Prototyping the Digital Drum, Uganda Innovation Lab. Photo credit: UNICEF Uganda
Prototyping the Digital Drum, Uganda Innovation Lab. Photo credit: UNICEF Uganda

Conversation: Ecosystems for Innovation and the Role of Innovation Labs

No one has, to my knowledge, counted the definitions of “innovation” that exist (and grow in number, daily). UNICEF uses the very simple idea of doing something new or different that adds measurable, concrete value as a starting point. This highlights the fact that we have always been an “innovative” organization – whether working on products like the Mark II handpump, the autodisable syringe, or RapidSMS – or working on systems and systems-strengthening.

In order for this new, different work to matter to an organization it needs to 1) be useful, 2) be recognized and 3) be counted/countable. The innovation labs help us do these three things from the point of strength of the organization – which is, for UNICEF, its 135 country offices.

1) Being Useful: the work of the 12 (and growing) UNICEF Innovation labs serves our country offices, and the most vulnerable children and women in those. The labs create spaces for collaboration around some of the most difficult issues in the world. They also connect to each other, so that we’re not developing one solution many times.

2) Being Recognized: There needs to be a way to communicate about this work that eschews the traditional rhetoric of development. Words and phrases like: ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘global south’ create a world where inequities can only be addressed with certain linear workflows. It is vital to change our communication to think about creating sound, smart businesses that have “good” in their DNA – and fostering skills of entrepreneurship, global citizenship and openness.

3) Being counted: We have recently developed a ‘metrics of innovation’ – which I will hopefully share later in the conversation – to answer the questions of: “Is innovation work valuable in a big organization? If so, why? If so, and why, then prove it.” – these metrics were built up in collaboration with innovation leads from across UN agencies, private sector and academia and allow for us to show, quantitatively, how doing things in a new or different way adds significant value to the operations and policy of a 13,000-person, global, hyperlocal organization like UNICEF.

I look forward to exploring these issues with my fellow panelists, and trying to understand how we can accelerate change in the way we do business, because that acceleration is happening in the world around us and we need to be able to match velocity, with enough agility, to create global solutions for (and with) the world’s most marginalized children.

Chris Fabian
UNICEF Innovation Unit Co-Lead
@unickf

Follow the conversation about Ecosystems for Innovation and the Role of Innovation Labs here

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Conversation: Ecosystems for Innovation and the Role of Innovation Labs

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Innovation Labs: Do-It-Yourself Guide now available in Spanish

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