May 30, 2017

From Ideas to Impact: How Government Shapes Global Innovation

Students in the Science, Technology and International Affairs (STIA) major explored how innovation impacts the global community during the Gelardin New Media Center and STIA event “How Innovation Occurs in Government” on April 27, 2017, featuring keynote speaker Alexis Bonnell.

From Ideas to Impact: How Government Shapes Global Innovation

Bonnell, division chief of applied innovation for the U.S. Global Development Lab of USAID (the Lab), has developed over $3 billion of humanitarian and development programming in over 25 conflict, post-conflict, and emergency countries for more than 30 international donors, 10 U.N. agencies, the military, and the private sector. The event explored challenges created by innovation within government, and how to tackle these issues through different means, such as global collaboration.

Technology and Expertise

During the event, Bonnell discussed how an organization like the Lab approaches innovation from within the government. She also shared details about some promising innovations and how USAID is changing the way they respond to some of the world’s greatest challenges.

Bonnell urged the students in the audience, many of whom intend to pursue careers in international development, to remain open-minded. Because development workers typically orient themselves around an individual issue such as healthcare or education, Bonnell shared, they often neglect technology within the context of their respective expertise. She provided the example of the development industry, which could benefit from a “nutrition expert who also knows about media or emerging technology,” but that such an expert is rare. 

Bonnell and her division focuses their efforts on incorporating technology into different fields. The Lab aims to help millions of people by producing breakthrough development innovations and transforming the United States development enterprise. The Lab notes that innovation could have a huge impact on the world, especially if governments, consumers, and even businesses, such as pharmaceutical companies, cooperate with each other.

Boosting Reach, Enhancing the Journey

In response to her ideas, students asked about the implications of development in a digital era and its impact on global consumerism. One way that the Lab has suggested incorporating innovation into development is by utilizing well-known digital technologies in creative ways that contribute to profound social good. During the discussion, students learned about a recent Lab initiative that has started tracking various keywords and hashtags on Twitter as a way to map, and eventually stem, the spread of health epidemics in parts of Africa.

As ideas like this prove to be successful, aid organizations must embrace innovative technology and put effort into boosting the reach of such resources. It took 35 years to spread oral rehydration therapy to developing countries, but it took just one night for the seventh installment of the Harry Potter series to make it into 10 million hands worldwide. The next key challenge will be to determine how development agencies can work innovative strategies as straightforward as hashtag tracking into global practice, and how Georgetown students, as future leaders and stakeholders of these agencies, can contribute.

When offering her advice on how STIA students, and students of the broader Georgetown community, can work to solve the development issues that the global community faces, Bonnell believes that empathy is the most important factor, and that citizens and government leaders alike must not focus too heavily on risks and instead relinquish their fear of failure.

Additionally, Bonnell thinks that innovation is only useful once measured by the impact of its journey, proposing that, “to make innovation work, you have to make someone’s life easier and take them through a journey.”