7 Powers for solving wicked humanitarian problems

Virtually any wicked humanitarian problem can be solved by applying the following 7 powers: 1) vision, 2) innovation, 3) human-centered design, 4) collaboration, 5) venture philanthropy, 6) passion, and 7) perseverance.

Let’s use emergency shelters as an example. As long as there have been humanitarian disasters that displace people from their homes the tent has been the “go-to” shelter solution. Tents are made of tarp, poles and, rope. They provide limited comfort or protection, particularly for women. Under the extreme circumstances faced in most humanitarian or disaster situations these tents last between 6 months to 1 year, and therefore need to be replaced at a cost of around $400 a piece. However, refugees and IDPs are displaced – on average – for 17 years. How can the international humanitarian system allow such discrepancy between the need and the response?

We are able to search the far end of our solar system and even make a probe landing on an asteroid. Companies are developing ever more sophisticated and efficient products, systems, and services, and are even changing mind-sets and paradigms. Still, the humanitarian sector relies on tents to provide shelter for people in need.

Really, what’s wrong with this picture?

Let’s explore how the private sector deals with product creation. In the private sector, the notion of joint venture is prevalent. Entities that bring diverse skillsets or expertise to the table are convened to achieve a common goal: the creation of a new product, system, or service. Venture financing then comes in to support the process, all the while betting on a return on investment. Most central to the private sector’s approach is the process of human-centered design. This means that any product is designed with the needs of the future consumer at the forefront. The imperative is simple: design well and you will sell (or go belly up).

So why is it that the humanitarian sector still uses tents that have barely evolved over the last decades?

The answer is rather simple. Unlike the private sector approach, the right partners were not brought together to achieve a common goal for the humanitarian sector (to create a new type of shelter for use in emergencies). The needs were not analyzed properly (How durable and safe should this shelter be?) The customer was not at the forefront of the process of defining the solution (Who is the customer? What feedback can he/she provide?) And lastly, venture capitalists weren’t attracted to the humanitarian sector as it is often characterized as highly volatile, unpredictable, and now, often dangerous. All red flags for investors.

But for humanitarian agencies, lack of resources presents a real dilemma that is often used to justify their inability to come up with innovations that can scale. When faced with the challenge of saving lives, how do you justify the expense needed for scaling up innovations? But on the flipside, how can humanitarian agencies save lives more efficiently and effectively if they don’t invest in scaling up innovations?

This dilemma leads to a vicious cycle. One that favors inertia and prevents the development of new solutions (be they products, services, or systems), while allowing the sub-optimal use of taxpayer funding. How can the humanitarian sector escape this?

The answer is clear: let’s put together the right recipe. Let’s combine seven powerful elements: VIP7. We will call this recipe the VIP74forsolutions.

What are these 7 powers?

1. The Power of a vision (or intuition) for tackling a challenge.

Problem-solving is innate to humans, and we’ve seen the greatest examples of this throughout our history. Many times it starts with a “Eureka” moment; that moment when one intuitively feels that a solution to a particular problem could be explored or articulated. I’m not talking about the precise solution, but a path to reach it. Einstein had an intuition that led to E=MC2. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had strong visions for the future of personal computing, and they made it happen. This is the power of vision.

2. The Power of Innovation.

By “innovation”, I mean the process of solving issues through adapting (incremental innovation) or creating something totally new (disruptive innovation). Solving wicked problems has to take an innovative approach. And by this I mean a process that starts with the precise definition of a challenge, creation of solutions through rapid prototyping, user testing, iteration, and final prototyping for production. This is the power of innovation.

3. The power of Human Centered Design (HCD).

IDEO and the D-Lab of Stanford have very successfully pioneered this concept of putting the end-user (or customer) at the center of the solution definition. It is about them and for them. The closer the end-users’ needs are analyzed and answered, the more successful the adoption or purchase of a solution. You iterate until you get it right from a customer perspective. This the power of HCD.

4. The power of partnership.

As mentioned, this is what’s happening every day around the world in the private sector. Academic and research centers are joining companies backed by business angel investors. You can’t do it alone. This concept in the humanitarian sector is still very alien. But without it there would be no new solutions. This is the power of partnership.

5. The power of venture philanthropy.

Because the private sector often does not see market opportunities in the humanitarian sector, the angel investors are just not there to help. This is where venture philanthropy comes in. Without the initial investment of close to $4 million from the IKEA Foundation, the groundbreaking Refugee Housing Unit (now the “Better Shelter Unit”) will have not have been realized simply because there would have been no available resources for rapid prototyping, lab testing, user testing, and iteration. Similarly, when we wanted to develop an innovative solution for recording and tracking the distribution of food and non-food items in the deep field – often in places with little to no electricity or connectivity – it was funding from The UPS Foundation that facilitated the development of an interface that could work alongside UNHCR’s registration system called ProGres. This is the power of venture philanthropy.

6. The power of passion.

One has to inspire, keep the course, fight “dark forces” who are against change and are satisfied with the status quo, and bring partners together and keep them going. Elon Musk had a vision for the future of electrical cars, but it was his passion and sheer determination that enabled him to fight energy conservatism and naysayers, and prevail with the first long-range electrical car.

7. The power of perseverance.

Creation takes time. This is a fact. One needs to steer the creative boat to port, often going through doubts, setbacks, challenges, and stormy waters. This is the price we pay to develop a successful product, service, or system. The project coordinator needs to stay the course and remind team members of the common goals. Perseverance and intellectual openness are essential ingredients for success. Like in any human adventure, partners may not have the patience or the financial resources to stay on board and will need to be replaced with less risk-adverse partners.

With the seven above powers lined up coupled with sheer determination, a risk-taking attitude, and passion, any wicked problem can be solved. A dry toilet? A digital school in a box? A new winterization kit for Syrian refugees faced with harsh winters? The naysayers of this world will say this works for the private sector, but will not work for the humanitarian sector. Let me take one example that tells it all. The Better Shelter for refugees (formerly known as the Refugee Housing Unit or RHU). Finding temporary shelter for those displaced by conflict or disaster is an old problem that remained without an obvious solution.

It all started with the realization that something had to be done to provide an alternative to the current family tent. It took the vision of industrial designers from Sweden as well as UNHCR staff who had for years dealt with a lack of shelter alternatives to come up with the rough outline of a new type of shelter. IKEA Foundation convened this team of industrial designers and UNHCR staff, and invested the financial resources necessary to start an exploratory research project. At the time no one could have predicted that the RHU project would take almost 4 years and $7 million of R&D to complete the prototype before moving in to the production phase. Setting up the production line required another $7 million investment. The project brought together 15 different companies from five different sectors (automobile, steel, flat-pack, sourcing, renewable energy), two university research centers, and UNHCR staff to work together to create the right challenge definition, and test and iterate using the Human Centred Design process.

The combination of these various partners and their combined sheer passion, determination and patience made this a success: a new product that is about to be distributed to refugees and displaced communities around the world. This product will provide a higher degree of comfort, security for women and children and dignity to millions of individuals forced to leave their home and spend many years in exile.

This is the power of the VIP7 for finding solutions to wicked problems: #VIP74S.  Applied together the seven powers will bring solutions to any wicked problem.


If you’d like to repost this article on your website, please see our reposting policy.


More stories