Solving Development Problems with Innovative Solutions

An ADB-supported pilot project brings Vanuatu a technology that can convert air into safe drinking water. Photo credit: ADB.

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Here’s what worked and what didn’t for Asian Development Bank’s first regional technical assistance on innovation.


Charting an innovation path for socioeconomic development requires thinking outside the box and an ability to see change as an opportunity and not as a threat.

In December 2015, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved $5 million in technical assistance to strengthen the capacity of developing economies in Asia and the Pacific to solve development problems using innovative solutions. The project had two parts. The first comprised five activities across the Transport, Education, Finance, Health and Water and other Urban Infrastructure and Services Sectors to address development challenges in selected countries. These activities supported the design and implementation of ongoing and new loans. The second part involved eight pilot projects in sustainable transport, health, social development, economic empowerment, gender equity, and sustainable energy that try out new ideas nested within an existing project, extending the scope of what they could do within their existing resource envelopes.

This is a summary of Unlocking Innovation for Development, a report that highlights the solutions of the activities and pilot projects supported by the technical assistance as well as their progress and learning opportunities.  


Here is a brief of pilots supported under this project.

Sustainable Transport

  • Leveraging a geographic information system platform that can assess road safety improved transport operations in Pakistan. One of the setbacks of the project was the delay in hiring consultants because of the scoping and selection of projects for activity assistance.
  • To scale up urban transport operations in Fiji, Malaysia, and Thailand, development plans for sustainable transport, involving traffic planning, pedestrians, and public transport were made sustainable and IT-enabled.  The project gave ADB new business opportunities for expanding urban transport lending.
  • Involving youth and using a smartphone app, Safetipin, helped to quickly generate detailed and gender-sensitive audit data to guide the infrastructure upgrade of the Ha Noi metro line 3 railway. This was a model of inclusion—with the involvement of young people contributing to social accountability through technology. The project could have been more effective if it had been introduced either at the metro design stage or once the metro system was already in use.

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  • Empowering staff to be more responsive and improve the quality of care can make public service delivery more accountable. An ADB-initiative in Indonesia made measurable improvements to education and health-care-related public services by consolidating and replicating innovative service delivery practices. If the activities had been implemented across more sites simultaneously, it would have helped make an even stronger case for wider scale-up.
  • Reforming health services and increasing coverage requires evidence-informed decisions. Through an innovation pilot, ADB worked with Armenia’s Ministry of Health to map future trends in human resources for health. The project enabled ADB to demonstrate to the Government of Armenia that it was a valuable partner in the health sector. Having a defined output, and giving autonomy to the technical assistance project recipients as to how this output should be achieved would have prevented the administrative challenges encountered in the project.  
  • Atmospheric water generators are doing wonders in Vanuatu. It is a solar-powered technology that can pull moisture from the atmosphere and convert this to clean drinking water–one that is of a higher standard compared with existing sources.
  • A digital health strategy is critical to make sure that e-health solutions are integrated and do not overlap. The pilot project in Vanuatu played to ADB’s strengths as a convener of multiple partners who otherwise would not necessarily connect and collaborate with each other. The initiative can be improved further by linking the digital health strategy with an investment case for digital health.
  • Access to sanitation can be accelerated by bringing development partners and sanitation entrepreneurs together. ADB partnered with Toilet Board Coalition to promote universal access to sanitation. The TBC’s Toilet Accelerator Program supports sanitation economy entrepreneurs to bring to fruition commercially viable innovations.

Read more.

Social Development

  • Introducing the graduation approach through group coaching intervention is a cost-effective way to tackle extreme poverty in the Philippines. The initial $520,000 that was allocated to this activity catalyzed further funding from three other technical assistance projects that doubled the resources available for this activity. Some flexibility has to be built in at the start to allow for unforeseen changes, either to the project itself or to the partners ADB works with.

Read more.

Economic Empowerment

  • Digital financial solutions like cloud-banking can scale up financial inclusion at lower operational costs. Supported by ADB, Cantilan Bank move banking applications to the cloud to achieve greater operational efficiency and scalability, lower customer costs and enhance convenience. This has allowed the bank to provide better financial access to the people and bring in the unbanked into the formal financial system. Had ADB processes and guidelines been clearer and not as stringent, it would have made the activity run more smoothly.
  • Best practices in coffee production delivered through "edutainment" reality television series improved the quality of coffee produced in Timor-Leste and stimulated young Timorese to enter the coffee business. A budget big enough to also have a communications and social media campaign around the TV series would have really brought the project to life.

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Women Empowerment

  • Dashboards that provide actionable data can help local governments to better understand the drivers and services needed to end child marriages in Indonesia. The pilot shifted the mindset of government counterparts from collecting data to interpreting and using data for service delivery improvements and achieving development outcomes. Although the project’s methodology required close collaboration between the dashboard developers and program managers and decision-makers, this did not happen as much as was needed.

Read more.

Sustainable Energy

  • To produce more with less energy and to enable consumers to reduce their cost of electricity consumption, ADB recommended an innovative utility energy services model to the Government of Thailand. The state-owned electricity distribution utility, the Provincial Electricity Authority (PEA), will leverage its existing relationship with customers (marketing, funding, billing) and manage the delivery of energy savings in residential, commercial and public buildings, and industrial complexes. At the same time, it will partner with third-party providers to enable efficient and focused service delivery (e.g., audits, sales, and installation management).

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Key Lessons Learned

Innovation should be anchored to a specific need in the country concerned. It is crucial to clearly identify the problem to be solved or what can be done better.

Buy-in from counterparts, especially government agencies, makes or breaks a project. Alignment with existing policy objectives is crucial.

Piloting is necessary to see interventions firsthand and learn about their benefits and shortcomings. Initial scoping does not always lead in the right direction, and new ideas need flexibility for a more iterative experimentation process to unfold.

Likewise, real innovation funding needs more flexible procurement rules and incentives for private sector and civil society partners to collaborate. ADB’s standard processes can be too cumbersome for small innovation projects, leading to implementation delays that compromise their efficiency.


Asian Development Bank (ADB). 2020. Unlocking Innovation for Development. Manila.

Susann Roth
Advisor, Office of the Principal Director, Department of Communications and Knowledge Management, Asian Development Bank

Susann Roth launched ADB’s first Futures Thinking and Foresight Program and ADB’s first Technology Innovation Challenge and led the design of ADB’s new Knowledge Management Action Plan. She advises the World Health Organization on foresight, digital health, innovation, and knowledge management.

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The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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