Humanitarian innovation: Interview with Katy Hartley, Director of the Philips Foundation

An ICRC-Philips innovation day was organized at the Philips Innovation center in Eindhoven to identify potential areas of collaboration in the fields of healthcare and lighting. Philips is the latest company to have joined the ICRC's Corporate Support Group.

Katy Hartley, Director of the Philips Foundation

Katy Hartley (Director of the Philips Foundation) was the facilitator of the meeting which involved 20 Philips experts that participated in the event along with technical staff from the ICRC's health, water & habitat, logistics and sustainable development units. Below, Katy provides her perspective on innovation and partnerships with humanitarian actors.

We are very proud to be able to partner with the ICRC.

1. You've been involved in developing various consumer products for Philips. How does Philips' approach to developing products differ when focusing on humanitarian solutions versus products for its more traditional consumer markets?

Philips has always had a structured design process that always starts with people – and the needs of that person as the basis. We always work from the human perspective and really understand the needs of our user –designing local products for a local context. If I take a simple example, then a Soy Milk Maker designed in China becomes a soup maker in France based on local culinary preferences. We take the same approach when looking at applying our innovations in the humanitarian context – what is the local culture, context and what are the needs of the community? And from there, build a relevant product or service.

2. What has motivated Philips to partner up with organizations such as the ICRC? How do such partnerships support Philips' innovation process and advance the company's objectives?

The mission of Philips is to improve 3 billion lives per year, so for us it's a logical step to partner with leading humanitarian organizations. Through working together we can create win-win situations that benefit both partners, and most importantly the communities where our partners operate. We are enjoying learning from the Red Cross and discovering new ways of doing things. Philips is a company that loves solving problems, we believe can provide complementary skills and expertise especially in the innovation space. In the partnership projects we can support communities in need and develop solutions that are unique to their challenges and context. It's incredibly motivating for our employees to solve problems in a new and different context.

3. When teaming up with humanitarian actors, have you been struck by differences in organizational cultures? If so, how are these differences addressed when partnering up to test and co-develop solutions to humanitarian challenges?

It's been really interesting to learn about different organization cultures and get past the generic stereotypes of the corporate sector that exist in the humanitarian world. I've noticed it takes quite some time to get to know each other and to trust each other but in many aspects the challenges are the same. Every organization needs to change and adapt to stay relevant as the world changes (corporate or humanitarian). Both types of organization have driven and motivated people who want to make a difference. And both types have similar challenges of short-term vs. long-term priorities, balancing workload of staff and working with budgets and annual planning. The vital ingredients for making a co-creation partnership work are the trust between the parties, the willingness to commit to making it work throughout all levels of the organization and having open dialogue with each other.

4. From the private sector's perspective, what do you think are some of the common misperceptions that exist regarding innovation and the humanitarian sector?

It's a generalization but the private sector thinks the humanitarian sector is not willing to invest in innovation or technology, or make the effort to understand or test it – even though it could potentially bring lasting and life-changing benefit. The private sector believes it can play a bigger role in multi-sector collaboration and provide an alternative perspective to problem solving with additional insights. Lastly, the private sector 'thinks' that the humanitarian sector wants it to donate dollars and walk away, and not to invest in more strategic forms of cooperation. But as said, this is just a generalisation....

5. Lastly, collaboration around humanitarian innovation with the ICRC has only recently started, but can you give us a glimpse into some of the avenues you are exploring together?

The Philips Foundation is privileged to be able to draw on the expertise and innovation power of Philips to work with its key strategic partners. There are obvious areas where we can offer our problem-solving expertise to the ICRC and its programs – in improving primary and secondary health care, providing solar lighting expertise and products, but also in using our Design staff who are part of the oldest Design company in the world. It's important to also say that Philips can equally learn from the ICRC in operational excellence, rapid response and working in close cooperation with local communities.

Find out how your corporation can partner with the International Committee of the Red Cross.