Christy Davis interview: combinatorial innovation and effective partnerships for water management in Asia

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]An interview with Christy Davis, who has been working with World Vision for six and a half years in Singapore, supporting activities across Asia. She has worked in both in the public and private sectors, including with the UNDP. Asia has been her home for over 27 years. Christy talks about her work with World Vision, the Asia P3 hub, and combinatorial innovation.

Interview topics

  • About Christy Davis and the Asia P3 Hub
  • Meaningful, practical solutions through combinatorial innovation
  • The combinatorial approach in practice
  • Multi-sector partnerships and impact investing
  • Generative resources: going beyond a scarcity mindset
  • Partnering: a vital professional skill
  • Diversity: a vital ingredient for co-creation
  • How others can replicate Asia P3 hub and be ‘intentional’
  • How a co-creation works

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Please will you outline your background and tell us about the Asia P3 Hub

I’ve been with World Vision for about six and a half years, based in Singapore, supporting the Asia Region from the World Vision regional office here. Before that, I had a number of careers. Several years in the private sector as well as some stints with the public sector. After the Asian tsunamis, I worked for a while with the UN Development Programme. I’ve lived in Asia now for around 27 years – it’s a wonderful part of the world and I’m finding that all my past experiences here are now contributing to my current role with this new World Vision initiative, the Asia P3 Hub.

We launched the Asia P3 Hub on the 11th of July 2016. P3 stands for people, public and private because the hub brings together the private sector, public sector and civil society. By civil society, we mean non-governmental organisations (NGOs), not-for-profits, academia, and community-based organisations. We bring them together to explore new ways to solve old problems. Everything we do is around multi-sector partnerships. We broker and facilitate cross-sector or multi-sector partnerships, to produce new solutions, that are market-driven.

Although the Asia P3 Hub is hosted by World Vision, it is not a development project. We operate separately as a type of social enterprise or social venture. We look for market-driven solutions that are co-created and that can then be implemented in countries in Asia. At present we are focusing on water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) as a pilot program.

Social challenges such as in WASH are not new. What is the Asia P3 Hub doing differently, innovatively?

It’d be intimidating to try and create innovative new solutions to old intractable problems, so we are aiming for ‘combinatorial innovation’. I read about this in an article by John Elkington, where he points to innovations that have come from combining different components, technologies or ideas in new ways to create something new. He referenced the jet engine as a really great example that came from combining technologies that were existing at the time but hadn’t been put together. There have been lots of examples of combinatorial innovation since the Industrial Revolution made interchangeable parts available.

When I read that, I realised that if I could bring the talents and experience that I have, and others can bring in what they have, and we look at combining those in new ways, then that becomes a marvellous co-creation approach to creating something new and meaningful that could change lives.

We have made combinatorial innovation a key part of the fabric of Asia P3 Hub. We find it is a compelling magnet for others, and we do all sorts of thing now. We run combinatorial events for example. However, the most important aspect is to aim for innovation. First, you need to define innovation for your own context.

I see Singapore as innovative in water and that’s why Asia P3 Hub is here and focusing on WASH as a pilot program. Singapore is a hydro-hub. PUB, their water agency, the Public Utilities Board, is very forward-looking. Tap water here is 100% potable and everywhere has modern sanitation.

For us, combinatorial innovation is not just putting in hardware solutions and technology, it’s also applying and harnessing it in a way that can be accessed by all who need it. That part is a very different challenge:

Take desalination as an example. The technology is established but how do we create an affordable, accessible and profitable desalination solution for countries and people? Many Asian cities are on the coast and you’d think desalination would provide the freshwater that so many people lack. But it’s too expensive for Asian countries that are not well resourced. It’s also not necessarily the best solution everywhere. In Myanmar, for instance, there is a rainy season, so capturing the rain could be far better there than desalination.

Our approach is to have co-creation workshops, where we have conversations around solutions that are practical, meaningful and can be owned by the country’s communities — and those solutions don’t need to be big, fancy and technological. It comes back to defining what innovation is for each person or community. Innovation for me or you could be very different from innovation for a community in Indonesia or the Philippines or Bangladesh.

That’s why we need to be thinking about the context in everything that we do and look at. For the communities and people who need these solutions, our aim is to involve them in the conversation and in the co-creation process of the solutions that will change their lives.

Can you give examples of how you apply innovation in practice?

Shared conversations  We are making opportunities to bring communities into the same space with the private sector, government, and local government right from the very beginning of a discussion. Say the conversation is about a community or communities that have no services, no access to piped water, maybe not even a well nearby. Maybe they’re walking to get water. If you bring everyone together and start to explore solutions together right at the beginning, as opposed to bringing the government or bringing a private sector business in at the end of a conversation, it’s a totally different environment.

We are finding it exciting to convene these conversations in countries with these different folks. They don’t know about each other; they haven’t sat in the same room before — and it’s eye-opening. For example, at a co-creation workshop last year, we had a private sector guy who had never before been in the same room with or had a one-on-one conversation with, a government official. This guy is in marketing and sales. At the same workshop, we had local community folks, local practitioners, and some of our WASH people who work in communities. Later on, this guy said, “Oh my goodness, I just never knew this, I never imagined.”

I think we get ahead of ourselves with our sophistication sometimes. Let’s go back and start at the basics and bring folks in at the beginning; to have a conversation and co-create solutions from the beginning together. Then you have buy-in; you understand the challenges. There’s an opportunity to create equitable solutions and equitable opportunities.

Language  We’ve realised that we need to be aware of the words we use. Take the word profit that commonly used by the private sector. If you use it with an NGO, they will say, “We’re not about profit”. Replace ‘profit’ with ‘benefits’ and then there’s a shared value for everybody. For the corporates, it may be profit but for the community, there will be life-changing benefits because they have water without spending hours of time getting it. They can be productive in some other way.

So we try to think about how we communicate in our conversations and take the time to build those relationships that will allow us then to partner in new ways to create new types of solutions. A particular solution could be completely innovative for one partner and not innovative at all for another, but the fact that we are co-creating that solution together is of itself an innovative approach.

Private sector — You might think that the private sector would avoid our combinatorial events, where we explore the principles of multi-sector partnering. But actually, we have found the private sector is very keen to explore beyond corporate social responsibility. We find especially that some multi-nationals want to do meaningful, impactful, work as well as make a profit and be a viable business. That moves collaboration away from a transactional approach into a transformational approach with other partners. Instead of letting staff volunteer for one-off projects, we are seeing them say: “OK, let’s look at how we can partner with that school. What other needs do they have? What other things can we do that would be a journey with that school that could provide a more sustainable impact over time?”. We are increasingly having conversations expressing a desire to move beyond transactions into a true co-created shared value approach, a partnership relationship lasting five, ten or fifteen years.

One example I can give is the Kohler Company, an American privately held business that makes bathroom and kitchen fixtures and has other businesses as well. World Vision has had a global relationship with them for many years and we’ve been exploring how can we leverage that for new meaningful, impactful work together. Recently we had a conversation in Thailand and one of the Kohler folks said: “You know, let’s not just look at these schools. This isn’t just about getting latrines or handwashing stations into schools. Let’s look at something that could be really meaningful over time. Let’s look at ten years.” Here is a conversation between development practitioners and the private sector, The private sector is asking what they can do that ten years from now could show transformational outcomes in the lives of children in Thailand. Amazing!

It’s not just multi-nationals. it’s also mid-size companies and smaller companies, especially with young staff, millennials and older. They are saying, “Yes I want to make a good living but actually, I want to make a difference.” And those voices are now getting louder. It’s not just anecdotal. There is no question that millennials, staff, and employees in general, see the problems of the world and see opportunities for coming together to make a change and have a positive impact.

How does the Asia P3 hub operate? What are your objectives?

When we started out, the aim of the Asia P3 Hub to be a ‘proof of concept’. We wanted to see if we could create a space where we could bring together the three sectors, public, private, and people for multi-sector collaboration. Could we tackle the effects of poverty through partnerships across government, the private sector, and civil society? We set out to see what that would look like. We drew up specific strategic objectives, we built a business plan and a strategy as a social business would. Since then we have moved on to “let’s create adventure here, whatever that’s going to look like.”

Our role is brokering multi-sector partnerships that produce impactful results, as defined by the partners — not by us, nor by World Vision, but by the partners themselves. It has to be good business, of course, but it’s built on shared value principles and corporate transparency, mutual benefit, and equity. Those are all embedded in the partnership process. We broker an agreement on the outcomes that that partnership wants to produce.

We also see ourselves as an ‘ecosystem builder’ and facilitator. Our focus is the Asia–Pacific but we see that there is a growing ecosystem of organisations and individuals that are intentionally navigating a multi-sector space. They may be the government but they’re reaching out to the private sector and to social entrepreneurs. They’re reaching out to development practitioners and civil society in some ways. The private sector is also intentionally reaching out to the other sectors. We, along with the bigger NGOs, are realising that the funding landscape has changed. Funding and resources are out there and they are in different places now.

I think we are in an era of pooling resources in new ways and that includes also bringing in the impact investment community. I think there are lots of investors out there that are looking for investible opportunities that make good business sense but provide an impact as well. Impact investment is a way of investing in projects that have strong business plans and are going to generate income. So the sum invested comes back with some additional funds. Instead of your money sitting in a bank and doing nothing or being invested in volatile markets or real estate, it’s going towards solving a world problem — and the return on the investment is quite decent.

Asia P3 Hub works out of a co-work space in Singapore called Collision 8: it’s called Collision because it’s all about people and ideas colliding to created new innovative solutions and business opportunities. We share it with venture philanthropists and capitalists, representatives of family offices, and also impact investors. One of our business advisers is an impact investor and he has helped us a lot. We find that impact investors are often interested in ‘the missing middle’, or the people needing a $5000, or $10,000 or $15,000 loan, who are missed by the micro-financers or the big funding bodies. Our impact investor adviser tells us the funds are there and the investors are looking for viable, robust, investible, enterprises and opportunities.

We intend to learn more about impact investing options and see how we can harness the power of that for the Asia P3 community and network. Obviously, there will be an intention to generate a measurable return, from a financial perspective, but also a measurable benefit, social or environmental impact as well: a kind of win, win, win. There may be a longer horizon on the loan and your return may not be as strong as a purely financial investment but these investors are quantifying social and environmental impact as well.

It seems that Asia P3 Hub is working as a catalyst, speeding up productive interaction between the three sectors.

Yes. We have an open philosophy. We want to have open intellectual property. We do need to figure out how we’re going to be a self-sustaining enterprise but we believe the more open we are the more there is for everyone, including us. We are looking at how we can embrace a mindset of openness, generosity, abundance, and frankly of kindness. Our actions would illustrate and represent that and those are the values that we hold.

In that context, I read an interesting essay by Aaron Maniam, who is a public servant here in Singapore. His essay, last year, is called ‘Beyond a scarcity mindset: A letter from my future self’. In it, he talks about generative resources and I had never thought about generative resources before and what that means.

He said resources, such as data, networks, relationships are generative because the more they’re used the more we have and the better it becomes. Data begets more data, knowledge catalyses new knowledge and strong social capital that underpins relationships benefits from being tended — like you tend a garden, pruning periodically so your plant grows back even stronger.

I just love that idea of generative resources, and I think it applies to us as we move forward, being combinatorial, combining our resources in newer ways, sharing our resources more and more, in a smart, equitable, transparent, mutually beneficial way. I was going to say that one plus one equals three but somebody recently said that one plus one actually equals eleven! The more we do, the more there is for everybody, including us.

As I said earlier, the donor landscape is shifting. There are still resources out there, in different places or hands. It’s time to move away from a scarcity mindset and instead recognise the pluses that can flow from uncommon relationships and uncommon partnerships. They spark ideas and new ideas are the opposite of scarcity. I love it when I hear a new idea in a workshop or conversation and it makes me think “Wow, I never thought of that before. Here is somebody who is plugging a hole I’d not seen before. There was a scarcity there that has now been filled”.

We have to leave ‘scarcity’ thinking behind now because there is abundance out there and it shows up when people come together in uncommon, unpredictable, and non-traditional ways.

It’s an exciting time for us. For me, a new idea sparks an opportunity, sparks a new partnership, sparks a solution. Think of the potential when that happens to people who are the true experts and have the kind of brainpower to pull ideas together in new and creative ways.

How is Asia P3 Hub getting more people trained for and involved in the WASH sector?

We’re focused on building two kinds of capacity and capability for WASH in the region. First, we are looking at how we can open opportunities and make introductions between WASH professionals and water professionals. We are very happy to find professionals to fill the opportunities that are out there in this region.

The other very important capability that is needed, in addition to any technical expertise that someone possesses, is the ability to navigate the sectors and to partner.

‘Partnering’ is working with others who are not like yourself. We know a lot of folks that are very good technical practitioners but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they know how to partner with others, to leverage the expertise that they have, or the resources and the expertise that they can bring to a problem, situation, or opportunity. Therefore, we are actively building a ‘partnering boot-camp’, working with The Partnering Initiative (TPI), who is based in the UK. They have devised a curriculum and methodology in partnering, which we are adapting for Asia.

This boot-camp is creating the practical skills around partnering itself, regardless of your expertise. It is providing a roadmap or method or system that helps water or WASH professionals say, bring their expertise and experience into a working partnership. That ability to interact and partner is where we see a huge gap to fill, at least in this part of the world: combining both the technical expertise and the ability to navigate across the sectors to develop and implement solutions in a sustainable way.

It is very important to ensure that potential partners understand what we see as the three core principles of multi-sector partnering. The first principle is transparency, or trust, built-in trust. The second principle is mutual benefit, recognising that it’s not a ‘zero-sum game’ — not more for one partner and less for another. Instead, it is important that there are mutual benefits and shared values for all partners. The third principle is equity: the partnership must be an equitable relationship and there must be respect for the different resources that each partner brings to the table.

TPI has developed a roadmap of how you move through the ‘getting-to-know-you’ phase, to finding that shared point where you decide what are you going to partner on. Then, how to build the plan and the action plan and how to measure it and how to communicate.

In the boot-camp, we look at interest-based negotiation. We’ll look at communication and language and how we communicate and talk differently. We’ll talk about collaboration and what it means. We talk about trust and how you build it and about finding resources. We’ll look at case studies and do role plays where we put each other into each other’s shoes, which can be very illuminating. It’s very interactive and we’ll be rolling it out in 2018 as a great addition to our Asia P3 suite of services and products.

How is Asia P3 Hub embracing diversity and inclusivity?

I often use the word diversity but it’s not in the context of an agenda or mandate. It is just that you cannot get things done in a co-creative way if you’re not surrounding yourself with people who are not like yourself. If we are going to be successful as a hub and reach our strategic objectives, mission and vision, then we need to be a team of amazing people whose talents and skills and networks and expertise complement each other’s, including mine.

I know that in some of the environments I work in I’m not the right person to put upfront, because I’m Caucasian. Instead, the front person needs to be my colleague who was born and raised in the region. The key is thinking always not only how we can help others grow but also how to be appropriate to the environment that we’re working in, and how to contextualise our approach. That is, not just what we’re doing but how we’re doing it. That also builds the capability of the diverse people that are in this team.

We are very intentional about the team including different genders, skills and generations. One of our tech guys is in his 30s and he’s built a start-up and sold it, and he operates in a totally different way from me. We have millennials; we have interns who are 20 and are rock stars. Together, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts. There are some days where I’m terribly uncomfortable — when I feel like I’ve got a new pair of shoes on that are squeaky and too tight but I would walk a mile in those shoes any day to share this journey with this team.

I was at a dinner last night and one of the guests, who works as a designer in systems thinking used the term combinatorial creativity, in passing. I’d never heard that term before, so we had a great conversation about that and whether it is the same thing as combinatorial innovation. My point is that it’s being combinatorial that matters: pooling everything that you have together in new ways and that leads to a creative outcome of some kind.

Asia P3 Hub craves differences. The approach of P3 Hub is all about craving differences and corralling those in a constructive, safe way that can be turned into something positive. Differences are very different from disruption. There is almost a spectrum extending from differences through disruption and out to ‘extreme disruption. We manage this spectrum by thinking about our audience and choosing our terminology. Asia P3 Hub is sometimes seen as disrupting things a bit within World Vision by innovating in an organisation that has been doing great work for around for 60 years. The key is to use the difference spectrum positively and that comes from being sensitive and respectful, looking at the audience, then sharing what we are doing in a way that can reach that audience. We think a lot about making sure we tailor our message to the audience, whether that is a community and families, or a forum with executives.

How can other people apply the Asia P3 Hub approach, in their own work?

I would say the first thing is that you have to be intentional. We are very, very intentional, about the steps that we take to work differently. That doesn’t happen automatically, even if it looks smooth and natural from the outside. It would be much easier to do things in our own way and surround ourselves with like-minded people, so that is exactly what we try not to do.

Look at where your organisation or group could benefit from bringing in a completely different idea, perspective, approach, person, personality. Intentionally look around and bring something completely different into the group.

The second thing I think is to convene a conversation. It doesn’t matter how big or how small your organisation is or how much authority an individual has, you can put a topic out there for discussion — at a coffee, or a lunch, or a big event if you have those kinds of resources. Maybe ask folks to bring along someone who has a completely different type of expertise or is from a different sector or discipline. But, be intentional about it.

Also, think about which of your projects would benefit from that different approach and start to apply it.

In Asia P3 Hub, we create a plan and we think about who needs to be involved and engaged. Then we decide on what we need to tell the people that have the power, that have the influence. In your case, it could be your boss or your co-workers. It’s the people that you need to bring on board to be able to take a new approach forward.

Achieving results could take a lot of intentional conversations; making sure that you package ideas so the language is appropriate to the position of the audience and what they are able to absorb. I learned very quickly not to talk about the things I wanted to achieve all at once. It was far too much for someone to take in. You have to feed ideas slowly, like a drip-feed sometimes, then bring people along to a point where they are ready to hear what you want to tell them.

If you want to work with us, we would love to have a conversation with you. Reach out to us. If you are in Singapore we’ll buy you a cup of coffee and we’ll sit down and have a chat and start from there. We have launched a new website at where you can find our contact details.

I wish I could explain ‘intentionality’. It’s true there are several ways to approach it and a number of different levels of intentionality. For me, intentionality starts with me. It’s as simple as that. When I’m not intentional I don’t achieve the desired objective. It may mean I don’t have the right people in the room to advise on something that I’m working on. If I’m not intentional about cleaning up my office, it doesn’t get done. It sounds really silly and simple but it starts with me. Intentionality involves maintaining perspective, thinking deeply, clearly, thoughtfully, and not getting carried along so fast by life’s demands that I can’t stop for a moment and reflect on my intentions. If I’m not intentional, then others can’t see that intention. As a leader, I have a responsibility to take that approach.

Can you outline a co-creation workshop for us?

This outline is based on a one-day workshop we ran mid-year in Indonesia.

  1. We aim for about 30 people in the room. If there are too many more than that, you start to lose the intimacy that you need because it’s a very interactive process.
  2. We start by introducing the essentials of partnering in multi-sector partnerships, such as: (i) what it means when you are intentionally reaching out beyond yourselves; for example, an NGO reaching out to other sectors including the private sector, academia, entrepreneurs, impact investors of various sizes, and government; and (ii) the range of tools and the processes you can use.
  3. Next, we look at the context of the country we are in, based on background research we have done. In that case, we had researched Indonesia, in partnership with World Vision Indonesia, which has a massive landscape and presence and has been around for a long time.
  4. We back that up with other research so that we can put forward what we see for that country and we have a guided conversation to try and establish concepts, such as: (i) this is where we stand today – our current state; and (ii) these are the key challenges and issues we have around WASH in Indonesia.
  5. Then we talk about the preferred future, and that may be derived from what the government is saying, or government policies that have been publicly stated and we explore how the group can help achieve that future together.
  6. We explain the Asia P3 Hub and what our base in Singapore means for the country (Indonesia in this example). We hear about opportunities to which we could bring leverage from here.
  7. We use a partnering methodology and talk about the actual cycle of partnering, with specific examples of the kinds of ideas that we’re exploring.
  8. We do some symptom and root-cause analysis. We examine situations and do some simple stakeholder analysis on who’s engaged and how we would take things forward.
  9. If it’s not the first workshop with a group, there is also a call to action: challenging the group to discuss what are we going to do together (even if people are a little uncomfortable and no-one knows exactly what to do next), recognising that Asia P3 Hub will help facilitate this process to do something new and different that could have an exponential impact for the country.
  10. However, if this is the first workshop for a group, with folks in a room that have never been together in a room before, then the focus is on ‘getting to know you’.

That overview shows you a typical workshop structure.

It’s important not to get caught up on the detail, such as tools and methodologies, but instead to get the focus right:

  • What’s the problem we want to solve?
  • What’s the impact that we want to have?
  • What do we do about this?
  • Here’s the problem, so what’s the preferred future?

There needs to be a lot of nitty-gritty discussion, thrashing ideas about, doing some analysis and so on. You only have one day, so a lot must take place after we leave the room. We don’t expect to come in and solve the focus problem right there. But, we can make good progress as long as it’s a well-guided tightly facilitated process, where you keep people on track, rather than wasting time on tangents that are not germane to this particular conversation.

We have some pretty amazing conversations. We are almost always very pleased with the outcomes, provided we have taken people through a logical process forward. We allow space for creativity and stepping outside of comfort zones.

In the end, we’ll say: “OK. If you enjoyed the day but you don’t think the time is right to be a part of this moving forward, no problem. But, if you’ve got an offer to make or if you’ve got a commitment that you’d like to make, then, by all means, let’s put it on the table.” This approach has been very good, and so far we are learning something new every time. We enjoy the process immensely.

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Combinatorial Innovation

Christy mentions combinatorial innovation, which is combining existing innovation to create something new. She first heard of the concept in an article by John Elkington, who is an expert on corporate responsibility & sustainable development. John’s article was titled, ‘Are we nearly there yet?

Asia P3 Hub

Asia P3 Hub was launched on July 11, 2016, and is a platform that brings together the private sector, public sector and civil society to look for new ways to solve old problems. They are hosted by World Vision but work as a separate enterprise that is looking to produce market-driven solutions to water, sanitation, and hygiene in Asia. The Hub is built on the principles of transparency, mutual benefit & equity. It is an eco-system builder and facilitator.

They work out of a co-working space in Singapore called Collision 8. It’s called collision because it’s all about people and ideas colliding to created new innovative solutions and business opportunities.bring. Christy gives another example in Singapore, where this type of environment exists:  the Public Utilities Board of Singapore has had the specific intention of developing a hydro-hub with forward-thinking water agencies and evolving water technology.

Private Sector Involvement

Christy says that they are often surprised about the willingness of the private sector to be involved with a combinatorial approach. She gives the example of Kohler, a fixture company that is partnering with World Vision in Thailand who have an intent to move beyond a transactional approach and move toward shared visions of a transformational impact on the lives of children in Thailand over 10 years. This shows that conversations are changing.

Christy also talks about the role of millennials in changing these conversations, as they don’t just want to make money but also want to do good. In making this reflection, she recalls, an essay written by Aaron Maniam called “Beyond a scarcity mindset: A letter from my future self” that talks about the concept of generative resources.

Christy also refers to impact investing as a way of accessing benefits from the private sector and there are many investors now who seek to generate a return from a financial perspective but also have measurable social & environmental benefits as well. Asia P3 Hub has an impact investor as a business advisor, who has helped them understand the middle ground between small and big investors.

Capacity Building

Christy says the Asia P3 hub is currently focused on building capacity in WASH and water professionals, particularly in terms of how technical experts can learn how to navigate partnership development with people who are not like them. They are collaborating with a group called  Partnering Initiative based in the UK to develop a curriculum for partnership boot-camp adapted to the Asian context that will be rolled out next year. It will include content on interest-based negotiation, communication & language, and even basics like collaboration and building trust.

Further information on the partnering methodology can be found in the following three articles:

In the interview, Brene Brown’s book ‘Dare to Lead’ is mentioned.


Interview Quotes


This interview and related content was originally part of the Kini Interview Series. Kini is a retired brand of the AWP and IWCAN

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