What I learned from working with humanitarian innovation and how it shaped my career path

Carlos de la Vega
Sep 22, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by Aarathi Krishnan

After spending three years spinning creative communications for the IFRC Innovation and Futures team, the time came to say goodbye. Here’s a narration with my favourite moments with the Red Cross / Red Crescent network and what’s the next chapter in my life.

I joined the IFRC on a short-term internship in the fall of 2016. In 48 hours, I got off a plane for the first time in Europe, got to an office inside an IKEA and listened to John Sweeney’s presentation on post-normal times. Oh boy, little did I know about how my life was going to change over the next three years.

Local innovation and embedding a culture of experimentation

One of my first experiences was working with champions around the world who fostered innovative projects in their communities. The breadth of experiments went from growing vertical gardens in the Caribbean to engaging tech firms in Spain to redesign their services.

I had the honour of documenting stories from community-led innovations in Indonesia through a research project with Hamburg Institute of Technology and Bandung University. My favourite story was from an entrepreneur who used black soldier flies as a sustainable waste management system. There is an article about this pilot and supporting grassroots innovation via Stafford Social Innovation Review.

Foresight as a tool to reimagine outdated systems

A turning point in my journey with the IFRC was working with futures and foresight. I think these methodologies ignited the conversation of what needs to change today in humanitarian organisations to remain relevant tomorrow. Chris Earney from UNHCR Innovation Service and Aarathi Krishnan from IFRC wrote a joint piece that expands on this topic.

We spent more than two years engaging diverse communities and members of 191 countries to forge a new organisational vision and the steps that follow to accomplish it. We wanted to know: What this changing world looks like in different contexts? Who will be vulnerable? What transformations do we need today to serve the needs of citizens in these futures?

Young people played a significant role in these consultations; we strived to enable spaces for them to participate and contribute creatively. One of these engagements gathered digital civics fellows (Dan Howard and Rob Anderson) to co-design WhatFutures — a massive online game about the future of humanitarian need played entirely through WhatsApp. We ran two iterations of the initiative reaching over 3000 volunteers in 120 countries. This project was shortlisted for the Digital Communications Awards in 2018 and published at #CHI2019 through Dan Howard’s team.

Later in 2017, the team brought a robust futures analysis to life with an interactive exhibition — an unprecedented approach for the IFRC. ‘The Future Is Now’ displayed a series of artefacts that engaged visitors in imagining and debating trends and issues that could profoundly impact the way the organisation may operate over the next decade. This exhibition was a result of partnering with speculative design agencies such as Superflux, Changeist, and an AR firm and a guerrilla futures designer. We collaborate with Tom Nappey from Open Lab at Newcastle University and the RCRC Climate Centre to turn previous research into compelling stories.

The Future Is Now — one of the first humanitarian experiential futures exhibits, Antalya 2017. Design by Scott Smith

Fast-forwarding a year after the success of engaging young volunteers on reflecting about the trends and issues impacting their communities, we wanted to take the engagements to the next level. Open Lab peeps Jay Rainey, Dan Richardson and Sarah Armoush came on board to co-design and facilitate a digital engagement that uplifted community voices and supported their analysis at a global scale. In my view, not only did this project flatten hierarchical participation, it enabled platforms for hyperlocal volunteers to analyse and drive conversations with transparency.

Beyond work collaboration, Jay and Dan were terrific mentors who highlighted — with their work- how human-computer interaction impacts everyday people’s lives. They helped me realise that this is what I wanted to do as a next career step.

How we tell our stories is as important as what they say

One of my main takeaways from the last three years was heavily related to power and values and how they relate to communications. As a communicator, I feel responsible for thinking how the materials I produce do not replicate existing inequalities, are intersectional and accessible for audiences in vastly different contexts.

I think that when talking about innovation and futures, the whole comms package matter. How do we move away from a westernised version of progress? How do we put users at the centre of all our campaigns, starting with communicating in their languages? How do we reach our users in spaces where they already collaborate? And how do we ensure the stories we tell are backed up with evidence? Lauren Parater from UNCHR Innovation has written a bunch of pieces on this topic — one of my favourites addresses the gender imbalances in innovation stories. Also, I was inspired by Aarathi Krishnan’s work on futures, power and privilege.


Working with the IFRC innovation team was an incredible experience. I look forward to seeing a finalised vision of the future Red Cross & Red Crescent, most importantly, I look forward to seeing and organisation thrive in a world that demands brave leadership a revamped system that understands fundamental changing societies.

What’s next for me?

I will start a PhD with Northumbria University Social Computing Lab, under the supervision of Marta Cecchinato, on human-computer interaction (HCI). My research will further explore interventions that improve work-life balance in emerging types of work (e.g. platform & task-based markets).

I am thrilled to continue working towards a more humane world through empathic and ethical research practices.

Carlos de la Vega

Written by

I'm a design and user research at Northumbria University. Games enthusiast. Taco maker. Passionate traveller.

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