Social Innovation

Defining Innovation to Foster Success

By: Jacquelyn M. Rose, MPH

I just finished watching author Steven Johnson’s TED Talk “Where Good Ideas Come From” from TEDGlobal 2010, and was immediately reminded of the importance of having a strong innovation definition and a blog authored by my colleague Scott Orsey, What is Good Program Definition?. In the blog, Scott argues good program definition must do three things: 1) be clear and easy for everyone to understand; 2) offer enough definition that people can understand what the program is and is not; and 3) be flexible enough to allow practitioners discretion in implementation. Scott offers the model used by Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health, which defines programs, or for the purpose of this conversation innovations, by their core components and structural requirements. Core components are described as three to five internal conditions that are the essence of the innovation whereas structural requirements are the environmental or external conditions that need to be in place for successful and sustained implementation.

During the TEDTalk, Steven discusses how Timothy Prestero and his team at Design That Matters went about addressing the infant mortality rate among premature babies in developing countries.

“One of the things that’s very frustrating about this is that we know, by getting modern neonatal incubators into any context, we can keep premature babies warm, basically – it’s very simple – we can halve infant mortality rates in these environments. So, the technology is there. These are standard in all the industrialized worlds. The problem is, if you buy a $40,000 incubator, and you send it off to a mid-sized village in Africa, it will work great for a year or two years, and then something will go wrong and it will break, and you don’t have the on-the-ground expertise to fix this $40,000 piece of equipment. And so you end up having this problem where you spend all of this money getting aid and all these advanced electronics to these countries, and then it ends up being useless.”

In the scenario Steven described, the innovation was defined very narrowly as the $40,000 incubator being utilized in industrialized countries. This definition does not take into account the characteristics of incubators that make them the ideal solution to the problem, context in which the solution will be implemented, what resources those implementing the innovation have access to, or how the innovation will be sustained over time.

Instead, what if the innovation was described as a device that creates a controlled environment that allows premature babies to continue to grow and develop? What if the innovation was defined in terms of its core components and structural requirements? This is exactly what Timothy and his team set out to do.

“So what Prestero and his team decided to do is to look around and see: what are the abundant resources in these developing world contexts? And what they noticed was they don’t have a lot of DVRs, they don’t have a lot of microwaves, but they seem to do a pretty good job of keeping their cars on the road. There’s a Toyota Forerunner on the street in all these places. They seem to have the expertise to keep cars working. So they started to think, “Could we build a neonatal incubator that’s built entirely out of automobile parts?” And this is what they ended up coming up with. It’s called a “neonurture device.” From the outside, it looks like a normal little thing you’d find in a modern, Western hospital. On the inside, it’s all car parts. It’s got a fan, it’s got headlights for warmth, it’s got door chimes for alarm – it runs off a car battery. And so all you need is the spare parts from your Toyota and the ability to fix a headlight, and you can repair this thing. Now, that’s a great idea, but what I’d like to say is that, in fact, this is a great metaphor for the way ideas happen. We like to think our breakthrough ideas, you know, are like the $40,000 brand new incubator, state-of-the-art technology, but more often than not, they’re cobbled together from whatever parts that happen to be around nearby.”

While Timothy and his team may not have started their endeavor looking to define the core components and structural requirements of the innovation, that is exactly what they did. The team defined the innovation as a controlled environment that enables premature babies to grow and develop. They identified the core components of the innovation by identifying and describing characteristics and features of the $40,000 incubator that enabled premature babies to grow and develop in industrialized countries. To define the structural requirements, they did an environmental scan to understand what resources, both materials and human capital, were easily and readily available to support ongoing implementation and utilization of the innovation.

Core Components Structural Requirements
Air circulation within the controlled environment. Access to replacement parts if something breaks or malfunctions.
Heat to help the premature baby regulate body temperature. Individuals that know how to maintain and repair the device.
Alarms to notify medical staff when the baby needs attention. Leverage existing resources to foster sustained implementation.
Steady power source.

This is a simplified description of the process Timothy’s team deployed and the device they created based on the content shared in Steven’s TEDGlobal Talk. Defining innovations and their associated core components and structural requirements so they have broad applicability is not easy work. Crafting good definition is a challenging, iterative process that requires collaboration and groups of people coming together to discuss potential solutions to problems.

The difficulty defining innovations is one of the one of the reasons social innovators find so much value in Connecticut Children’s Advancing Kids Innovation Program (AKIP) and our Community Health Innovation Check-Ups (CH-ICUs). The CH-ICU is a consultation service offered to individuals and organizations developing, implementing, and growing novel strategies to promote children’s optimal health, development, and well-being. Innovators, which include individuals as well as representatives from businesses, non-profit service providers, and government entities, share their innovation with panelists and then engage in a semi-structured conversation regarding the innovation model, impact potential, sustainability, organizational capacity, and evolutionary progress. Regardless of the innovation’s stage of development, we always spend a significant amount of time discussing the core components and structural requirements of the innovation model because it is critically important to the other pieces of the conversation. While some say if you cannot define it, you cannot measure it, at Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health, we believe if you cannot define it, you cannot measure it, sustain it, implement it, or scale it.

Are you a social innovator promoting children’s optimal healthy development, strengthening families, and supporting communities? We would love to learn about your work! Please share your story with Connecticut Children’s Advancing Kids Innovation Program at

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To read additional blogs from Jacquelyn Rose, MPH, click here.

Jacquelyn M. Rose, MPH, is the program manager for Connecticut Children’s Advancing Kids Innovation Program.

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