Innovation Factory – Producing sustainable development

Digital technologies play a decisive role in reaching the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but to what extent the global South is going to actively shape the development of innovative technologies is yet to be seen. The potential of innovative digital approaches is widely known but it is not being tapped into in many local and regional contexts. This poses questions like how the new technologies could contribute to self-determined development in individual states and how could already existing potential be fostered.

The Innovation Factory makes use of collaborative processes to identify and develop digital solutions in five partnering nations (Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Mexico and Senegal).  Over the course of workshops that usually span several days, promising digital solutions are being spotted and refined. Innovators that make it through that first round are being invited to subsequent incubator programs and co-creation-processes that take several months to complete where they continue development on their digital solutions together with local and international experts and coaches.

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Turning teams with a vision into competitive businesses 

Over the course of the incubator programs, the companies that get accepted work together with experts and coaches. The innovators are supported in their endeavors of creating innovative and sustainable business models around their solutions and are being encouraged to be open to optimize their models according to the needs of potential investors. The Innovation Factory further assists them in building the necessary skills for both the social-ecological and economical implementation of their ideas. Peer-Learning plays a major role in this since direct experience exchange is more practical and memorable than dry subject matter and thus help to avoid mistakes. The “Human-Centered-Design-Approach” (HCD) that lies at the heart of this methodology ensures that the developed solutions take into account the actual needs of futures users and the specific local contexts.

Start-ups and non-profits that work on innovative digital solutions which have the potential to contribute to reaching the United Nations’ Social Development Goals are eligible to apply for the incubator programs. On top of that, they need to fulfill certain criteria in terms of economic sustainability. The SDGs are a main focus and the participants learn how to maximize their efficacy in the respective problem fields. At the end of the incubator phase, a jury selects the teams that receive further support to reach scalability.

 “We all had been elaborating on our innovative concepts before, but getting it scrutinized by the group and by the professional coaches helped us to find the weak spots”, says Koen regarding his experiences at the Innovation Factory Bootcamp in Addis Ababa 2019. His social start-up Addis Air runs a network of sensors that measure the air quality in the Ethiopian capital. “The workshop made the team and me focus on multiple aspects of doing business: what’s the revenue model? Who are our client groups? How are we going to reach them? Who are other actors in same business sector? Who are possible partners? Suppliers? What’s a realistic timing? What about the best legal structure? […] I think many great ideas fail because it goes wrong in the business implementation. The boot camp helps to be better prepared for that step!” 

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Innovation Factory today and tomorrow 

Currently, the Innovation Factory supports approximately 50 different innovative digital solutions that provide an important contribution to reaching the SDGs. Aside from the process of guiding businesses from the idea stage to the piloting or start-up phase, the Innovation Factory focuses on the identification and transfer of existing digital solutions over to new contexts. Cases are too frequent where digital innovations are being developed from the ground up because knowledge about solutions that have already been developed in other countries is not available. On the other hand, local contexts are too often ignored when transferring existing ideas. Innovation Factory helps the participating businesses to be on top of the international status quo. Knowledge is shared, proven approaches can be replicated and adapted according to local conditions.

In the future, start-ups like Addis Air could participate in creating a better data basis for political decision making when it comes to new mobility concepts for cities like Addis Ababa and maybe even for the whole of East-Africa. 

Sector: Currently focusing on the topics environment & climate, gender equality and education technology
Region: Global; partner countries Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Mexiko, Senegal
Method: Human Centered Design, Design Thinking, Co-Creation
Project status: 2. phase ongoing (01/2018-08/2022)