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There has been a gradual shift in the humanitarian world to considering the role that innovation can play in addressing endemic challenges of inefficiency, unsustainability and dependency. Within this ‘humanitarian turn’, the dominant approaches have been ‘top-down’, mainly focusing on finding ways to improve organisational responses. Alongside this, though, there has been the emergence of an alternative discourse of ‘bottom-up’ innovation. This approach has not yet been integrated into the current world of innovation practice within the typical humanitarian community. However, as this paper argues, it offers a potential way to engage the skills, talents and aspirations of so-called beneficiary populations, and thereby nurture self-reliance and sustainability. In order to develop a basic framework for thinking about bottom-up innovation, this paper draws on three relevant pre-existing bodies of literature: innovation theory, design theory and ideas on participatory approaches to development. Drawing upon the ideas and gaps in these literatures, the paper sets out a research framework capable of advancing the recognition and nurturing of existing local adaptation and innovation capacities within beneficiary communities as a source of sustainable humanitarian solutions.

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Working paper


Refugee Studies Centre

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