Bottom-Up Innovation

Examining how crisis-affected communities engage in innovation, and conceptualising a people-centred approach to humanitarian innovation.

  • Congolese refugee youth group gathers at a hand-made radio mast, outside their radio station. An example of bottom-up innovation.

    Congolese refugee youth group gathers at a hand-made radio mast, outside their radio station. An example of bottom-up innovation.

    Photo by Louise Bloom

Researching the innovative capacity of crisis-affected communities to contribute to humanitarian solutions.

This work begins from the recognition that the emerging global debate on humanitarian innovation has generally been focused on improving organisational responses. Although important, this dominant focus risks missing an important perspective: the creative problem-solving of refugees and other crisis-affected communities themselves. This sub-project serves as a corrective to that,  examining through extensive fieldwork the diverse ways in which refugees engage in bottom-up innovation. On a theoretical level, we have developed a conceptual framework through which to  understand such processes and the barriers and obstacles that displaced populations face in innovation. On an empirical level, the work has examined a number of contexts including through  research in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Jordan, the United States, and Australia.

As innovation is being translated from existing fields of innovation studies, we are concerned with what makes innovation thinking unique in a humanitarian context. Humanitarian response is often made up of temporary activity in a disrupted environment, with a focus on saving lives rather than commercial interest in a stable market. The humanitarian system therefore provides a very different context for thinking about what innovation means. The core difference as we see it is that humanitarianism is first and foremost aimed at creating positive change and solutions to survival during and beyond crisis for those affected. The people-centred goals for humanitarianism make us think about innovation in a particular way. This research strand therefore broadly sits at the intersection of innovation studies and development studies. 


Three broad areas of research questions capture the work in this sub-project:

1) Direct innovation by affected communities

Example research questions:

  • What can we say about innovation at a grassroots level?
  • How do communities support one another’s innovation?

2) Innovation management within humanitarian organisations

Example research questions:

  • What trade-offs have to be made in order for innovation to work within the existing constraints of the humanitarian system?
  • Under what conditions can this innovation provide sustainable solutions?

3) Innovation on the edges - community & agency interaction

Example research questions:

  • What impact do ‘top-down’ innovations have on communities?
  • How do models of facilitation work or not work in practice?
  • How can humanitarian organisations best facilitate bottom-up innovation?


Some of these questions are starting to be explored through case-studies with UNHCR Innovation, The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Australia, and YARID in Uganda.

To find out more about this sub-project contact Louise Bloom.


Funding: Stephanie and Hunter Hunt

Fieldwork: Louise Bloom

"People will always find creative ways to use the resources available to them, to beat the system, and to change the system to address their own priorities."

Humanitairan worker speaking about Syrian refugees
Za'atari refugee camp, Jordan