Beyond the Buzzword: Reflections on Fostering Innovation
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?
Call for Input and Engagement around Key Focus Areas
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.
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’.
Innovation scaling: It’s not replication. It’s seeing in 3D
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 series that 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?
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.
Bottom-up, top-down and outside-in: Cultivating innovation at UNDP
“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.
Creating an impact investment culture in Armenia: Our way of doing it
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.
Ambulance Tracking Tool Helps Improve Coordination of Emergency Service Vehicles in Uganda
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.
Cloud on the horizon: rebooting flood mapping in Congo
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.
Going mobile: Using phones to connect young people to clinics
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.
When retail, humanitarian assistance and digital technology meet
The historical image associated with humanitarian aid is one of distribution points, long lines and bags of rice. But as the world evolves, so too does the assistance provided by the World Food Programme (WFP).
WFP strives to make food assistance a dignified and human experience, now giving beneficiaries in developed markets cash to buy food directly through the retail sector. Bags of rice have transformed into simple electronic cards which allow refugees to define their own food preferences at local shops.
Can irrational humans create a sustainable future?
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.
In 2016 we prepared a Common Country Analysis (CCA) for Palestine. A CCA is UN speak for a detailed analysis of a country in preparation for a multi-year action plan of the UN. It identifies key development challenges and where the UN needs to focus its development investments.
For our analysis this time, we decided to look at people and we asked ourselves two questions:
- Who are the most vulnerable groups in Palestine?
- What are the structural drivers of their vulnerability?
Experimentation is a crucial part of innovation, and some would argue that there’s no innovation without experimentation. If innovation and experimentation are so closely linked together, before we can start talking about experimentation, we need to understand what innovation is. The big misconception is that innovation is about new ideas: as long as we have ideas, everything else will magically get solved. We associate innovation to colourful post-its and countless brainstorming sessions. Whereas searching for novel ideas is part of innovation and the process, it is not the real challenge and the most challenging part of innovation. Understanding innovation as “the best idea” is a myth and it’s not only a too narrow and simplistic understanding, but it’s also harmful.
Wawasan Satu Data: Applying human-centred design principles to data governance
A democratic approach to policy-making calls for reliable and timely information to ensure effective decision making. The Government of Indonesia in light of this has introduced the Satu Data Initiative to improve the quality of data governance, not just for policy-making but also to increase transparency with open data for citizens. Over the past few months, Pulse Lab Jakarta in partnership with the Executive Office of the President of Indonesia (KSP) have been applying human centred design to model a data governance framework at the local government level. In this post, we discuss how five primary components of human centred design were integrated to help develop a tailored framework.
In our Year in Review, we’ve distilled countless hours of research, impact evaluations, interviews and number crunching — looking back at the people, partners and ideas that shaped an extraordinary year for the Innovation Accelerator. It features some of the global start-ups and WFP entrepreneurs we supported in 2017 and provides a full overview of our game-changing innovations, some of which will continue to grow in 2018.
When considering the need to develop agriculture in the world, to grow food for animals or people, the Sahara Desert is certainly not the first location that comes to mind. But it’s precisely here that such an activity is perhaps the most necessary.
The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has sought to tackle this issue by setting up fodder production units in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, southwestern Algeria. These units rely on hydroponic agriculture, which means the plants are grown on a material that’s naturally inert, such as sand. The technique requires no fertilizer and enables the production of fresh fodder for animals in desert regions or areas where the soil quality is too low for agriculture. Only water is needed.
Innovation metrics for human development – what we have learned
Inspired by the recent frank reflection by UNCHR’s amazing Innovation Team on designing metrics for humanitarian innovation, we would like to share lessons we learned, challenges we are addressing and plans we have moving forward to measure the impact of innovation in and catalyzed by UNDP. As a short background: in 2014, UNDP launched its Innovation Facility to unlock innovation for better development results on the country-level and to help transform the organization. The Innovation Facility is comprised of a small core team of nine innovation advisors, with two based in Headquarters and the others operating from Regional Hubs in direct support of Country Offices and external partners. The key actors are the UNDP intrapreneurs and their partners in our programme countries who push the envelope and do development differently.
Who is writing the future? Designing infrastructure for ethical AI
“The future is unwritten,” stated Joe Strummer decades ago. It implied a message of hope for humanity’s future and a call for action. Today, algorithms are written that might pave the way for the end of humanity or for transformative progress.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has great potential and the time to manage its progress is now. AI strategies need to foster innovation, yet adequately address ethics, transparency, inclusion as well as biases. This was one of the main messages of last week’s ‘AI for Good’ Global Summit, convened by ITU in partnership with XPRize, ACM and more than 20 UN agencies.
Innovation is about diversity and inclusion. Stop with the gimmicks, catch up.
The title says it all. You either get this, or you’re pushing tech and getting your bosses to be excited about products with little success in sustainability, and missing opportunities to innovate processes and approaches.
Our version of the truth is, that if you’re not making innovation accessible, making it inclusive, and encouraging diversity, then you’re not doing what needs to be done to make innovation as effective as it should be.
Business Unusual Will Drive Africa’s Quest to Achieve Health Care for All
Africa’s quest for health continues to face challenges from a combination of factors such as natural disasters and pandemics, prevailing high rates of communicable and rising incidence of non-communicable diseases, sedentary lifestyles, road accidents, and greater population mobility. With the region accounting for approximately a quarter of the world’s disease burden and just three percent of its doctors, business as usual won’t work to achieve the future we need.
To achieve Universal Health Coverage, more resources will not only have to be mobilized for the health sector, but new partnerships must also be forged, such as the one between United Nations, the Government of Kenya, and technology company Philips to improve access to health care in hard to reach communities. New models of blended financing and impact investing need to take up the slack to address the scarce resources, which must also be used more efficiently and effectively.
Tech for Food wins big at the ‘Innovate for Refugees’ awards ceremony in Amman
Last month, Tech for Food was announced as one of five winners of ‘Innovate for Refugees’, a competition organisedby the MIT Enterprise Forum (MITEF) for the Pan Arab region. The competition, which is in its second year, is designed to attract the best tech-driven solutions addressing the challenges faced by refugees all over the world.
The team was one of 20 semi-finalists who underwent a round of training sessions and presented their work to a jury that brought together a number of key investors and business people. The five winning teams, including Tech for Food, were awarded $20,000 each.
Rebuilding Syria through innovation: Empowering Syrian youth to become entrepreneurs
Despite the limited transportation, perpetual security threats and bombings ravaging her adopted city, Leen Darwish, an optimistic 23-year-old woman, stayed steadfastly determined to continue her education at the University of Damascus and graduate with a degree in computer science.
And later this year, after the conflict raging across the country forced her to leave behind her life in her home town of Harasta, Leen will achieve her goal and claim her diploma. She is also hard at work launching her new app and web-based platform, called Remmaz, designed to teach coding throughout Syria – and eventually the Arab world, started through support from the UNFPA Innovation Fund.