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.

There’s never been more momentum for change. As millions of young people flood the streets around the globe to demand urgent climate action, cities and social entrepreneurs have taken matters into their own hands. Feeling this rising bottom-up pressure, governments, corporations, and multilateral organizations, like the UN, are accelerating their efforts to address massive global issues. The UN Sustainable Development Goals have provided a clear framework for action, and they’re helping align more actors than ever in the systems change we need.

OpenIDEO’s leaders, Jason Rissman and Luisa Covaria, spent the week diving into events and conversations, and came back to our team (and now you, our community) with three main themes they wanted to share as we work together to build a better world:

1. Ownership.

Since kicking off the Climate Strike a year ago, 16-year-old Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg has been extraordinarily influential in striking up fierce conversations around climate change and inspiring millions of young people to start taking action. She delivered an unforgettable message at the UN Climate Action Summit, telling world leaders: 

"You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you." 

There’s a new urgency and commitment to addressing the climate emergency, and it’s translating into actors at all levels—from individual young people to national governments—starting to take more ownership. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated, “We have been losing the race against the climate crisis. But the world is waking up. Pressure is building. Momentum is growing. And—action by action—the tide is turning.”

Countries have moved past negotiation and toward ownership, showing up with their own commitments in unison with this year’s theme for UNGA: "Galvanizing multilateral efforts for poverty eradication, quality education, climate action, and inclusion." During the week, 77 countries committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and 139 banks—representing a third of the industry—signed up to align with the Paris agreement objectives. The UN member states also adopted a landmark declaration on universal health coverage. These are just a few of many examples of stakeholders proactively bringing forward their solutions. 

HOW WE'RE THINKING ABOUT THIS

Sharing his observations from listening to diverse groups of Americans this past year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told the audience that he saw a “tremendous urgency and a tremendous spirit of do-it-yourself … a deep sense that it had to become a matter of personal responsibility right down to the local level.” Echoing his statement, we’re proud of OpenIDEO's globally connected innovators for taking initiative and developing a sense of ownership around local problems. They’re tackling issues related to food waste, people on the move, education, public health, circular economy, and so much more, with dedication and ingenuity.

As we move forward, how might open innovation be a conduit for increased ownership and visibility into the work different stakeholders are taking on? How might the work of so many of the incredible innovators in the OpenIDEO community inspire leaders to develop a mindset around design and prototyping in the work they are owning?

2. Technology

"We will have wonderful machines and dumb people if we don't invest more in education,” cautioned musician and entrepreneur, will.i.am, during a World Economic Forum panel focused on the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution—or the multiple technological revolutions that are transforming the way we live and work—to meet global development goals.

“It’s not about connectivity—it’s about access,” noted Kate Wilson, CEO of the Digital Impact Alliance at the UN Foundation. “How do we provide access to 50% of the world not connected to the internet? SMS and voice won’t do it. How do we create content and opportunities that are relevant?”

It's crucial that no one is left behind. While technological innovation is surely part of the answer, uneven access and unequal digital skills will lead to adverse effects. For tech to improve lives in a responsible and even way, and to avoid even greater increases in inequity, we'll need new models of targeted education, responsive innovation, and real cooperation between economic, political, and social systems.

HOW WE'RE THINKING ABOUT THIS

Tech needs to facilitate inclusion in addressing societal problems, by involving those who are most proximate to the problems that well-intentioned new technologies are aiming to solve. We believe that collaborative thinking leads to greater innovation, and that including the voices of those with lived experiences will generate even stronger solutions. Open innovation is in its infancy, and we’re excited to help it advance to better surface and support the social innovators our future needs.

3. Collaboration

Today’s problems are interconnected, and only through systems change can we hope to make real progress. This will require more cross-sector collaboration than ever, but first, we need to improve how these collaborations are created and sustained. It’s time to introduce new models of collaboration that distribute leadership and allow all sectors to pitch in.

The SDGs have provided a powerful framework for what needs to get done, and some of the biggest players in the public and private spheres are putting their heads together to unlock the resources necessary to meet them. During UNGA, Google and the UN launched a partnership to develop real-time maps on weather patterns and SDG development activity, while the Gates Foundation and the World Bank announced a multi-million dollar commitment to support small-scale food producers in the face of mounting climate impacts.

Public-private partnerships are a necessary ingredient, as are new collaboration models that offer participants more shared ownership and flexibility.

The road to healthy collaboration is fraught with challenges, from getting past cultural differences to agreeing to common goals to making the long-term commitments needed for systemic change. Making collaborations work is hard work -- it takes empathy, grit, and a real understanding that it’s the key to sustained progress.

HOW WE'RE THINKING ABOUT THIS

We’re excited for open innovation to provide a unique opportunity to rally diverse stakeholders and together explore new possibilities. By providing shared learning opportunities, clear timelines and processes, along with compelling incentives, open innovation holds the potential to mitigate against these common obstacles and to quicken the pace at which solutions are being developed by scaling the design process globally. Direct competitors collaborating in a pre-competitive space to address environmental challenges is a promising sign, but we need to go further. We all need to adopt an experimental mindset as a collective and work to continuously improve our ability to collaborate.

The NextGen Circular Business Accelerator, which culminated in a pitch event at UNGA, was one such collaboration, with leading brands, industry experts, and innovators coming together to eliminate single-use food packaging waste by developing a more sustainable cup. 

It is incredible to be in a room where you can feel a community reach a turning point. This year at UNGA we felt that shift tangibly across fields and sectors. We look forward to a year of collaborations with our partners and community that reflect this movement. 





















What Do We Hope To Accomplish?

The Rockefeller Foundation has partnered with SecondMuse and OpenIDEO to amplify the discourse on the state and the future of the world’s many food systems, and to empower communities globally to develop actionable solutions and become protagonists in their own food future. Creating a compelling, concrete and actionable Vision for the future of our food system requires a culture of collaboration that rallies industry, policy, academia, and society to act as one. When we come together, we can deliver sustainable, nourishing diets for people and the planet by 2050.

Why Food Systems?

Aside from air, food (including clean water) is the most vital resource for life on Earth. And when you look at the food systems data and 2050 projections, the future does look bleak. But Humanity has more knowledge, technology, social intelligence, and human capacity than ever before—all of which can be harnessed to create a food system that nourishes all people, grows the global economy, and nurtures a thriving environment.

A Systems Approach

The Food System Vision Prize invites organizations and entities (called Visionaries) to imagine a hopeful, inspiring Vision for their chosen Place—town, state/province, region, bioregion, watershed, or country—through a systems approach. The goal for the program is to develop Visions that reflect the views of different stakeholders and that address the following six Themes:
1. Environment
2. Diets
3. Economics
4. Culture
5. Technology
6. Policy

Our Goal

Successful Food System Visions will be stories of contrast. They will illuminate the difference among food systems as they exist today and as they could be in the year 2050 “if we get it right” (science, policy, advocacy, behavior, etc.). Visions will unlock inspiration, knowledge, networks, and innovative solutions that have the potential to transform the future course of humanity and the planet. The purpose of the Food System Vision Prize is to light the way for populations across the globe to realize a more promising, nourishing, and healthy future.

Sign up to stay tuned for updates!

Interested in Amplify?

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