Berra L, Becker S, Kennedy M. Innovation immersion labs: a novel approach to solving public health challenges. HPHR. 2022;54. 10.54111/0001/BBB4
In order to effectively meet the demands of an rapidly evolving world, there is a need for innovative approaches for quickly developing solutions to public health challenges. We define innovation as any actionable progress toward a solution and rely on the guiding principles that comprise our understanding of innovation – follow-through, iterative contextual learning, flexibility, and adaptation. Guided by these principles, our team of multi-disciplinary experts have developed the Innovation Immersion Lab, an applied learning based accelerated program guided by a six-step approach. In a recent iteration of an ILL, mid-career public health professionals and public health graduate students worked collaboratively to innovate a solution for a public health challenge. This program exhibited great success with significant increases in innovation knowledge and anecdotal successes across program participants. The IIL approach holds great promise in engaging public health change makers. The complexity of public health challenges illustrates the necessity of innovative, iterative, and flexible approaches such as the ILL to seeking solutions in this field.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the necessity for innovative approaches to public health challenges 1. The past years have shed light on the fact that we cannot simply continue using the same traditional methods in our rapidly evolving world. In order to effectively meet the demands of this changing culture, there is a need for innovative approaches for rapidly developing solutions on accelerated timelines.
Re-imagining how to approach public health solutions is at the core of our approach. Our multi-disciplinary team was assembled to pursue new frameworks to drive impact. The team is made up of innovation strategists, designers, communicators, and public health experts. The cross functional nature of our team and our lack of deep roots in one discipline allows us to move between sectors, language and challenge type. Our approach is validated by experts in Cognitive Flexibility Theory. In contrast to more traditional learning approaches, Rand Spiro discusses the value of open and flexible approaches. “The antithesis of this rigidity is a kind of “openness-based” flexibility necessary for adaptive knowledge application, for transfer of knowledge to new situations, for situation-sensitive use of knowledge, and for the kind of world-fitting complexity of understanding that cognitive flexibility depends upon—and that the increasingly complex modern world of life and work needs now more than ever.” 2 By approaching problem solving as open-based and flexible, we have developed and refined a new framework for public health innovation.
We define innovation as any actionable progress toward a solution. While a common perception imagines innovation as involving technology, we believe that innovation can be far more than tech-based solutions. In fact, we argue that innovation is often most impactful when it’s simple. The guiding principles that comprise our understanding of innovation are follow-through, iterative contextual learning, flexibility, and adaptation. It’s about identifying a challenge, fully understanding the root causes, and creating a testable sliver of a solution. It’s fast and messy, with small, low-risk, and iterative tests. Most importantly, we believe that innovation is achievable for anyone who wishes to enact change.
These beliefs guided our creation of the Innovation Immersion Lab (IIL). The IIL is an applied learning based accelerated program guided by a six-step approach. The approach is the result of many years of innovation work across government, industry and academia by Orange Sparkle Ball, as well as a review of implementation science, innovation, entrepreneurial and design thinking frameworks. This analysis and synthesis of the most effective components of each approach, as well as our extensive lived experience, resulted in the design of the IIL.
The IILs focus on the first three steps of our six-step approach, moving from a broad challenge to testing an actionable solution. Cohorts are exposed to this rigorous, accelerated, and comprehensive approach where they develop skills, learn tools, work collaboratively and apply these learnings to a challenge, in order to develop a solution that will be tested with a pilot. The steps which guide this approach can be seen in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Created through experience and a meta-analysis of innovation, entrepreneurial, design, and implementation science frameworks. The first 3 steps (highlighted) are the focus of IIL cohorts, resulting in the design of a pilot to explore a solution for a public health challenge. Each step is listed in order with a brief description.
One of our most recent iterations of an ILL involved a collaboration between public health mid-career professionals and Master of Public Health (MPH) graduate students. As can be seen in Table 1, participants exhibited a statistically significant improvement in innovation knowledge with mean pre and post scores increasing by 30% for public health professionals (p=.0020) and 47% for MPH graduate students (p<0.001).
Innovation Knowledge Among ILL Mid-Career Public Health Professionals and Public Health Graduate Student Participants
n = 9
n = 9
Mid-Career Public Health Professionals
Public Health Graduate Students
Note: The total score possible for the knowledge check was 70 points.
One participant, who entered with a challenge statement surrounding racial inequities in breastfeeding, particularly illustrates a success story from this ILL. Entering on behalf of her organization, the participant worked through our approach, guided by peers, graduate students, and our team of innovation experts. Through this process, she designed a pilot to identify precisely where in the service experience new mothers were dropping out of a program. The transformative nature of this pilot prompted an invitation to pitch the pilot plan to the state director of the organization. Equipped with a refined pitch deck from her IIL experience, she successfully secured approval and funding for her pilot, which will be rolled out across the state in early 2022. Furthermore, the participant continued to utilize the skills gained in the ILL by entering and winning a hackathon to implement a mobile maternal health bus in rural locations. The validation of her ideas has changed the way she perceives herself professionally. “Something that I gained from this summit (IIL) was my own career development. It has shaped how I see public health and my role in that. I’m truly more invested in public health than I ever was before and I attribute that to this summit.”
Following the arch of innovation, we continue to iterate on the IIL structure. Findings from the ILLs have prompted us to refine our IIL evaluation to include measures of self-efficacy. We hypothesize that by equipping individuals with the necessary knowledge and skills to solve complex challenges, self-efficacy is improved. Furthermore, we are also studying network effects of the cohort approach to understand what, if any, further collaborations this type of experience might encourage. The IIL approach holds great promise in engaging and empowering public health change makers and we will continue to refine this cross functional approach.
The complexity of public health challenges illustrates the necessity of innovative, iterative, and flexible approaches such as the ILL to seeking solutions in this field. Our approach has taught public health practitioners to examine the smallest pieces of systemic issues in order to begin tackling the larger challenge. Through this process, participants in turn are able to transfer learnings to new situations, as noted in the case study of the IIL participant. This flexibility in thinking has large implications for not only solving public health problems, but also the pre-existing public health workforce challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. 3,4
Liris Berra is a Public Health Innovation Analyst at Orange Sparkle Ball. She is a graduate of the University of Miami with a dual BS degree in Public Health and Elementary Education and is currently a Master of Public Health Student at Emory University. Her research interests include implementation science and health disparities.
Sophie Becker is a Design Strategist at Orange Sparkle Ball. She is a graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology with a BFA in Industrial Design. Her interests revolve around addressing systemic challenges with a design and innovation approach.
Meaghan Kennedy is the founder of Orange Sparkle Ball. She received her formal training at Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University. Meaghan has taught at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She has been a guest reviewer at Georgia Tech since 2007, a judge for the Global Social Venture Competition and Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA), a mentor for social entrepreneurs and is frequently invited to sit on innovation and entrepreneurial panels.