The inventor Alexander Graham Bell once said: "Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds." It is then easy to see why, when striving to foster innovation, IFAD understands the importance of partnerships and collaboration to scout for new ideas and scale up successful ones.

But what resources are there for helping an organization like IFAD establish these ties? Well, the UN Innovation Toolkit’s Strategy, Partnerships, Architecture, Culture and Evaluation (SPACE) model has proved to be a valuable guide. And we will see how the Partnerships module was an inspiring resource for developing ways to better build new innovative partnerships.

Spearheading innovation for the beneficiaries and for the organization

IFAD’s Change, Delivery and Innovation Unit (CDI) fosters innovation at IFAD using a combination of the UN Innovation Toolkit (UNIT) and the Silicon Valley approach (which leverages the implementation of tools used in Silicon Valley, such as the Lean Canvas in substitution of traditional business plans).CDI’s mission is to spearhead a culture of change, enhanced delivery and innovation at IFAD to drive behavioural change, improve the performance of delivery systems, and promote the identification and scaling up of innovations to tackle rural poverty.Organizations like IFAD may have long-established means for supporting their beneficiaries through more traditional partnerships – but poor rural people are dealing with a complex world that is constantly evolving. How, then, can we keep up with rapidly changing problems?

Leveraging partnerships for innovation

One way is by daring to change our solutions and ways of working – but sometimes that is easier said than done, especially in getting a raft of potential ideas together in one place! Since its establishment in 2019, CDI has been creating internal and external partnerships to spearhead innovation. For example, CDI is IFAD’s focal point for the UN Innovation Network and the United Nations’ Rome-Based Agencies Innovation Team. In 2020, IFAD launched the IFAD Innovation Network, an informal, democratic, non-hierarchical space to share ideas, good practices, tools and lessons learned on how members can use innovation to improve performance and better address the needs and challenges of our target groups and beneficiaries. In the same year, IFAD joined “Moonshots for Development”, a working group of the innovation arms and labs of the International Finance Institutions (IFIs) who believe in leveraging their different capabilities and experiences in the innovation space to produce greater, global impact. The IFIs meet quarterly at events where they “speed-date” to hear each other’s progress and select ideas through a Dragons’ Den-style ideas pitch to identify potential solutions to partner and join forces to optimise resources and deliver better impact.

In 2021, CDI and the United Nations System Staff College (UNSSC) are enhancing the partnership between the two agencies to encourage knowledge and use of the UNIT within IFAD through the IFAD-UNSSC Mentoring Partnerships initiative and joining forces in the implementation of the Summer Research Programme on the implementation of UNIT.[1]

IFAD believes in supporting scientific, discovery-driven transformation and evidence-based decision-making. For this reason, the organization is strengthening its ties with academia and with organizations such as CGIAR to foster innovation that achieves results with agility, at lower cost, and delivers impact where it is needed the most. As part of these efforts, IFAD and the Alliance of Bioversity International and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research/ International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT/CGIAR) have joined forces to organize the Agri-Food Tech Innovation Forum and the Agrobiodiversity Innovation Challenge. The Challenge aims to recognize new products, services and best practices that can help increase production effectiveness, competitiveness, and resilience while conserving agrobiodiversity. It will showcase a selection of innovations with the potential to disrupt and transform current agricultural practices and food systems and to deliver on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Winners of the Innovation Challenge will be announced on 15 November at the 2nd International Agrobiodiversity Congress with a range of cash and in-kind prizes on offer for the best solutions including mentoring, partnerships, scientific and technology guidance, and tuition for a master’s program as well as increased overall visibility with investors.

IFAD is also collaborating with the newly launched Alliance/CGIAR Accelerate for Impact Platform (A4IP), the venture space that harnesses science and entrepreneurialism to catalyse and drive transformative innovations and technologies to address some of the most pressing challenges at the nexus of agriculture, nutrition, and climate change.

Internal corporate innovation is important too, and IFAD’s innovation partnerships are crucial for nudging people within the organization to think out-of-the-box, for example in re-thinking ways of working or adapting more swiftly to change. For this purpose, IFAD is learning from lessons collected from initiatives such as the 2019-2020 Corporate Innovation Challenge to design future internal innovation challenges that help the organization to deliver quicker and better results for its stakeholders and is actively contributing to learning and knowledge sharing in behavioural sciences

How the Partnerships module helps IFAD establish better partnerships

The partnerships module of the UN Innovation Toolkit helps teams to organize and plan activities while prioritizing alliances based on an organization’s strategic plan and objectives. The Toolkit was instrumental to guide the team in their decision-making process on which partnerships to establish and how to allocate resources.

Tool 1 suggests that you should first Define a Value Proposition. Establishing the unique value of the organization, and the partnership’s goals is the first step IFAD has taken before engaging in the partnerships described above. The value proposition of IFAD, for instance, lies in the fact that it invests in poor rural people, empowering them to increase their food security, improve the nutrition of their families and increase their incomes. IFAD is also the only non-bank United Nations agency with access to capital markets and has a grassroots approach to rural poverty reduction: this means it has a strong relationship with farmers’ organizations and the communities where it operates.

This Tool also invites users to consider their own organization’s position — as well as that of any possible target partner — within the broader innovation ecosystem. IFAD does so by scouting the environment for possible cooperation opportunities, aiming to understand what issues the potential partners tend to prioritize, and whether these match IFAD’s areas of interest.

Tool 4 is to Prioritize and Select Partnerships. In order to efficiently prioritize partnerships, it is necessary to have a clear idea of what the partnership’s goals are, as well as the organization’s minimum requirements for partnerships, including any stakeholder who needs to be consulted. For IFAD, this process is based on aligning potential collaboration agreements to the priority areas in the action plan on innovation. If this alignment is identified, then CDI works together with IFAD’s Global Engagement, Partnership and Resource Mobilization Division, Senior Management and colleagues in relevant technical areas to identify areas of collaboration and design innovation initiatives.

Exploring the two actions undertaken by CDI above reminds us that innovation can take many forms, and innovation partnerships reflect this clearly, ranging from those ensuring open spaces of collaboration with other organizations, to the ones spearheading new technologies and ideas. Nevertheless, for all types of innovation partnerships in IFAD, the goal stays the same: winning the race against poverty and hunger. The UN Innovation Toolkit offers not only United Nations agencies, but also other organizations, including private sector companies, step-by-step directions, worksheets, case studies and references, as well as a 27-question assessment which provides a diagnosis at the individual, team and organizational level to help users to design, plan and strategize their innovation journey. IFAD is shooting for the moon when it comes to innovation partnerships: it is looking to leverage its value added and innovative partnerships to accomplish its mission to achieve zero rural poverty and no hunger in an inclusive, transformational and sustainable way.

 This approach leverages the implementation of tools used in Silicon Valley, such as the Lean Canvas in substitution of traditional business plans.

Personnel and selected IE students analysed, documented and drew lessons learned from the mainstreaming of the UNIT in three selected institutions: IFAD, the UN World Tourims Organization and Accenture. The objective was to assess if the toolkit responds to the needs of its users, and to advance its broader adoption. CDI coordinates IFAD’s participation in the programme.