Creative space: the BRAC Social Innovation Lab

October 23, 2011

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On October 19, the BRAC Social Innovation Lab was formally launched in an informal gathering called “Social Innovation Forum.” The event focused on a theme of “How does BRAC do social innovation—past, present, and future?”

On October 19, the BRAC Social Innovation Lab was formally launched in an informal gathering called “Social Innovation Forum.” The event focused on a theme of “How does BRAC do social innovation—past, present, and future?” and was dedicated to the memory of Aminul Alam (1949-2010), one of BRAC’s earliest and most influential innovators. A clip of his retelling of BRAC’s initial activities in poultry was played to pay tribute to the passion and incredible dedication he brought to the organization.

The chairperson, Sir Fazle Abed, participated in the launch and offered inspirational reflections on innovation at BRAC. “Necessity is the mother of all inventions, as well as innovations,” he remarked with humor, and emphasized that BRAC’s goal at this point is not to reinvent the wheel, but to “do old things in a new, unique way.” There are many examples of these principles in practice in BRAC’s history; in the Oral rehydration Therapy Extension Program (OTEP) that BRAC launched in the 1970s, for example, BRAC took the “per-piece” payment scheme and applied it to health educators, tying their compensation to how many mothers they effectively taught how to make the lifesaving solution of water, salt, and sugar. Lay health educators reached twelve million mothers and significantly reduced child mortality from diarrheal disease, the major killer at the time. It used a similar model for education, considering students’ retention of knowledge in teachers’ pay. “No one had done it this way, but we did,” Abed commented. Innovation is one of BRAC’s core values, and there is no shortage of examples of how this looks in action. Abed closed his comments by reflecting on the many opportunities for innovation in the current global context, with particular excitement about gains that could be realized in education with creative usage of technology and expanding connectivity.

Few places in the world have a more apparent need for creativity in development than Bangladesh. At once a success story of economic growth, entrepreneurship, and public-private approaches to building durable strategies for providing social services, it continues to face a host of complex and significant changes: climate change, rapid rates of urban migration, to name just a few. Bangladesh must grapple with the growing economic and social inequalities, and mobile populations that challenge traditional delivery models for everything from TB treatment to microfinance. BRAC can be a leader in identifying ways to adapt and continue to combat poverty in the midst of these changes. And with its expanding presence abroad, there are increasing opportunities to translate these local innovations to new contexts. With 2.5 billion people still living on under US $2 a day, the necessity remains quite palpable.

With these possibilities in mind, the newly formed Social Innovation Lab team made a short presentation to further describe the state of innovation at BRAC. They called attention to how the organization has evolved over time to manage the incredible scale and scope of its activities—in introducing the necessary processes and specialized units that this operation requires, barriers to encouraging, testing, and evaluating innovative ideas have inadvertently cropped up. This is particularly true for dialog across programs, leading to missed opportunities to effectively harness the full magnitude of experience and wisdom at BRAC. In addition, there is often limited time to examine how others, in Bangladesh and abroad, are tackling dimensions of poverty, or to keep up with the ever-advancing state of knowledge, technology and research and global priorities. Innovation is a crucial competency to maintain, to continue to effectively combat poverty and sustain the energy and excitement of the caliber and talent of individuals that have built the BRAC that exists today.

How can a massive organization practice innovation? BRAC has been reflecting on how to ensure that its investment in innovation matches the scale of its operations, and out of these conversations, the initial idea of a “Social Innovation Lab” was conceived. Housed in the Communications Department, this unit will seek to institutionalize innovation at BRAC and create an accessible space for all where ideas are shared, generated and nurtured. It will support programs in identifying existing innovations, running pilot programs, and facilitating dissemination of experiences, as well as seeking new partners with promising solutions to work with BRAC in tackling complex issues. Through its activities, the Social Innovation Lab will build program capacity for managing internal innovation and foster cross-program and organization-wide dialog and support for new ideas on how to advance BRAC’s mission. Already, a variety of exciting opportunities are emerging for consideration, from better serving “floating people” (transient slum dwellers) in urban areas, to utilizing technology for effective data utilization in integrated initiatives, to exploring reproductive health for adolescents to adopting an innovative model of private high schools from Kenya. The Social Innovation Lab will evaluate these proposals and their overall alignment with BRAC’s strategy and activities, and work with the programs to prioritize which to pursue. Many more exciting suggestions were offered by BRAC staff who attended the event, confirming that there is a wealth of innovative spirit and potential to harness and build on.

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