James Green is Futures Programme Director at the National Housing Federation / February 12, 2018

Innovation happens when you fall in love with a problem – not an idea

One week of warmth. That’s all it takes to save the lives of two million babies born prematurely in the developing world each year. It’s a statistic as shocking as it feels simple to solve. A cheap and effective incubator could surely save the lives of millions. A group of scientists came together to design just that but, as they went around hospitals in the developing world, they quickly discovered that their idea wasn’t the right one. Doctors had access to hundreds of incubators but almost all of these sat empty gathering dust. The scientists realised they’d fallen foul of the golden rule of innovation – that the best innovation happens when you fall in love with a problem, not an idea.

A new incubator sounds like a great idea but it quickly fell down when it came up against the reality of people’s lives in the developing world. The scientists soon discovered that very few people gave birth in hospital and fewer still – in countries with often intermittent power – would put their new born into an incubator. Focusing on an idea had led them astray. The problem wasn’t how to design a new type of incubator, it was how to keep premature babies alive in developing countries. This shift from idea to problem led the team to a groundbreaking new product: a heated sleeping bag that stays warm without electricity. Seven years later and the Embrace Infant Warmer has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

The insight that the best innovation happens when you fall in love in a problem sits at the heart of Creating our Future. Before we launched the programme we spent six months speaking to hundreds of people from the housing association sector including staff at all levels and tenants and residents across the country. Those conversations gave us invaluable insight which informed the seven problems we are focusing on through this work. Since then we’ve run Ideas Labs around the country: more than 300 people from 150 housing associations taking part, generating hundreds of ideas in response to these social challenges housing associations collectively identified.

Now it’s time to take our ideas generation to the next level. In the month of Valentine’s Day we’re asking staff and tenants from across the sector to fall in love with a problem and generate brilliant ideas to help tackle it. We’ll exhibit all your shared ideas on the website to help inspire others. You can even help encourage others to get involved – send a customised e-card.

We’re asking you to fall in love with a problem this February and help develop the groundbreaking ideas we need.

By James Green, Futures Programme Director at the National Housing Federation

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