A note from the editors

By Lauren Parater, Innovation Community and Content Manager, and Hans Park, Strategic Design and Research Manager

Illustration by Ailadi.

UNHCR Innovation Service’s “Orbit 2018–2019” is a collection of insights and inspiration, where we explore the most recent innovations in the humanitarian sector, and opportunities to discover the current reading of innovation that is shaping the future of how we respond to complex challenges.

In this publication, we explore issues from climate change and the future of displacement to how we can utilise storytelling as a key tool for making innovation accessible for everyone. We look at the assumptions behind why innovation thrived in UNHCR Brazil and how humility led UNHCR Mexico to drop humanitarian logos and focus on communicating with people on the move in new and unforeseen ways. We explored the tension between bureaucracy and innovative approaches and what community-led innovation truly looks like.

We’ve also asked a lot of questions in 2018 to frame our approaches and path moving forward. For example, how might we move from seeing connecting refugees as a technology issue to one grounded in rights and normative values? And, how can we influence better decision-making through the innovation process? Each year we identify complex challenges, both old and new. We often find ourselves with a number of solutions, but more often, we are left with even more questions.

One of the results of the questions we’ve asked this year is the realisation that in many ways, we are very much in the dark when it comes to understanding the constellation of systems interacting inside and outside of UNHCR. Within UNHCR, there are spaces that exist in the gaps between institutional processes and services, spaces that often go undetected and hinder the possibility for swift change. These undetected spaces we can all bring attention to and thus, improve the organisation. Outside of UNHCR, too, there are many pressures, structures, and flows to which we are aligned, but of which we are not fully aware. We believe that highlighting and experimenting in such spaces is critical for innovation.

Settling at the most optimistic horizon, hope lies in the darkness beyond the limelight. As American author Rebecca Solnit explains:

The grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect, in the people you have not yet heard of who will be the next…or become something you cannot yet imagine. In this epic struggle between light and dark, it’s the dark side — that of the anonymous, the unseen, the officially powerless, the visionaries and subversives in the shadows — that we must hope for.

For UNHCR, darkness can be the internal systems working against day-to-day progress — craving the first spark of innovation. Darkness represents spaces yet unexplored but calling through the vast, complex system to be interrogated by the creative mindsets of UNHCR staff. Dark spaces, like those in the pupils of our eyes, contracting in new light, can bring about clarity and colour as we approach new challenges. We can celebrate darkness as an avenue to the future, one that we can point a light towards and shape.

As we move towards the last year of this decade, we want to recalibrate our compasses so that they all point to the same guiding stars, uncovering different spaces and possibilities. How do we behave in the face of the unknown? How do we communicate with people with different value sets? How does contested territory become common ground?

We continue to move forward in trying to understand how otherness in forcibly displaced communities affects identities and worldviews. We are eager to explore the tension between curiosity and fear, and the role of decision making when humans no longer know best. Is it true that we have already straddled the era in which algorithms and machines have resolved to make the world better for humans and the environments we inhabit?

Additionally, the innovation sector craves quick fixes and immediate results. The need for lightning-fast solutions exists in parallel with a world where internal processes require patience and time. It takes time and requires fortitude to explore the unknown; it takes time and endurance to believe in something that has never been done before. There are techniques to make this process efficient, but sometimes innovation is neither effective nor efficient. In the search for efficiency, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of what innovation is, or looks like in the humanitarian sector. But we would argue that innovations that have made a difference towards the world have necessitated exploration, patience, resourcefulness, and curiosity at their core.

There are spaces and challenges we have yet to explore or to bring to the forefront of our work, but each step reflects progress and learning. In 2018, one of these new areas of exploration was an in-depth study into communication and inclusion, diversity and gender equity with the goal of shining a light on issues that sometimes are missed. We will continue to examine ourselves as a collective effort, with a collective vision for the future, as well as investigating the previous and future pathways to change. Are we open to exploring more? Are we conscious about who gets there first, and does that matter? And when we do discover the new, what happens when we land and start digging deeper into new areas of work?

We hope you’ll join us as we attempt to answer these questions.

This essay was originally posted in the recently released publication — UNHCR Innovation Service: “Orbit 2018–2019”. The publication is a collection of insights and inspiration, where we explore the most recent innovations in the humanitarian sector, and opportunities to discover the current reading of innovation that is shaping the future of how we respond to complex challenges. From building trust for artificial intelligence, to creating a culture for innovating bureaucratic institutions and using stories to explore the future of displacement — we offer a glance at the current state of innovation in the humanitarian sector. You can download the full publication here. And if you have a story about innovation you want to tell (the good, the bad, and everything in between) — email: innovation@unhcr.org.