Five Essential Things to Give Innovation in Education the Best Chance

This blog post was originally posted in Harvard Business Review Arabic

We need to find creative solutions to the social challenges that stubbornly persist across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). For example, even before the refugee crisis and the rise of double shift schools, Education Ministries across the region were struggling to match their success in delivering improved access to education with levels of student achievement fit for a connected, innovation led, world. Rectifying this matters for economic and social prosperity. For instance, narrowing the gap between the skills that learners have, and those the changing economy requires, is one of steps needed to re-establish the broken link between education and a good job. It is also part of any serious response to the enormous macro trend of more and more job tasks being carried out by machines and clever algorithms. 

Fortunately, there now exists a growing range of international examples that show how an entrepreneurial approach to generating social value can deliver the creative solutions that we need. For example, around the world education entrepreneurs are demonstrating an edge over government run initiatives by:

Despite the importance of organisations such as these, there are simply not enough MENA startups working in these high-impact areas. This is partly explained by an ecosystem that does far too little to encourage them in the first place, and even less later to back them to grow.

We believe this needs to change.

Recognising the Queen Rania Foundation’s success in catalyzing sectors such as online learning and teacher training across MENA, we have been exploring how the Foundation can help establish the building-blocks of a fit-for-purpose ‘eco-system’ for education entrepreneurship.

In the open nature of our enquiry -- and we would love to hear your thoughts on what we’ve got right, what we’ve missed or simply got wrong -- here are five things that we think need to happen ...

One: provide funding proportionate to the change we need

Social innovation has a natural bias towards novelty, of ambitious entrepreneurs who want to transform “x” through a Hackathon. There’s nothing wrong with Hackathons per se, but if we are to make inroads into the trickiest of social challenges then we need to secure funding that is proportionate to the challenge (and to the opportunities to address it).

In many parts of the Middle East, it’s likely that funding for true ‘scale-up’ will come from the big global investors most of whom, to date, have undertaken no serious activity in the region. However, to demonstrate that MENA is a rich source of creativity and social investment opportunities, local philanthropists (and perhaps sovereign wealth funds) need to identify new talent and support them to develop their ideas. Collectively, we need to shine a light on the education entrepreneurs that already exist - and back them to move to their next stage.

Alongside that, we must honestly recognise that the types of investments in education innovation that we need -- for instance, investments in processes, implementation ‘know-how’, software, and awareness raising -- are investments in so-called “intangibles”.

One characteristic of such investments is that they generate returns that are capturable by others. For example, if you raise awareness of the need for a parental engagement programme another business can later enter the market and take advantage of your work. They are also harder to copyright, and more difficult to borrow-against.

Taken together, this investment profile favours ‘Pioneer Philanthropy’ that can account for the value created at the system level, even if the returns to an individual business are uncertain. It sees an important role for patient capital that offers value beyond cash, and calls for a variety of financial tools across a returns continuum.

Two: focus funding, and so entrepreneurial energy, on delivering demonstrable outcomes

Too much innovation in education is focused on automating existing practices (e.g., a text-book goes digital) and fails to get at the heart of changing teaching and learning. There also tends to be a persistent over-confidence in the ability of isolated products -- as opposed to integrated programs of teacher professional development, tested implementation models, and compelling tools -- to deliver change.

However, once we start focusing on the delivery of learner outcomes -- that is, changes in what a learner knows or can do, or, in other words, changing what is inside someone's head -- then an intriguing set of questions become much more salient for both founders and funders.

Questions such as how to get more two-way dialogue between teachers-and-students into the classroom. Or, how to make good use of a student’s peers as sources of teaching and learning. In other words, we must move beyond vague talk about ‘disrupting education’ to the level of granularity where innovation is likely to make a difference.

Three: provide support that meets the needs of Education Entrepreneurs

Education entrepreneurs focused on the goal of delivering learner outcomes have support needs that are not met by general entrepreneur programmes. For instance, training in how to access and use educational research, or routes into ‘test-bed sites’ such as pioneer schools, universities, or workplaces where innovations can be trialed, iterated and eventually formally tested.

Many aspects of this picture have now been implemented outside of MENA. For example, both EDUcate in London and Injini in South Africa are much stronger than non-specialised accelerator programmes on the generation, and use, of evidence and research. While it existed, Innovate NYC was especially strong at securing test-bed sites, and at securing educator involvement in the co-creation of innovations.

Learning from initiatives such as these would allow us to ‘leap-frog’ over many accelerator programmes (some with very prominent names) who treat delivering change in education as a generic software problem.

Four: don’t ignore nurturing the demand for innovations (even though it’s tricky!)

Inventing good stuff isn’t enough - we need it to be bought and used, and bought and used in light of an understanding of what it can offer for learning, when, and for whom.

At the minimum, this means creating the incentives, skills and institutions required for evidence collection and dissemination. And we need to do this in a way that doesn’t overly stifle innovation, can keep pace with the creativity and pace of digital innovation, is useful and reliable, and reaches the right people.

Realising all these tasks will mean knitting together a mix of different capabilities. Some will deliberately act slowly, and will attend to the patient accumulation of knowledge and evidence outside of political and policy pressure. Others capabilities will be deliberately optimistic and fast acting - for example, using Educator meet-ups to share ideas, best-practices and enthusiasm.

As before, there are examples to learn from. Although its success varies, the What Works initiative in England is a substantial attempt at creating, and adding to, a store of memory of what works in areas ranging from education to ageing well. Digital Promise in the US has a catalogue of support to help purchasers of EdTech make the right decisions, and there are other examples of explicitly stimulating demand - for example, through new funding streams such as vouchers to buy innovations; changes to rules and regulations; or creating pioneer sites that example what is possible.

Five: back ‘home-grown’ entrepreneurship

Most innovation involves the borrowing, adapting, bundling or unbundling of previous efforts. (The famous example is the original iPhone which largely took a set of existing technologies and knitted them together into a compelling whole.) Likewise, successful social innovation is frequently about borrowing and taking inspiration from what others have done. However, what it rarely involves is transplanting an idea wholesale from another context.
This isn’t just a matter of developing new content - something partly reflected in Steve Job’s comment that: “[w]hat’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology ... The problems are socio-political.”
Here homegrown entrepreneurs have a clear advantage. Home-grown, local, entrepreneurs simply have a better understanding of where the social needs (and the opportunities) are, they can identify and access key decision makers, they can communicate their ideas in the right forum, they are better able to develop the movements that are often required for social change, and they can access and activate the community resources that are too often neglected.
None of this is easy, and home-grown entrepreneurs will typically possess the commitment (and maybe the lack of other options) that are helpful for when things inevitably get difficult. Uber can exit the region, Careem has no business if it does the same - and critically is also leveraging it’s local roots to win.


We recognise that there are few ‘quick-wins’ in the tasks that we’ve set-out. However, we cannot see a way of avoiding them if we are to systematically nurture the impactful innovations that the region needs. To our mind, the best attitude is to recognise the generational change that we are seeking to create, and then to simply get going.

Please get in touch if you want to join us.   



Nafez Dakkak and Mark Griffith