Photo credit: DFID

Reimagining International Development: Lessons From Five Years of Amplify

As one of our biggest programs comes to a close, we reflect on what we've learned about how to build open, collaborative initiatives that transform international development.

A joint initiative of OpenIDEO, IDEO.org, and the UK Department for International Development (DFID), Amplify includes a series of open innovation Challenges that aimed to strengthen the international development sector through collaboration and human-centered design. Each Amplify Challenge winner received funding and 18 months of post-Challenge design support to bring their ideas to life.

In the international development space, applying for funding often happens in a closed environment with few interactions among stakeholders until funding decisions are made. Have you ever felt like we should experiment with a new approach? We did, which is why we collaboratively created Amplify.

Since February 2014, the Amplify Program facilitated a series of eight open innovation Challenges on varied international development topics from agricultural innovation to refugee education. We reviewed over 5,500 online submissions, supported over 500 shortlisted organizations, and selected 46 grantees across 19 countries to receive funding and design support from IDEO.org. As we near the end of the program, over $5 million dollars has been disbursed to this community of innovators.

Through OpenIDEO’s online platform, we’ve identified powerful, early stage ideas that address some of the world’s toughest problems, reaching nearly 1.5 million end users globally. This June, we’ll be celebrating the close of the initiative and the impactful work of these teams. It’s been a meaningful journey, and we’ve learned some essential lessons along the way.

1. Collaboration over competition

Applying for funding from traditional development organizations can be stressful, opaque, and competitive. In typical funding structures, applicants are unable to share their ideas, insights, and inspiration with each other. At Amplify, we’ve seen the benefits of fostering a collaborative environment. As OpenIDEO Managing Director Jason Rissman explains, we reimagined the RFP process to make it easier for organizations to share their ideas and break down silos.

All Amplify Challenge ideas were posted publicly on OpenIDEO’s online platform. Submitting an idea publicly and welcoming constructive feedback requires vulnerability and courage. We knew some organizations would find it daunting to share their ideas so publicly, but the transparency allowed for authentic learning and growth, fueled by a deeply empathetic global community.

Samasource Digital Basics is a winner from the Youth Empowerment Challenge. They are equipping young Kenyans with market-aligned skills and connecting them to employment opportunities in the technology industry.

Teams were encouraged to read other applicants’ proposals, share resources, and form connections. We saw how helpful this opportunity for openness was for many of the participants. For example, an innovator in the Democratic Republic of Congo might have a new perspective to share with a social enterprise in Kathmandu that may push them to consider a new approach. Throughout the process and beyond, our participants developed a sense of camaraderie, finding supporters, thought partners and even business partners along the way.

“The beauty of the Amplify process is that smaller NGOs, such as ours, have access to design and iteration intelligence from all over the world. Our committee to design, iterate, revise new solutions grew to 45 people overnight.”
        —Neema Namadamu of Hero Women Rising in DR CONGO

The framing of each Challenge created a shared sense of purpose for hard-working problem solvers that too often feel disconnected and alone in their work. This transparency and collaboration led to more informed solutions and greater community impact. The momentum generated in our Amplify Challenges created a real, digital community—made up of grassroots community-based NGOs large, international organizations, advocates, and practitioners tied together by their shared passion to drive change.

2. Provide value to all participants

Though Amplify received hundreds of applications per Challenge, resources only allowed for about five organizations to ultimately receive funding and design support each time. As such, the Amplify Challenge process was designed to create value for all participating organizations, regardless of whether or not they were eventually selected as a Top Idea. It worked well for many. How do we know? We asked the participants.

“We love the Amplify model because it allows us to explore our idea and focus on testing and design thinking. Through this process, we have been able to grow our vision into something tangible and implementable. Unlike traditional investors, Amplify is a great platform for encouraging critical and creative thinking!”
         —Ally Salim Jr. of Inspired Ideas in Tanzania

After Challenges concluded, we surveyed the community to understand the impact of the experience on their idea and team. We heard consistent feedback from participants about four key benefits:

  1. Network: Organizations built credibility, connected with other innovators, learned from each other, and leveraged the community over time as a result of our open platform and community management strategies.
  2. Design Thinking: Though all participants were at different points along their design thinking journey, the Challenge provided tools to help each team to quickly learn or refine their skills in brainstorming, interviewing, and prototyping.
  3. Storytelling: Articulating new ideas can be hard. Challenges pushed participants to consider their key audiences and tailor the way in which they tell their story. For example, all participants learned to explain their idea in one sentence. Storytelling support allowed the community to concretely prepare for networking, marketing efforts, and pitching for funding.
  4. Feedback: The top benefit cited by participants was the direct feedback that they received. Feedback is critical to growth, but can often be hard to come by. We’re thankful for the hundreds of hours volunteered by technical experts over the life of Amplify to provide detailed feedback to 525 shortlisted ideas, helping them to grow and make an impact in their communities.
Humanity Inclusion is a winner from the Disability and Inclusion Challenge. They are creating a comprehensive resource to assist employers in low- and middle income countries to create inclusive workplaces for persons with disabilities.

3. Fund teams, not ideas

One benefit of Amplify’s long-term commitment to a series of Challenges was the opportunity to iterate on processes and strategies over time. Staying true to the human-centered design mindsets, we were conscientious about documenting lessons learned to iterate on the Challenge process each time.

An early learning of the Amplify Program was the advantage of identifying teams with great insights, rather than only focusing on interesting ideas. Over the course of our earlier Challenges, we learned that the grantees best suited to benefit from Amplify were those with early stage ideas, rather than established projects with little room for testing. These were also the teams who were unafraid to ask good questions, rather than assume they had all the answers. This reflected what we call a ‘learner’s mind’— essentially, a willingness to consider different approaches and solutions. Equally important, the innovator had to be prepared to fail in service of learning and creating a solution that was truly impactful.  

Marie Stopes International Nepal/Sunaulo Parivar and Viamo are winners from the Reproductive Health Challenge. They are creating an on-demand, dial-in service to make reproductive health information accessible to communities.

We translated these learnings into our Challenge process and eligibility criteria. First, we encouraged applications from teams with nascent ideas adjacent to their existing work. Our application included questions to help us understand the problem that the applicant was solving for, the community context in which the new idea would be implemented, and the organization’s strengths and growth areas.

We also focused more attention on gauging the applicants appetite for ambiguity, experimentation, and failure. The open and flexible nature of OpenIDEO’s Challenge platform offers a unique opportunity to learn about participants by observing their progress through strategically designed phases, helping us make better investment decisions. Refining our application process ensured that truly the most innovative and human-centered applicants surfaced as the most competitive.

4. Look for those who let communities drive

One of the core goals of Amplify’s design was to encourage solutions and solvers to get closer to and co-create with end users. The Challenge process was intentionally designed to allow those applicants with deep community networks to shine.

If our team had to pick the single most important evaluation criterion for this program, it would arguably be the strength of an innovation's ability to meet real community needs. Though the ability on an innovator to articulate learnings from pilots and impact achieved are key to the application process, an idea that is not rooted in genuine community insights was not a strong contender for Amplify.

To support this community connection, we provided tools and resources—including interview guides and journey maps—that equipped and encouraged applicants to speak to end users. We wanted to hear stories and quotes, see photos, and watch ideas pivot based on the needs of real humans. We've seen that when innovators design with their beneficiaries, resulting solutions have greater potential for adoption and long-term success. This kind of community-level insight can sometimes be hard for large, international funders to access—but our process helped to minimize the gap of understanding between funder and end user.

"Amplify ensures a creative approach to solving problems in the community. Since it encourages starting with the people one is designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs. It encourages learning directly from the people you’re designing for."
        —Richard Kafuma of AFCCAD in Uganda


Knowledge of human-centered design methodologies was not a prerequisite of participating in Amplify Challenges, but we've learned over time that organizations that have natural strengths in listening to their communities tend to be strong partners. They know how to put their communities in charge, and to lead with humility and openness.

Kupenda for the Children is an Amplify winner implementing a training program in Kenya to equip community leaders in supporting quality care for persons with disabilities and reducing harmful traditional practices.

Through Amplify, we’ve learned how to be more strategic and intentional with open innovation Challenges. We’ve gained deeper insights into how to identify organizations best placed to support their communities, and how to help them make a sustainable impact through design thinking. We’re inspired by this powerful reframing of international development in which communities drive the change they want to see, and we are excited by the opportunity to continue testing and refining this approach.

This approach to open innovation in international development is spreading: since launching Amplify OpenIDEO has partnered with several foundations and governments to implement similar Challenges. Each of these new funders has invested over $1 million USD to support innovators across several areas such as refugee education, circular economy, and peace-building.

All of the innovation, collaboration, and learning achieved by Amplify would not have been possible without the engagement, passion, and hard work of the OpenIDEO community. For those of you who have participated in a Challenge, volunteered as a technical expert reviewer, or collaborated on the platform—we extend our deep gratitude to you and salute your work in improving the quality of life in your communities around the world.

Felicia Chiao

San Francisco, USA

Felicia Chiao is an industrial designer and illustrator based in San Francisco. By day, she works as an industrial designer for IDEO's Design for Food team, and at night she has been drawing in sketchbooks for over seven years, mostly for fun.

Felicia's Design Tips

"When starting a composition, create an anchor first and then build around it. The anchor can be the focus of the piece (like an object/animal/person) or a setting (interior, beach, city, etc.) and the rest of the elements drawn in after should support it."

You don’t need to know what the whole drawing is going to look like when you start it. Start with what you know and build into it as you go. If you don't enjoy what you're making it will show, so if something you're working on doesn't feel right, bite the bullet and start over instead of wasting time overworking it. I work mostly with markers, which often limits my choice of colors for the color palette, but you can start with the colors you know you will use (a red apple, blue water, etc) and then looking at your palette, pick which other colors would go well with what you have.

Erika Díaz Gómez

Bógota, Colombia

Erika was born in Colombia and loves creating stories without words. She thinks that telenovelas are more interesting than science fiction.

Erika's Design Tips

"Create your own personal and technical rules; fail, win and be patient."

Learn from yourself. Document, revisit and appreciate what you designed in the past. Explore your personal craft and celebrate your creator's identity. Make and repeat. Go analog, explore both your personal and craft's constraints, and don't let your commercial work take over. Art and side projects are the best teachers.

May Kodama

Oakland, USA

May is a true-crime-podcast-listening, plant caring, constantly eating, Japanese-American graphic designer. She strives to make good design, travel the world, and become the mother of five dogs at some point in her life.

May's Design Tips

"Try limiting your color palette to 1-5 colors, and even limit the shades of those colors. Explore how simply you can communicate depth and perspective with the layering of the limited palette. You can start with monochrome in pure black and white, before layering the additional complexity of color."

Always be hungry for discovery. The thing that motivates me the most is experimentation and exploration. I'm always looking for new mediums to try out and play in, whether it be in 2D, 3D, digital, motion, etc. I find that as long as I'm constantly doing and learning something new, I stay inspired and excited about the work. However, don’t look at too much inspiration. Sometimes, I can get lost on the Pinterest train, clicking into link after link after link. Visual overload can crowd and push out your own ideas, so be careful to balance looking externally and looking internally. Inspiration can only help so much. Save space for your own creativity to flow.

Allison Press

Oakland, USA

Allison is an interaction designer and strategist at IDEO on a mission to design for the public good. Whether it’s improving how public institutions serve their citizens, creating digital access to learning, or cultivating civic engagement, she is driven toward systems-level challenges with optimism and obsession for figuring out how design can be used to more equitably serve people. In her spare time, she enjoys making gifts that celebrate the people who make her life full.

Alison's Design Tips

"A balanced composition has three things—a large element (like a colored background), a medium element (like the focal point), and a small element (to add visual texture)."

If you want to take your creation to the next level, adding a little bit of texture in digital illustrations goes a long way.

Interested in Amplify?

Learn more about the Program, or take a deeper look into Amplify’s flexible funding and partnership model.