By Harald Dean, Master student of Innovation studies at the University of Oslo
UNICEF’s Innovation Unit in New York works in mainstreaming the skills and competencies of innovation across the organization. In my qualitative case study, I examine the (possible) ripple effects of the unit’s work. Below, I present a short summary of the main findings.
1. A ‘space’ to talk about innovation
The Innovation Unit has contributed to create a ‘space’ to talk about innovation within the organization. Several informants reported that both at Headquarters and in some country offices, there’s a space and a language to talk about things that were not discussed nine years ago in the organization. For example, the Polio Unit in New York, has started to incorporate the language and techniques of innovation. Polio Lead Asch Harwood says that this language shelters the team from risks and provides rhetorical support. People from the Polio Unit are nowadays using this rhetorical support when they experiment with new approaches in their work.
2. Assimilation and implementation of the Innovation Unit’s experimentation practices (and mindset)
Several country offices are currently trying new approaches in their programs. They are generating their own innovative ideas, independently from the Innovation Unit, and are increasingly more vocal about their experimentation practices. For example, some country offices have already started exploring the possibility of using drones or UAV’s in their programs. A few years ago, using drones would have been considered crazy, says Deputy Ayano Suzumura.
3. Implementation of mobile technology in different programs
The Innovation Unit’s approach to technology has inspired other UNICEF units to implement mobile phones into their programs, for instance to collect and report back real-time information. The Polio Unit, for example, uses smart phones to collect, facilitate, and provide real-time data to their frontline workers. In Pakistan, they are replacing and digitizing traditional vaccination forms with mobile services. Two positive consequences on the latter are: (i) It speeds up the process of registration of the vaccinations (increase the pace of the information flow). (ii) Higher quality on the data collected.
4. Diffusion of the nine Innovation Principles
Several leading international development organizations, such as WHO, USAID, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have assimilated the nine innovation principles developed by the Innovation Unit (see headline link). At UNICEF, various divisions and country offices have also adopted the innovation principles. For example, the Division of Communication emphasizes real-time information in their programs, and the country office in Afghanistan develops ‘open source’ projects nowadays. Christopher Fabian, co lead of the Innovation Unit says: “It’s the biggest markers of success that I can see. We are not doing a lot of it now, it’s happening in other parts of the house. (…) Six years ago, you couldn’t even have imagined [this].” Some of the innovation principles are also included in UNICEF’s Strategic Plan for 2014-2017. “ To have the principles expressed in the organizational documents of UNICEF is huge,” Fabian says.
5. Broader spillover effect: Other UN agencies seek advices from the Innovation Unit
UN agencies such as UNDP, UNFPA and UNHCR seek advice from the Innovation Unit, such as consultations on establishing innovation labs and how to integrate mobile technology in their programs. Deputy Ayano Suzumura says that since last year, “the Innovation has had interaction with the rest of other UN agencies, who have started innovation units and labs.”
All these findings are put into a conceptual model, which summarized the ripple effects of the Innovation Unit’s work.Concluding remarks
It is important to not over-generalize and claim that the Innovation Unit is the only cause behind such organizational changes. Often parallel processes occur to influence such changes. However, there is no doubt that the Innovation Unit in New York has played a significant role in the above mentioned organizational changes, something also several informants in the study stated.
This embracement, assimilation and implementation of the Innovation Unit’s innovation principles, practices, and thinking are a marked shift in the way the organization works, compared to earlier times. In such perspective, UNICEF’s commitment to innovation seems to be a good strategy in order to stay efficient and relevant in the world of tomorrow, and thus continue to realize the human rights of every child.
About the research
This study was part of my Master Program* at TIK Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture at the University of Oslo (Faculty of Social Sciences). The particular research period within the Unit’s Office in New York extended over two weeks during the summer (from July 27 to August 7), followed by weeks of processing the evidence and writing the thesis. The thesis was submitted on October 5th. Interested in reading the whole thesis? Let’s connect via Twitter or Facebook.
* European Master in Science, Technology and Society Studies (ESST)
 This is a modified version of a model created by Greenhalgh, T., Robert, G., Macfarlane, F., Bate, P., & Kyriakidou, O. (2004). Their model seeks to explain the process of diffusion of innovations in service organizations.
Diffusion of Innovations in Service Organizations: Systematic Review and Recommendations. Milbank Quarterly, 82(4), 581-629. doi: 10.1111/j.0887-378X.2004.00325.x