By Louise Bloom and Romy Faulkner 

The number of UN innovation labs is growing. UNICEF has recently opened new labs, and new spaces are touted in other agencies too. Several UN agencies have shown a strong commitment at their top management level to focusing on innovation as a key priority moving forward. UNICEF is working to integrate and mainstream innovation within its core programs, rather than it merely being the domain of the innovation labs. For UNHCR, innovation activity is becoming increasingly integrated into field projects and sectors of work.

In order to be a key player in the progress of the innovation movement, the UN ought to keep the following issues in mind.

  • Balance the direct and indirect imperatives of humanitarian innovation

UN innovation labs should aim to both build an internal culture and mind-set of innovation practice (the indirect imperative), and innovate as closely to the affected community as possible, for optimal impact on their lives (the direct imperative). These dual objectives must be carefully balanced. It is crucial that innovation labs do not focus so much on organisational change that they pay mere lip service to the direct imperative of facilitating change from within communities.

  • Be wary of the danger of ‘siloing’ innovation spaces in the long-term

When innovation spaces are operating quite separately from programme offices and calling upon new disciplines to develop solutions, they are at times required to translate their work into a language and format that can then be injected back into the agency’s core programs (Harvey 2014). Ideally, the work of innovation labs should not be injected from the outside but rather should be indigenous to the development of all programmes within an organisation. There is a possibility that the existence of labs may siphon innovation work off into ‘silos’ of activity, which could be counterproductive to the aim of changing the wider organisational mind-set, and also be detrimental to defining how the wider organisation may work closer to communities on the ground.

  • Recognise the important role for innovation spaces in the short-term

If UN agencies are successful in mainstreaming innovation within every aspect of their core processes and programs, there may not be a need for separately defined innovation ‘labs’ or ‘spaces’. However, until innovation cultures do become more mainstream within the UN, innovation labs might be a necessary ‘halfway house’. As entities that maintain a degree of autonomy, they can develop their own cultures and foster innovation within target communities with fewer bureaucratic restrictions (i.e. meeting the direct innovation imperative). The successful results of this can then be fed back into UN agencies, gradually generating change within the UN system (i.e. meeting the indirect innovation imperative). It is also possible that maintaining a certain distance from a parent organisation can allow more neutral reflection, enabling the “system to see itself better”. Labs may be seen as facilitating the initial stages of innovation when experimentation and testing are required, and as long as ideas mature beyond the lab and into the organisation or communities, then both the direct and indirect imperatives are likely to be met. For the time being, innovation labs will continue to manually inject their new ideas and approaches into both UN agencies and communities in a way that allows these parties to absorb the benefits in practical terms.

  • Use a variety of tools and innovation mechanisms

There ought to be an understanding that innovation labs cannot be the only mechanism to facilitate humanitarian innovation. As organisations are becoming more interested in measuring their impact and evaluating the results from innovation in practice, there is also growing activity that spans beyond the labs. This will include the building of trust, personal relationships and incentives among stakeholders, as well as managing innovation throughout its whole cycle as part of an organisation’s budget and activities – even when this means that an idea may leave the control and safe space provided by a lab.

  • Be creative in defining impact measurement for innovation

As described in the previous blog the success of UN innovation spaces will depend in part on their ability to develop creative approaches to measuring their impact. Given that humanitarian innovation focuses on human-centred design, impact measurement could involve communities much more, for example by allowing communities to define and measure the impact of innovation spaces with which they are engaging.

  • Seek flexible financing

Linked to the previous recommendation, there can be significant barriers to funding innovation labs, and innovation spaces will need to prove their impact in order to sustain funding. It will be important for innovation spaces to also negotiate, wherever possible, flexible and innovative funding structures, so as to decrease the degree to which they might be inhibited by requirements imposed by funders.

Whilst the forms that UN innovation spaces take and the motivations for their existence vary, one thing is clear: there are obvious and impressive positive impacts from the work of innovation spaces across the UN, which should be celebrated and built upon for the future. Innovation labs constitute a significant step on the pathway towards the ultimate goal of communities having the resources and capacity to generate solutions for themselves. If the relevant UN agencies and innovations teams engage in frequent critical reflection, then innovation spaces have shown the potential to be a formidable force for social change.

To see the full account of what we found, including case studies of a few labs, read our full paper here.

About the authors:

Louise Bloom is a Research Officer at the Humanitarian Innovation Project based at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford with a focus on understanding innovation in humanitarianism.
@loubloom and @HiprojectOx

Romy Faulkner is a Research Assistant at the Oxford Humanitarian Innovation Project, has just completed a Masters of Law at Harvard Law School and is also working on corporate engagement at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva.

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