Research Led Innovation

Innovation has always been one of those ‘catchwords’ that large corporations have to include within their set of values. But what is innovation? Is it a creative idea, an agile process, a strategic approach? Or, a combination of all three?

Being innovative doesn’t just mean brainstorming or coming up eccentric new ideas. Those ideas are crucial of course, but without a process for implementing, testing and refining them, they have no impact. For me, innovation doesn’t transpire without effective research and improvement at all stages of the process, and in my line of work that is the design process. From the start off, this includes challenging and defining the brief. Innovation comes from the people willing to challenge how things are done.

This research should include everyone associated with the project; the client, the people using the service or product (end-users) and stakeholders. The Design Council has adopted a design approach based on the principle of the ‘double diamond’, and this is something that my colleagues and I elaborated on during Designs of the Time (Dott) Cornwall. The Co-Discovery, Co-Design and Co-Develop stages involved the designers using various information gathering methods and techniques to evaluate and improve upon their ideas.


The Dott Cornwall Double Diamond, illustrated by Matthew Stone. © The Design Council

For innovation to be a success you need to provoke a culture of trial and error, even going as far as awarding failure so the top ideas shine. True innovation requires heavy investment in Research and Development (R&D)

The Forbes’ 2014 top company for innovation is currently Salesforce.com. Their Chairman and CEO Mark Benioff is okay with failure, because that’s part of risk-taking: “Innovation is a continuum. You have to think about how the world is evolving and transforming. Are you part of the continuum?”

So ideas formed by taking risks led by (R&D) is important for innovation in the private sector, but does it work for charities?

Cornwall based humanitarian aid charity ShelterBox is increasingly using R&D throughout its operations. More importantly, they are involving their end-users in this process.

The famous white tents weren’t always white. ShelterBox, through visiting and speaking to the families living in their tents have used their research to evolve and innovate their product, continually improving it for the benefit of their users. From creating a curved arch in the porch so it doesn’t collect water to redesigning flaps, stopping water from leaking inside the tent. They would only become aware of these improvements from the research process in the field.

In 2014, ShelterBox’s audio-visual officer John Jones and monitoring and evaluation coordinator Dr. Alison Ashlin used video techniques to gather research from beneficiaries following super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

ShelterBox Research & Development through video gathering. ©ShelterBox.

‘It is important that we run evaluation projects like this as without them we can never learn,’ said John Jones. ‘By having the confidence to ask our beneficiaries about the work we have done and how we can help even more in the future, we can change the way we work for the better, grow as an organisation, and ultimately strive to be as effective as we can with every penny of our donors’ money.’

A Filipino family grateful to receive their disaster relief tent. Image by Matthew Stone, May 2014. ©ShelterBox

The tough challenges facing charities today are clear. How can charities attract new donors, reengage with current donors and get more regular donations? How can they move with the times?

Ultimately, charities, and companies for that matter, need to implement and continuously repeat three simple steps: learn, improve and grow.

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