Published in Partnership with Forbes

“The days of thinking about the World Bank or any single university as the global repository of knowledge and expertise are gone. The smartest person in the room is the room,” said World Bank Institute Director of Innovation Labs Aleem Walji in a recent interview with the Skoll World Forum’s Rahim Kanani on all things innovation and development. The full interview can be found below.

Rahim Kanani: Before I get to your role as the inaugural Director of Innovation Labs at the World Bank Institute (WBI), tell me a little bit about your previous position as manager of WBI’s Innovation Practice. What kind of efforts did you lead, and what was the impact of those efforts?

Aleem Walji: When I joined the World Bank at the end of 2009, I was asked how we could more systematically support innovation.

Coming from Google, I was asked to help expand the space for experimentation, learning, and prototyping with an emphasis on emerging technologies.

We started by building on the Bank’s own ‘access to information’ policy which was foundational for our Open Data Initiative. The Bank collects enormous amounts of information on countries, people, projects, and programs over decades. Over the course of a given year, we might spend millions on data collection and significantly more on knowledge creation or curation. But much of the data we collect is input for our own analytical work or lending operations. When we made this data available to the world in a machine-readable format, searchable, and re-usable, people came in droves. Within months, we had more traffic to our data catalogue than the World Bank homepage. We were stunned.

We quickly realized that our clients and our users are not necessarily the same group. A few dozen countries take loans from the Bank but many thousands of researchers, students, NGOs, and policymakers come to the Bank for data, knowledge, and analytical resources. If we could make these resources available for people to use and re-use easily, we could create huge value in ways that we didn’t need to control.

That’s when our team and the Open Data group in the Bank invited software developers to create applications with our data; we were delighted to see uses of our own data we would have never imagined. One group created the Save-the-Rain app, which uses climate data to predict rainfall anywhere in the world and recommends what crops can be grown based on geography.

Many more incredible ‘apps’ were created because we asked a powerful question, had a compelling ‘invitation’, and made available valuable resources from which to create new information and knowledge.

Another powerful insight we had was to link maps with poverty data and project results to show the relationship between where we lend, where poor people live, and the results of our work. While it may sound simple or obvious, even today donors struggle to map the relationship between projects they fund and poverty indicators in a given country.

We quickly realized the value of ‘mapping aid’ and making aid data transparent and comparable. The Open Aid Partnership grew out of that impulse. Today, we’re working closely with IATI (the International Aid Transparency Initiative), AidData, and donors including the UK, Canada, Sweden, Spain, Netherlands, and Finland to answer the simple question, who does what where?

More donor partners are following suit and increasingly developing country governments are seeing the value of mapping their own expenditures. Kenya and Moldova are trailblazers in this respect.

BOOST is a tool that takes reams of budget data in a given country and creates simple visualizations showing where value-for-money is high and low. Few of us know what to do with complex pivot tables, but we can all understand if more or less students graduate in a given area based on similar spending per student. Where are resources spent efficiently? This is just as important for the US or UK as it is for Africa.

But the real game-changer in my view is our ability to use simple technologies like mobile phones to ‘listen at scale’. For decades, development practitioners have recognized the importance of participatory planning, evaluation, and citizen feedback. But these methods remained expensive, time consuming and difficult to do in remote areas. Today, with the global reach of the mobile phone, it is possible to reach real people in the most remote areas to ask basic questions, administer surveys, and listen to what people say about basic public services. And it’s not just about conveying information to people, it’s about using technology to listen to end-users. Did the doctor show-up at the clinic? Is there medicine in the pharmacy? Are there text books in the school? If we can figure out what to do with all this data (call it citizen data), we can make giant leaps in improving service delivery for the poor and help governments listen to and engage their clients.

Kanani: Now, in your role as the first Director of Innovation Labs at the World Bank, how would you describe the vision and mission of this new position?

Walji: Over the past couple of years, I think we’ve shown the power of emerging technologies and social media in changing the development landscape. Arguably, one of the most important contributors to poverty reduction in many parts of Africa and South Asia has been the mobile phone and related technologies that make it easier for previously excluded groups to communicate and make their voices heard. How do we capitalize on global platforms like mobile telephones, mobile broadband, social media, or off-grid energy to accelerate the rate at which we can end poverty? What is the role of science, technology and innovation in moving the poverty alleviation needle forward and fast?

That’s the challenge before the World Bank Group. How do we reach our two new goals of ending poverty by 2030 and promoting shared prosperity of the bottom 40% of people in every developing country?

How can we use the vast resources that global connectivity puts at our doorstep and tap into collective intelligence to solve today’s hardest problems? Can we think about global knowledge as a distributed resource and invite solvers from everywhere to solve problems anywhere? The days of thinking about the World Bank or any single university as the global repository of knowledge and expertise are gone. The smartest person in the room is the room. How do we use it and ‘hack ‘for humanity?

But the hardest problems on the planet defy simple technical solutions. Whether it is climate change, youth and unemployment, food security, or access to clean water and sanitation, these are challenges that require multiple actors to experiment together, learn together, and iterate fast. We won’t get it right the first time or the second. But what can we learn from our failures, what mistakes can we avoid making repeatedly if we share what we learn, and can we create adaptive systems that move toward solutions much more quickly? In physics, we learn the difference between complicated and complex systems. Complicated problems can be solved by an algorithm and replicated across contexts (think building a bridge) but complex problems (think traffic) require constant testing, feedback from users, and solutions do not often scale across contexts. What scales is the process by which you develop solutions.

Time is working against us. In November 2012, the World Bank released a report about the impact of a world that’s 4 degrees hotter. We can’t afford to let that happen. It will devastate our resource base, how we live, and particularly those least equipped to confront the challenge.

We need evidence-based solutions that bring multiple actors from government, civil society, private business, and citizens to problem-solve together.

And that requires collaboration and active experimentation in an unprecedented way. That is why we launched Innovation Labs. We played with the term ‘Co-Lab’ because we can’t do this alone. But in addition to partnerships, we can learn something from the world of software development. Agile development evolved because the linear model of development was not adequate to address dynamic and evolving client needs. Global development like software development needs shorter feedback loops and quicker cycle times. We know the world’s hardest problems are moving targets so we can’t over-analyze before we act. We need a new model and we won’t know in advance what it will look like but the urgency of the challenge is our call to action.

Kanani: What are some of the challenges to delivering on this promise of agile development, and how do you plan to overcome them?

Walji: What I’m suggesting is terrifying and counter-intuitive in an ‘expert driven’ culture. When you put subject matter experts in a room, they want to figure out as many things as possible before they start. They want blueprints, detailed budgets, and clear success indicators. They want to minimize risk. But innovation is about managing risk and navigating uncertainty intelligently. I think you start with success indicators but then use hypotheses and lean analytics to test multiple solutions at the same time. You fail fast and fail forward. You learn fast and iterate. You document what you learn, share it with the world and look for insights from wherever you find them.

But how do you do this in an environment designed to minimize risk and prevent failure with complex procurement systems, for example, which require you to know many things before you even start a project? It’s a very real constraint when you’re trying to be agile and don’t know in advance what you will need to deliver a given result. We need to be held accountable but there is a difference between being held accountable for a result and being held accountable for following a strict set of process steps. We need more of a culture of results to replace a culture of compliance to make this work.

Our President Jim Yong Kim talks about the science of delivery or the science of implementation. What does it take to get things done on the ground in some of the most challenging environments on earth? How do you push through financial reforms when strong vested interests don’t want them? How do you incentivize teachers to improve pedagogy when they are poorly paid and poorly regarded? How do you avert a fiscal cliff when many groups have much to lose?

At the Bank, we talk about political economy and understanding incentives and levers for change. This is both an art and a science. We have dozens of examples of where we have succeeded (perhaps not the first time), where we have made progress, and we have learned what to try and what not to do.

So how do we codify what we know, collect and distribute insights, and connect practitioners to each other in ways that allows knowledge to flow? The world has been talking about knowledge management for decades but with the amount of data, information, and knowledge created every day, how do we find what we want, when we want it, in a form that is usable and valuable? How do we build an evidence base, use it systematically, and consider preferences of the people we serve? That’s not just a problem Google and the World Bank worry about. The stakes are incredibly high. If we only knew what we know collectively, and could find it when we need it, we would be so much smarter.

Kanani: If all of this becomes a reality, what’s possible in terms of progress?

Walji: If we get this right, we can move the needle on solving the hardest problems in the world. It’s not about getting the answer right the first time or developing “cookie-cutter” solutions but about using a process that gets us closer to better solutions better adapted to end-users.

There are many challenges in the world that defy easy answers. We need bold experimentation and a willingness to adapt, listen and learn to solve them. Tim Hartford talks about the relationship between complexity and global development. The truth is that the problems we confront at the World Bank are more like playing 3D chess than checkers. There are multiple variables, conditions constantly change, and many times the answers don’t scale.

We need more than ‘know-how’ to solve complex development problems; we need ‘do-how.’ We need to find people who have relevant experience and learn from them. It’s about cultivating master chefs who know when to use the cookbook and when to improvise. What we need to scale is not a particular solution or development prescription but a repeatable process that is end-user centric, disciplined and data driven. We need to consider political, social and cultural as well as technical factors when problem-solving with our partners.

Today, we can tap into a global talent pool and invite solvers from every corner of the world.

Remember, it wasn’t a geographer who figured out the conundrum of longitude. It was a clockmaker who recognized a pattern. People from many disciplines can recognize patterns of different kinds and they can contribute towards ending poverty if we invite them to help. We need to enlist non-traditional actors and develop a systematic process to engage expertise wherever it is to test and develop new solutions.

Complex systems evolve and move towards new a equilibrium. The question is whether we can accelerate that process. Jim Kim calls it bending the arc of history. It’s a phrase Martin Luther King, Jr. coined that is still relevant today. We see the trend-line to ending extreme poverty. But each day we can gain in getting to the goal faster means saving lives and improving the quality of lives. How can we not try to do better? It’s a moral imperative.

Kanani: More broadly, what role do you see for the World Bank Group today in catalyzing and scaling human progress?

Walji: We’re an important player in the ecosystem of global development but there are many more players today than there were in 1944 when the Bretton Woods institutions were created. The World Bank Group has unique access to governments all over the world through our lending operations and we can leverage this privileged relationship to bring multiple stakeholders to the table to address the hardest problems on the planet.

But we need to learn how to lead from the middle. Gone are the days where the Bank can sit down with a few sovereign governments alone and solve complex global problems. Today’s challenges require working collaboratively with civil society, the private sector, technologists, governments, investors, and foundations to exploit their respective comparative advantages.

Let’s use the example of climate change. Where foundations can fund early stage innovators to test solutions, investors and governments can scale-up solutions that work in partnership with civil society. Based on learning and iterations from disciplined ‘experiments’, viable models will emerge that deserve the attention of governments, civil society institutions, and private actors including a variety of investors. Depending on whether solutions are commercially viable or require concessionary finance to scale, capital can be allocated in ways that optimize public value.

The World Bank Group can play multiple roles in this chain of public value creation. We can scan and help surface solutions for difficult global problems. By using the ‘spotlight and megaphone’ of the Bank, we can draw attention to a portfolio of promising experiments and capture what appears to be working, where, why, and under what conditions. This is the shift from the Knowledge Bank to a Global Solutions Bank.

For example, our ICT sector colleagues have been experimenting with ways to crowd-in ideas and expertise through competitions, apps challenges, and hackathons on topics like water, sanitation, and urban transport. This model allows policymakers to leverage the voluntary tech community and civic hackers to propose solutions to vexing information-based problems.

Today our lab is prototyping “OnTrack,” a citizen engagement mechanism with government agencies in Bolivia, Nepal, Zambia and Ghana—allowing citizens to provide feedback on basic service delivery in real time. Knowing whether teachers show-up for school, clinics stock medicines, and pipes deliver water is critical data when trying to improve access to public goods in so much of the developing world.

The Bank Group can also use levers like investment guarantees, concessionary loans, and a willingness to invest early in fragile environments to catalyze markets where political and economic risks are high. We can exercise positive influence on legal and regulatory frameworks that are often the big obstacles in allowing home-grown solutions to scale. Helping governments enable entrepreneurs and civil society to innovate can be one of the most important roles we can play.

We’re no longer the largest lender in most of the markets in which we operate but can we be a ‘preferred development partner’ in addressing intractable social and economic challenges where risks are high but the imperative to solve problems is even higher. That’s the challenge for the World Bank Group going forward and that’s what excites me about being here.