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Organizations everywhere dedicated to solving some of the world’s most pressing challenges have launched a variety of new efforts to meticulously measure the intended impact of their work. This is nothing less than a revolution in social innovation that is bringing new, scientific rigor to gauging results. These organizations are now eschewing the top-down problem solving that has been the standard in their relative fields for decades.
Consider the clinical trial. Most people probably associate so-called randomized controlled trials with the testing of new drugs...But in recent years the use of randomized controlled trials has migrated from measuring the effectiveness of drugs to rigorously evaluating policies and programs designed to do social good. Rather than just assuming that a bright idea is changing the world because something is happening, scientists compare how much desired outcomes are evident among people exposed to a program as opposed to people who were not.
Trials, however, are not always the answer. They are hugely expensive. Who bears the burden of funding full-blown clinical trials when project budgets are tight?
Even advocates of trials caution that the technique doesn’t always make sense in every case. In an interview for this issue of Editions, Yale economist Dean Karlan warns against employing trials in the early development stages of a product or program. Instead, he urges innovators to “tinker away” relatively uninhibited while developing a program. Karlan also worries that funders could stifle ingenuity if they wrongly insist on trial data prior to investments.
When innovators can stomach critical evaluations, trials are just one compelling example of the many ways organizations around the world are literally placing new currency into evaluating intended impact. Quickly fading are the days of rolling out solutions and assuming they worked. “The typical evaluation of a project used to be hiring somebody for four weeks to review some documentation and visit a few sites,” explained the Center for Global Development’s Bill Savedoff. Now organizations are testing prototypes with targeted audiences, using technology to evaluate their work for years to come, and even using clinical trials to get objective data on the impact of their work. We’ve come a long way from just testing new pills.