Recently Thomson Reuters proclaimed that we are now living in the most innovative age in human history. Analysing global intellectual property data and tracking global scientific literature publications, TR found that overall levels of innovation had sped on at record pace, with global patent volume growing at an annualised rate of 13.7 percent year-over-year. The gains were driven primarily by three sectors – Medical Devices, Home Appliances, and Aerospace & Defense.

Whether or not this is the most innovative age ever is arguable – hello, get out the history books and check out the 19th century – but it is unarguable that we live in an epoch of extraordinary invention and scientific breakthrough.

Notice that all these 21st century innovations are material “things” – devices, appliances, physical, tangible objects of one kind or another. They don’t come out of nowhere, but rather emerge from a system or ongoing project which, because it allows for innovation, is itself innovative.

So, then, how do you go about developing innovative systems or projects which contains many variables, challenges and real-life emergencies?

This kind of thinking about innovation has been on the agenda this week at the inaugural United Nations World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul.

Some 9000 participants gathered to look for innovative solutions to what appears to be an intractable situation. That is, the plight of an estimated 130 million people on the brink of survival as a result of various conflicts and natural disasters.

Whatever one’s political views, it is inarguable that the overwhelming majority of these people are innocent casualties of forces beyond their control and that children are always victims, never perpetrators. How do you most effectively help them?

A report to the conference emphasised that humanitarian assistance alone was not enough to help millions of people in distress. Rather …

A new and coherent approach is required based on addressing root causes, increasing political diplomacy for prevention and conflict resolution, and bringing humanitarian, development and peace-building efforts together.”

Dr Jemilah Mahmood, Under Secretary General for Partnerships at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), emphasised the need for working differently, for finding new models of innovation for delivering more effective help and assistance.

Too much of the existing innovation work within the humanitarian sector is top-down and technology-heavy – so much so that it is arguably conflating technology with innovation. This approach can lead to simple local solutions being overlooked, even when they are in more demand and will be more sustainable.”

The IFRC, she said, would like to see the innovation agenda being led and driven by local innovators, local humanitarians and local communities.

There is currently too little investment in identifying what is already working, in what ways local people are already innovating, and in how their efforts can be supported. What is needed is a genuine shift from a top-down agency-led vision to a community-based model focused on strengths and capacity rather than deficiency and need

The role of our global institution must be to find ways to help bring local, national, regional and international expertise and resources to where they are needed most, and bring people together in innovation networks.”

Alice Albright, Chief Executive Officer of the Global Partnership for Education, emphasised the importance of delivering education to children caught up in disasters and conflicts.

When you consider that, on average, conflicts in low-income countries last about 12 years and displacement due to conflict or protracted crises lasts an average of 17 years, it becomes evident that such situations can completely destroy the one opportunity for a basic education for millions of children. Their school years simply slip by with no chance to learn to read and write.”

She said that some 17 million school-age were missing out on education opportunities.

To make matters worse, humanitarian responses too often treat education much less urgently than they do other essential human services. Indeed, less than 2% of all humanitarian aid goes to education.”

The innovative response to this situation has been to establish a new fund called Education Cannot Wait, which will help to better coordinate support for and drive investment into education resources where they are most needed.

Innovation is not just about creating great devices and technologies. It is also about developing systems and channels that help organisations and individuals to innovate and, hopefully, to help make lives better for those in dire need.