What are innovation labs and how can they improve development?

January 07, 2016Adarsh Desai

This post was originally published on the World Bank's Voices Blog.

How do we define innovation?

Simply put, innovation is finding and applying new approaches to address existing problems or serve unmet needs. From a development perspective, an innovation is a new solution with the transformative ability to accelerate impact. Innovation can be fueled by science and technology, can entail improved ways of working with new and diverse partners, or can involve new social and business models or policy, creative financing mechanisms, or path-breaking improvements in delivering essential services and products. Innovation has been and will be pivotal for reaching sustained, scalable solutions to the world’s complex problems. This definition was published in the call for innovation in international development by USAID, Gates Foundation, DFID, Canada, Sweden, UNICEF, Canada, Australia, Rockefeller Foundation, Results for Development, and the World Bank Group.

What is the objective of the World Bank Group Innovation Labs?

Our objective is to: (i.) accelerate the adoption of emerging innovations in Bank operations; (ii.) create a culture that’s more conducive to innovation and informed risk-taking; and (iii.) develop institutional capabilities to make innovation more strategic and systematic, in the World Bank Group. We have seen in numerous surveys over the years that there is wide recognition from our staff of the need for innovation to solve the intractable problems that our clients face. However innovation remains ad-hoc, fragmented, and often under the radar. 

What role does the Innovation Labs play?

We act as a bridge between our project teams and these emerging innovations that we believe could have big impacts on development. The Bank Group could play a pivotal role in bringing these innovations to our clients and helping scale them up. Almost all of our work is demand driven, with strong support  from senior management in operations.

How do you work with World Bank Group Operations?

We focus on select areas — emerging innovations (for example, big data, social enterprises) — and work towards accelerating their adoption in and through our operations. We do this by creating awareness and providing knowledge, expertise, tools, and connections with relevant external actors. We support our operational colleagues’ efforts to incorporate these in their operations. We believe that for any innovation to matter it has to be field tested and must offer potential to be scaled up.

What are these areas of emerging innovations?

They include: 

  • Big data analytics focusing on specific sector problems in energy, urban, transport, poverty, and other areas.
  • Social enterprise innovations that bridge the service delivery gaps
  • Open data and geo-mapping for improving aid effectiveness and transparency in client countries.
  • Other areas we are looking at including: unmanned aerial vehicles (aka friendly drones ), advanced manufacturing (e.g. 3D printing, robotics), artificial intelligence (e.g. IBM Watson, Google self-driving cars), digital economy, clean tech (e.g. solar, wind), as well as financial innovations (e.g. crowdfunding, social impact bonds, mobile money).

Why do the World Bank and other development institutions need Innovation Labs to focus on this? 

Emerging areas that could have a big impact on development are not always adopted quickly. Some of the reasons we found are:

  • Emerging innovations seem initially far-fetched and therefore appear less relevant; however these things grow exponentially – 1% penetration means you are already half-way through to 100%
  • They are seen as more relevant for the developed economies; however some of these actually offer opportunities for low and middle-income countries to leapfrog the more traditional paradigms (e.g. mobile vs landline)
  • There is a perception that it’s largely the domain of the private sector, and development impact or policy implications, aren’t immediately evident.

Emerging innovations often cut across several sectors. The Bank’s Innovation Labs can help the Bank’s teams consider whether innovations such as advanced manufacturing or artificial intelligence have relevance and impact across various sectors including urban, education, skills, jobs, social protection, trade and competitiveness, climate, transport, and others.


Over 13 plus years, Adarsh Desai has been passionate about leveraging technology and data driven innovations for international development. He has managed programs on big data analytics, ICT-enabled citizen engagement, Open Innovations, Geospatial data, eLearning and other technology enabled platforms, having global reach and impact. Adarsh currently leads the World Bank Group's Innovation Labs, housed in the Leadership, Learning and Innovation Vice Presidency, overseeing a variety of programs ranging from Innovations in Big Data Analytics, Social Enterprise Innovations, Open Aid Partnership, and Human Centered Design.

Photo Credit: Dominic Chavez, World Bank

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