Building an international network of experts to inform innovation

As part of a two-year Innovation Partnership, TACSI is sharing stories of innovation from within the Australian Volunteers Program, so that others can learn from them. The first article in the series explored how the Australian Volunteer Program is embedding innovation in their organisation through the establishment of an Innovation Fund. This second article, written by volunteer Sonia Muir, reflects on her experience as a member of the program’s international innovation team, the Innovation Associates.

The Innovation Associates consist of 10 Australian volunteers and six program staff from across Asia, Africa & the Pacific. They have been carefully selected and trained to be the in-country eyes, ears and hands of the program’s Innovation Fund.

After graduating from an innovation training camp in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in late 2019, the Associates have been putting their skills to the test by conducting in-country research and developing new ideas to shape the future of the Australian Volunteers Program.

Why I joined the Innovation Associate’s network

Sonia Muir: “Over 2,300 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle said, ‘The essence of life was to serve others and do good’. More recently, the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged us all to ‘imagine a country in which everyone is earning, learning, caring or volunteering.’ Both of these quotes perfectly encapsulate why I felt so strongly about participating in the Australian Volunteers Program, along with a desire to be immersed in other cultures.

I received the invitation to join the Innovation Associates nearly 12 months into an 18 month volunteering assignment in regional Myanmar, and I thought it was a great opportunity to join like-minded people from across the program and learn about innovation.

Sonia, (third from right) and the Innovation Associates

Sonia, (third from right) and the Innovation Associates at the Innovation Training Camp in Cambodia.

Building an international network of experts to inform innovation

The Innovation Associates comprises not only volunteers with active experience of volunteering overseas, but also staff from the Australian Volunteers Program, who have invaluable experience of managing volunteers on the ground.

This broad geographic and demographic scope gave us a snapshot of the program’s  international reach. I learned much from my fellow Associates as we workshopped, sought out Cambodia’s best coconut ice-cream, strolled the riverside and tasted the famous deep fried tarantulas.

I appreciate opportunities that disrupt my ways of seeing and doing, and this training created a fast track to discovering and exploring various innovation theories while being engaged in ‘experiential’ activities’.

Breakout rooms are rarely so spectacular

Breakout rooms are rarely so spectacular: Zin Yaw and Louisa take a walk around Wat Phnom to get to know each other on Day 1 of the camp.

We started to think about what and how we could do better

Innovation is not always about coming up with the newest funkiest ideas. It’s about thinking how things can be done better, and seeing problems as challenges that are interrogated and refined through conducting research and seeking insights. Over our few days together, we learned about the program’s innovation pathway and how briefs can move along stages and through each gate (or not!)

Diagram: Innovation Pathway for the Australian Volunteers Program

During an idea ‘discovery phase’, we put learned skills into action. This involved traveling by a local tuk tuk across town to test assumptions and see what we could find out from a local Cambodian partner organisation about existing and future networking opportunities.

On day 3 the group travelled by tuk tuk to meet with local Partner Organisations

On day 3 the group travelled by tuk tuk to meet with local Partner Organisations

We spoke to staff and volunteers and got a picture of their current involvement in networking, while also pinpointing their future needs. They also shared thoughts around future networking opportunities and what these may look like. We then shared these valuable insights with the other discovery teams back at innovation central.

Innovation associates training

Diagram: Overview of the learning activities over the three days.

What happened next

After our time in Cambodia, everyone headed back to their various countries with new enquiry skills, and over the following months we conducted more interviews on briefs provided by the Australian Volunteers Program.

But the innovation doesn’t stop there.

I’m also part of a project called ‘Walks of Life’, which includes fellow volunteers Louisa, David and Ashley. With the help of Siobhan at TACSI, we’ve been investigating how the Australian Volunteers Program can increase and attract a broader range of Australian volunteers through strategies like improved targeting and recruitment.

We’ve also been ideating different ways that the program could align volunteer and partner organisation expectations and needs to create better outcomes for all.

Our next step is to pitch some of our ideas to the Australian Volunteers Program’s Innovation Pathway Group, who decide what progresses through the innovation gates, and what doesn’t.

As a response to Covid-19, the Australian Volunteers Program repatriated all volunteers back to Australia, but despite this, the Innovation Associates has continued, and I’ve continued to participate from New South Wales. The network was always designed to operate remotely, via video conferencing and Slack, so that’s been no problem for us.

The Innovation Associates stay in touch through monthly Zoom calls

Siobhan from TACSI has become our team’s heart, pumping the information flow through the Associates circulatory system to ensure we stay connected and on task using Zoom veins and Slack arteries. She helps to triage requests, remove clots, insert stents of new knowledge and call in a surgeon (eg Innovation Fund Lead, Anna Trahair) as required.

In the words of the 18th century English poet Nicholas Rowe, ‘my beating heart bounds with exulting motion’. I wonder where this Cambodian cardio connection will go next?

Due to Covid-19, the Australian Volunteers Program has repatriated Australian volunteers, and has temporarily suspended sending Australians overseas as skilled volunteers. The program is continuing to explore flexible ways of support partners overseas, and the Innovation Fund is playing an important role in creatively responding to this rapidly changing environment.

Read more about the Australian Volunteer Program here.