The Internet Society Foundation believes that innovation is at the core of providing better opportunities for people to transform and enrich their lives through access to the Internet. We award funding to projects that are testing diverse approaches to Internet connectivity and the Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) team has been asking ourselves some questions about innovation, and gathering answers through our grantees:
1. How do we define innovation?
Innovation often refers to something new, such as an invention, or the practice of developing and introducing new things. In the tech world, an innovation is usually a new product, but it can also be a new way of doing something or even a new way of thinking. At the Foundation, and through our BOLT and Research programs, we are learning that innovation looks many different ways, and take a number of different forms. For example, Dr. Chomora Mikeka in Malawi is developing a solution to “green” the way in which garbage is collected in cities. Innovation can also be about encouraging collaboration amongst diverse groups of thinkers, activists and inventers to solve existing real-world problems. As Sanjay, the project leader of the Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLE) Lab in Colombia, points out about what innovation means in the SOLE experience “… you cannot plan it, it’s an emergent process that happens in a dialogue”. Our work and grantees are pushing us to be more open to definitions of innovation related to the Internet that go beyond what might come to mind at first thought.
2. What does the experience of innovation look like for grantees?
In answering this second question, our team is finding that the experience of innovation for communities and grantees does not need to be shiny – innovation can be experienced as a new way of solving an existing human problem, that works. For example, we see innovation in the necessary work that the Digital Harbour Foundation Project Waves is doing to deliver free, high-speed Internet service to low-income residents in Baltimore City, Maryland (US), where roughly 41% of residents lack home Internet connections. Project Waves addresses concentrated disconnectivity in low-income housing, by providing internet service as an amenity in low-income housing and in turn addressing three main barriers to connectivity for low-income households: affordability, adoption, and skills-building.
Innovation also looks like new ways of co-creating with community members, like the SOLE Lab in rural Colombia is doing. SOLE is an open-source futuristic library that is providing Internet for the Wayuu indigenous community in Colombia. A SOLE session is arranged through communal consensus to take place either in-person, or in a virtual or a hybrid space, where learners of all ages gather to answer what participants define as big questions, with the help of the Internet. Questions can range from general topics such as: “How does the moon affect nature?, to ones of a political and social nature like, “Why there is no peace in Colombia?” Little to no guidance is provided in these sessions, which can take as long as needed for participants to find their answers. Thus, the way participants organize, prioritize, adapt and focus their time and resources (the Internet) is always innovative, as it depends on the group’s particular dynamic, and their needs, interests and experiences. The end result will reflect this unique process of co-creation and collaboration, driven primarily by collective curiosity and the internet.
3. How are grantees thinking about the success of innovation projects?
The SOLE Lab shared what they consider as success in this project, which is that the “newness” of an innovation does not just involve new knowledge by creating a problem-solving environment, but also new ways to approach the problem. Participants of the SOLE Lab go beyond learning how to use the Internet to answer a question, but rather using technology to find a better way of doing something as a group.
Moreover, as a SOLE session depends on participants’ ability to embrace uncertainty of the process (there are no strict guidelines to solve a question/problem), the community learns to get comfortable with uncertainty, trust the group and increase their confidence; all which adds value to the experience. It is not possible to eliminate all uncertainty from innovation, the key is to understand and manage it as the participants of SOLE Lab are learning to do.
It has been important for us at the Foundation to question our definition of innovation because the word is everywhere. The various forms and types of innovation allow multiple views and interpretations to emerge. Technologists, entrepreneurs, our grantees and community members understand innovation in their own context and have different expectations and definitions of success. We are with them on this uncertain and exhilarating learning journey.