop new products and services through joint ventures and alliances etc. All organisations should be thinking this way about the process of innovation – how it can be open and shared. For governments the thinking is much more about strategic innovation and how innovation incentives can be focussed on the things a country needs and the things the world needs. An example of this is, most governments are moving away from providing innovation funding for random products and focussing on supporting missions like fighting the climate crisis. There is also a change in who solves problems. So much of the innovation system has been set up thinking universities or the private sector solve problems, however innovation is everywhere and new capabilities are needed to find, test and scale those innovations.
In your experience, what are the top three things that hinder innovation?
Lack of ambition/vision, lack of openness and lack of diversity for me are the biggest factors. There are lots of competing views about what’s important when it comes to innovation but these are the three things that stand out for me. Having the right size and scale of ambition is vital to really shoot for solving a problem. It’s easy to get bogged down into small and technical solutions. Lack of openness is such a big barrier I still hear people saying to me – “I don’t want to share my business idea in case someone steals it”. This is very old fashioned thinking and not very often true. Collaboration and openness lead to better solutions and I am sad to see so much closed thinking in the world. An example of this is where innovations come from for so many people. They look to people with a certain level of power and privilege and feel that they have the solutions, where the answers are often with the people who hold the problems. Diversity of thought and experience is very important in innovation, without this it’s unlikely the best solutions will be surfaced.
Also I think it’s important to acknowledge that innovation and change is really hard. I am just about to head off in the middle of a pandemic to a new job in a new country and my body reacts accordingly – I am full of nervous energy, my system is thinking – why change? Unfortunately this feeling also happens at an individual, team, company, organisation, government level, when people or organisations feel uncomfortable they want to stop that feeling. It’s easier not to do anything or to protect the status quo and this is a killer for innovation.
In the years that you’ve been away, have you noticed a difference in the way that New Zealand companies approach innovation?
New Zealand companies in general really struggle with innovation. We are pretty creative and we often have inventive ideas, but we struggle as a nation to turn good ideas into reality and then scale those ideas into either large and successful businesses or world changing solutions. There are exceptions of course, but this is the general trend. Due to our size and geography we need to be much more innovative rather than less and it’s a really big challenge for us to crack as to why we can’t be more competitive in innovation.
We do know why we struggle, some is structural and some is cultural. Structurally we have issues about how innovation is funded, it’s very research and science focussed and we don’t do a good job connecting true commercial talent with that science. We also fund innovation in a very controlled way with a very strong view about who and what leads to innovation which is a shame because we are missing many opportunities. We do not invest in societal fabric, our civil society is very eroded, our public sector capacity for innovation is limited and we haven’t really thought about how to support individuals, teams and organisations to be innovative, we just continue to invest in programmes and hope a different result happens. It would be great in New Zealand to see more questioning the fundamental premise of how we do things because we are very lucky to be quite agile and I suspect we could make amazing things happen but we are limited by our ambition and our closed and inward thinking.
Culturally we are desperately afraid of failure as people and as a country. I found it took leaving New Zealand to be more free with my ideas and to be okay with failure. This shows up in our business culture and how we make decisions. There is very little collaboration in NZ culture, I don’t know why we can’t see that the pie can grow and be big enough for all of us if we work together; more collaboration, openness and celebration of ideas would lead to a more innovative culture I think.
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