Technology and culture change constantly. Challenges have never been larger, or coming faster – urbanization, climate change, lack of employment opportunities, broken education systems, increased disparities and digital divides. It’s not just robots and flying machines but how these new technologies are transforming how we think about the world’s challenges and about how we deliver services to those at the last mile. Today in Kenya, a Maasai warrior has better mobile phone coverage than the President did 25 years ago. We want to be part of the solutions that address the world’s biggest challenges. That is why UNICEF Innovation has partnered with Singularity University — to build an Innovation Lab right at the heart and epicenter of innovation, the San Francisco Bay Area.

UNICEF staff get a demo of unmanned aerial vehicles on the ball field at Singularity University.  (c) UNICEF 2014/Holmes
UNICEF staff get a demo of unmanned aerial vehicles on the ball field at Singularity University. (c) UNICEF 2014/Holmes

The newly launched San Francisco lab is located at NASA Ames Research Center. As a social impact partner at Singularity University, this UNICEF Innovation Lab will provide the mentorship and knowledge needed to turn an idea into a sustainable and impactful project. Stepping inside the work of the lab you feel that you are walking into a room of possibilities. Like the streets of Zambia, it’s noisy and bustling, there is tinkering and soldering and chatter about new and existing projects. The goal of the lab is to create technologies and programs that will help shape the future for good, looking 3 to 5 years ahead, while harnessing our current work. Here we will champion new ideas, tools and approaches. All of our projects aim to lower costs, improve and/or save lives. Our role is to help create an environment where innovation can flourish across our nearly 300 projects and programs. We will work globally to find solutions to serve even the most underserved communities.

Reactions after a session on the Oculus Rift at Singularity University lab. (c) UNICEF 2014/Holmes
Reactions after a session on the Oculus Rift at Singularity University lab. (c) UNICEF 2014/Holmes

The San Francisco-based team also aims to teach the ways of the force — each day striving to be a force for change in the communities and for the millions of children that UNICEF serves across the world. It was a fantastic experience to bring together UNICEF Innovation partners from around the world at the lab for Singularity University’s Global Grand Challenges Week. Together we brought forward the message to be responsive to and prepared for changes in society and technology in order to ensure innovation remains relevant. This requires fostering innovation that values new ideas and the people behind them.

The lab will work directly with the other Innovation Labs at UNICEF to build open-source, locally relevant, sustainable solutions that are user driven. Technologists will test new ways of delivering energy to those off the grid, scientists will craft out-of-the box solutions for clean water, engineers will design alternate transportation systems, thought leaders will convene around the new era of digital education. We will dream big, and we’re just getting started.

This force for change allows us to connect the world’s greatest problem solvers to its most difficult challenges. We have already seen that innovation and locally created ideas can have exponential impact – now join us on our journey to see how that impact can change the world. Even if only a few of our ideas happen, think about the force for change we can and we WILL create together.

Blair Palmer
Lab Lead: San Francisco, UNICEF Innovation

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