We highlight blog posts from all UN Entities related to innovation in the UN below. If you would like to suggest a post for us to include, you can do so here.
Who can imagine Valentine’s Day without bon-bons, or Easter without chocolate eggs? Yet generations-old cocoa farming businesses are on the verge of collapse in the Amazon because cocoa farmers don’t receive fair pay for their work. Using blockchain technology, the United Nations Development Programme in Ecuador, AltFinLab and Amsterdam’s FairChain Foundation are developing the world’s first blockchain shared-value chocolate.
So far, developments in AI have been predominately driven by private sector technology actors, but growing interest by African governments has seen the start of conversations around “AI strategies” for growth and governance across the continent. AI is not typically applied to a defined problem in a neutral way. Navigating the complexities of AI application calls for a typology of positive AI and negative AI in the governance context. Positive AI is the use of such systems for broad social benefit. Conversely, negative AI is used for social division, suppression, or even violence.
Each year, humanitarian aid organizations save and protect tens of millions of people caught up in crises across the world. Their interventions are more timely, relevant and effective than ever. But humanitarian action is not always as fast as it should be, and needs are unevenly met. Even as record sums are raised, growing levels of vulnerability worldwide have resulted in a stubborn and harmful gap between need and response. Historically, donors have financed a little more than half of what the United Nations asks for each year. So, what do we need to do better?
To boost the percentage of coverage, humanitarian agencies need to break out of traditional funding models that are no longer sufficient for the complex and protracted crises we face. Humanitarian organizations – and their backers – will need to embrace one of the most important drivers of success: the ability to adapt and innovate their way out of problems.
In communities across the world that are prone to natural disasters, having an effective disaster response strategy in place is vital to save lives and support affected communities. To successfully coordinate what are often complex disaster relief efforts, governments, disaster response authorities and humanitarian agencies need useful, up-to-date information that can be easily accessed.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is converging with an extraordinary array of other technologies, from biotech and genomics, to neuro technology, robotics, cyber technology and manufacturing systems. Increasingly, these technologies are decentralized, beyond State control, and available to a wide range of actors around the world. While these trends may unlock enormous potential for humankind, the convergence of AI and new technologies also poses unprecedented risks to global security. In particular, they create challenges for the multilateral system and the United Nations, which operate at the inter-State level.
Advances in information and communication technologies are driving global changes in our society—from the way we communicate with each other to the forces that shape our economy and behaviour. Insights generated from big data are already transforming many domains. Mobility data from mobile phone networks can reveal the extent of displacement after a disaster and help predict the spread of infectious diseases, while mobile airtime purchases can help track food consumption. Roofing materials visible from space serve as a proxy for poverty, changes in debit card usage indicate the impact of a crisis, and postal records have been used to estimate trade flows. At the same time, the rapidly evolving capabilities of artificial intelligence offer new opportunities to unlock the value of big data for more evidence-based decision-making that can accelerate progress towards the SDGs.
Rarely a day passes without a story on an exciting, or perhaps terrifying, advancement in technology as developers discover new ways to leverage quantum computers, robotics, 3D printing, and AI to solve new and age-old problems alike.
One exciting new development that tech watchers may have missed this year: efforts the United Nations has taken to modernize its work and better prepare itself as a platform for global discussions on the promises and perils of new technologies. Much of this work has been led by Secretary-General António Guterres, an engineer by training who took the helm at the UN determined to modernize and reform the organization to better prepare it to face the challenges of the 21st century, including achieving the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
An inherent problem with mobile surveys is that respondents who are able to own a phone tend to be from households that are better-off and literate.
This leads to a selection bias in our results: respondents who are able to participate in the mVAM surveys are systematically different from those who are not. How do we ensure that our survey results are representative of the real population?
Accurate estimates of population demographics are vital in order to understand social and economic inequalities, and are essential to UNICEF’s work, as knowing where the most vulnerable children and families live is important for resource allocation. Traditional methods of collecting such estimates, however, are both time-consuming and expensive. Here, we explore a complementary approach.
Secretary-General António Guterres announced the launch of a global task force charged with recommending strategies to harness the potential of financial technology to advance the Sustainable Development Goals. “We have already seen how technology has helped expand financial inclusion—itself an important goal—by 1.2 billion people in just six years,” said Mr. Guterres. “But we have only just begun to tap the potential of digital finance and investment to meet the broader agenda set forth in the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change.”
A few years ago UNICEF met with a group of about 40 entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley looking for creative solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing people in the poorest parts of the world. But after a week of brain-storming ideas, it was clear that they were on the wrong track. This week of co-creation resulted in solutions like subscription-based smartphone health apps that would cost someone living in poverty an entire day’s income, or water purifying solutions that would have to be delivered on a large truck to remote villages that were only accessible by footpaths.
Family farms make up 90 percent of the world’s farms and produce over 80 percent of the world’s food. Yet, paradoxically, they are often poor and food insecure themselves. Recognizing the successful innovations that farmers have already used and helping to spread them to other farmers is vital for our future of food and agriculture.
Innovation is not just good ideas, and it is much more than technology. Innovation in agriculture cuts across all dimensions of the production cycle along the entire value chain - from crop, forestry, fishery or livestock production to the management of inputs and resources to market access.
Ahead of World AIDS Day, which takes place on 1 December, UNAIDS is releasing a series of virtual reality films focused on HIV testing. Using the latest technology, the films help to demystify HIV testing. With goggles that viewers can wear for a full VR experience, the aim is to reach young people who may want to know their HIV status but are afraid or worried about taking an HIV test.
In the films, a group of talented young people re-enact several scenarios of a young woman’s journey to find out her HIV status. Going from her home to a local health clinic, the films allow viewers to explore different settings through a 360-degree experience.
All Maldivian nationals are covered under the Government’s universal health insurance plan called “Aasandha”. Aasandha data provides personal data records and insurance data for all Maldivians. Since the usual data source for non-communicable diseases is the Demographic and Health Surveys, which is carried out every 6 years (most recently in 2015 and before that in 2009), we thought we could get more up-to-date data on diabetes if we looked directly at the health insurance data.
Our team assumed that analyzing this data would serve as proxy indicators for the SDG indicators 3.8.1: Coverage of essential health services. Our idea was to have an anonymized look at the data from the universal health insurance plan to see what else we could learn about non-communicable diseases.
Most farmers in Zambia are smallholders who lack the means to access and participate in markets. Their limited ability to access information about additional markets outside their immediate community makes them effectively invisible to other traders who may be willing to pay them a better price for their crops. In response to this need of farmers to gain improved access markets, WFP launched an ambitious start-up in May 2017: Maano, a virtual farmers’ market that aims to help rural smallholder farmers sell their produce by providing them a trustworthy platform to advertise and sell their produce.
Although the app was a hit among the farmers, who went from having limited access to markets to being able to increase their visibility and profitability, a post-pilot user interface and user experience assessment highlighted several challenges the farmers faced while using the app.
Tools such as WhatsApp, social media messaging, automated voice messaging and chatbots, for instance, could help us deliver services smarter, better and faster while offering alternative ways for people to contact the centre.
From providing automated interactions for people who can’t read or write, to reaching tech-savvy youth, using these different tools allow more people to contact us at any given time – ensuring that more people’s request for assistance are received and their needs met.
Alpha Diallo was perhaps not the most obvious employee among his colleagues in Abidjan to take on the role of Innovation Fellow. As Head of Administration and Finance at UNHCR’s operation in Côte d’Ivoire, he wasn’t in daily contact with persons of concerns. But he had a hunch that shaking up assigned roles and pushing staff to get out of their comfort zone was just what the operation needed to see fresh ideas bubble up. His work over the past few months has served to prove his point.
A few years ago, Alpha discovered the work of Ideo, a design firm known for its human-centered approach to solving social problems, and was intrigued by the organization’s methods for designing and scaling projects. These methods could likely help the agency incubate new projects to improve its assistance to persons of concerns, he thought. When the Innovation Fellowship was announced, he noticed the program would be using principles that aligned with Ideo’s. The decision to apply was a no-brainer. “It was the perfect opportunity to contribute to changing an organization that is over half a century old,” he recalls.
Public transportation services are not always gender sensitive and safety concerns related to women’s mobility in metropolitan areas are at times overlooked. The lack of a safe and inclusive public transportation system influences many decisions that women make, from where to go to work, how far from home to travel to school, to where to shop for basic household items.
Pulse Lab Jakarta has teamed up with UN Women to gather insights on women’s mobility and travel choices in urban areas in order to design practical interventions that can improve the safety of women. What does safety mean for women when using public transportation at night? What is the travel experience like from the time they leave their house, go through transit and arrive at their final destination?
Innovation and creativity do not happen in a vacuum, yet often in organizational structures they are relegated to a specific space or team (e.g. an Innovation Lab) rather than set-up as a cross-cutting initiative. It is easy then to assume that the people who work within these spaces are doing the necessary innovation and new thinking to give their organization a competitive edge. However, innovation does not always work in such a neat, orderly way, and impactful innovation continually requires collaboration and perspectives beyond specific innovation teams.
We believe that creativity should flow within and around an organization, pulling different people from all parts of the structure into the design process. Yet, we so often encounter innovation as a specific unit or section, so how can we instead push to foster engagement in innovation beyond these units to better tap into employees’ creativity?
At its first meeting in New York on 24-25 September 2018, the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation discussed opportunities offered by digital technologies for accelerating the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and for empowering individuals and communities. Equally, it examined the risks associated with these technologies and current obstacles to digital trust and cooperation. A meeting summary is available here.
The overall objective of the Panel is to make practical proposals on how to strengthen cooperation in the digital space among governments, the private sector, civil society, international organizations, the technical and academic communities and all other relevant stakeholders, and thereby contribute to a broader global dialogue on how interdisciplinary and cooperative approaches can help ensure a safe and inclusive digital future.
Bright-eyed 15-year-old Khayrath Mohamed Kombo is heading off to camp in another city for the first time. But far from arriving to a sea of tents, sleeping bags and wilderness, this camp has a decidedly more high-tech environment. “When I heard about this I was excited because my dream is to learn more things and expand my knowledge,” says Khayrath, who is the only girl in her computer science club at school, back in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.
She was among more than 80 girls from 34 African countries who attended the first Coding Camp in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for 10 days in August 2018. The camp served to launch the African Girls Can CODE Initiative, a joint programme of the African Union Commission, UN Women Ethiopia and the International Telecommunication Union.
In the social sector, the scaling question makes us nervous because the image of scaling is often a one dimensional, industrial one: let’s replicate the use of this technology, tool or method in a different place and that means we’ve scaled. This gives us social development people pause not only because we can’t ever fully replicate [anything] across multiple moving elements across economic, social and culture. Even if we could replicate, it would dooms us to measuring scaling by counting the repeated application of one innovation in many places.
Thankfully, people like Gord Tulloch have given us a thoughtful scaling seriesthat questions the idea that scaling social innovation is about replicating single big ideas many times over.
So if scaling ≠ only replication, how do we strategize for scale? I’ve got a proposal: what if we frame the innovation scaling question more about doing deep than broad? The scaling question becomes: How will we move from distinct prototypes managed by different teams at the frontier of our work to a coherent, connected use of emergent experiments in programme operations?
To protect this planet and create prosperity for all, we need moon shots and puddle jumps. The newly-released 2017–2018 Annual Review of the UNDP Innovation Facility under the same title calls for deliberate investments in different forms of innovation. Coined by Jason Prapas of MIT’s Tata Center for Technology and Design, moon shots refer to the transformative innovations and technological breakthroughs; and puddle jumps to important incremental improvements as well as efforts to address last-mile challenges. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are unlikely to be met without massive investments in different forms of innovation: incremental improvements, transformative innovations pursuing bold missions and bottom-up solutions.
However, a focus on unlocking innovation for the 2030 Agenda is not enough. Governments and development organizations need to invest in anticipatory innovation: addressing potential future risks and liabilities by designing experiments to explore them today. This is particularly relevant for frontier technologies and their impact on economies, on human freedom and our wellbeing. These are some of the key messages from the publication ‘Moon Shots and Puddle Jumps’.
In the middle of a muddy field next to a reservoir in north-western Malawi, a team of scientists are hard at work. Boxes of equipment lie scattered around a patch of dry ground, where a scientist programmes an automated drone flight into a laptop perched on a metal box. The craggy peak of Linga Mountain (‘watch from afar’ in the local language) looms over the lake, casting its reflection in the water.
With a high-pitched whirr of rotor blades, the drone takes off and starts following the shoreline, taking photos as it goes. Once the drone is airborne, the team switch from high-tech to low-tech mode. They collect ladles, rulers and plastic containers and squelch through mud until they reach the water’s edge.
The scientists measure the water depth with a ruler and carefully ladle water into the containers. Using a mobile app, they record the GPS location of each sample. Back on dry ground, they count the number of mosquito larvae in each container.
“Our business — development overall — is to manage risk, not to avoid it.” In a recent call with development innovators, UNDP’s Administrator Achim Steiner emphasized that it is high time we shift from risk aversion to risk expectation. There is no alternative giving the scope of the 2030 Agenda and the existential threats humanity is facing. The Center for Global Development recently found that the SDGs are unlikely to be met by 2030 without rapid, ubiquitous innovation.
Since March 2018, Achim Steiner convenes monthly one-hour conversations with intrapreneurs from UNDP Country Offices. These virtual discussions aim at inspiring new ways of working across offices and cultivating innovation in the organization. In the complex process of transforming organizations, this signal from the top bears more significance than the first impression might suggest.
According to some estimates, implementing the SDGs will cost a whopping 172.5 USD trillion by 2030, while current aid flows to developing countries sit at 350 USD billion annually. (…) We believe that this gap can be partly filled by something called impact investing. This is, in short, investments made into companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate social or environmental impact alongside a financial return.
At the UN in Armenia, we are testing impact investing and other new funding mechanisms to explore how they can be best used in middle-income countries to generate financing for the SDGs. Our UN team, led by UNDP Armenia, is experimenting around a set of initiatives that are already turning to be great learning experiences that we are proud to share in this blog.
Too many people die due to delayed medical assistance every day in Uganda. Most people have a story about someone in their family or community who did not receive the medical attention they needed because the ambulance never arrived. In 2016 alone, 336 out of every 100,000 pregnant women died because they were unable to reach a health facility or emergency service in time to safely deliver their babies. (…)
In response, the Government of Belgium donated ambulances to medical facilities to ensure that people, and especially pregnant women, receive access to transportation and assistance.
To understand how these ambulances are being used and what other steps could be taken to improve emergency service delivery, Pulse Lab Kampala developed a digital application called Cheetah Tracker.
In November 2017, the remote Congolese town of Impfondo experienced rains that flooded vast areas of land and forced thousands of people to evacuate. For WFP, responding was a challenge, and determining needs took some guesswork.
Soon afterwards, as the government started work on repairing the infrastructure, WFP started looking at solutions to ensure a faster response to this type of disaster in the future. This is where Cloud to Street came in, a group that uses high resolution satellite imagery to estimate local flooding exposure and to monitor its impacts in near real-time, providing essential, credible and detailed information to first responders.
South Africa is still experiencing the world's largest and fastest growing HIV epidemic with approximately 288,400 new infections a year. Almost 60% of all new HIV infections occur amongst adolescent girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 24.
Launched by the NGO loveLife, the iloveLife platform is an innovative cell-phone based system for young people offering interactive information on sexual and reproductive health and rights and connecting young people with clinical health services and facilities with the ultimate aim of promoting healthy lifestyles.
Through the support of the Innovation Fund, UNFPA added a clinic locator and rating system to the existing mobisite, iloveLife. The objective was to connect young people with clinical health services and facilities that offer youth-friendly services increasing both preventative care as well as treatment.
UN Member States gather this week in New York to discuss progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals during the 2018 High-Level Political Forum. One element will connect all HLPF discussions as it connects all goals: change.
To achieve the ambitious 2030 Agenda, economic paradigms, means of production, institutions and systems have to change. Human behaviour needs to change on a massive scale. But changing human behaviour is a lot more complex than it seems. “We are all far less rational in our decision-making than standard economic theory assumes. Our irrational behaviours are neither random nor senseless: they are systematic and predictable. We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains,” stated behavioural economist Dan Ariely in ‘Predictably Irrational’ in 2008.