For the sake of the future, innovate courageously.

By Chris Earney, Head, ad interim, UNHCR Innovation Service

Photo by NASA.

The 1951 Refugee Convention was a moonshot, and perhaps one of the greatest innovations that plays a role in my professional career. Nations agreed that forced displacement was not only something that must be a responsibility shared between nations, but also inherently a shared responsibility to solve. It was novel, had utility, and was successful, it provided a space for yet more innovation for organisations such as UNHCR. Indeed, our curiosity to iterate, our curiosity to try out the new, our curiosity to adopt and adapt has been a part of who we are since the beginning. UNHCR was born from innovation. It’s central to our efforts to protect, it’s central to our efforts to assist. It’s central to our efforts to exist as a humanitarian and protection agency.

UNHCR has always been innovating. Currently, in Quito, Diego Nardi is working on challenges around how we communicate with communities. In our Global Learning Centre, Clarisse Ntampaka is working out how to train people on protection more effectively. In Nairobi, Sandra Aluoch and Kent Awiti are scaling connected learning across Africa. At Headquarters, Andrew Harper is working out with Noriko Takagi how to better measure UNHCR’s impact. Salvatore Vassallo is working out how to scale backend processes that further enable the scaling of projects such as the Higher Education Accelerator. Netta Rankin is grappling with Artificial Intelligence and human resources systems. The commitment and efforts to innovate exist in our organisation, in the obvious but also in the prosaic. They exist agnostic of age, and professional profile, and they exist because of a huge diversity of thought.

The world for refugees and others forcibly displaced has already and will become even more complex. And our raison d’etre: protection of forcibly displaced people, will become increasingly more complicated. Our ability to change and adapt, our ability to innovate, will either greatly improve the provision of protection and assistance to these people, or it will not.

I’m not making the case for innovation being a panacea, I’m saying that it’s an important tool, an important part of what we do, and how we do it — including how we solve challenges big and small.

At such a complicated and complex time, we must not only invest in innovation but also our ability to effectively change and adapt. Five things that I’ve been trying to grapple with when I think about how our service can support UNHCR in 2019 and beyond:

People are moving in different ways. They have better information, make better informed decisions and are experiencing new pressures. The nature of movement also seems to be changing, with people moving to different geographies in different ways, and in different numbers. Having been displaced, people are seeking better livelihoods opportunities whilst displaced, more and more people are moving to urban areas, to cities. More and more people are going to Amman, Nairobi, Panama, and Berlin. As border walls go up, more and more cities are recognising the value that displaced people bring to them — recognising the value of diversity, and the contributions that people bring to cities. We can use innovation to move and to respond differently, we can use innovation to have a better idea of what that movement is, what it looks like, to anticipate it better.

People are moving differently, which also means we need to respond differently. We must experiment more around what a dignified existence looks like, whether in the suburbs of Kabul, or the inner cities of Kampala, Kinshasa, Bogota, Mexico City, and Rome. Sometimes that means capitalising on our experience of working in places such as Peshawar, or Assosa, translating lessons learned into new approaches. Sometimes this is going to mean completely new approaches that we need to generate knowledge around and through.

The physical world in which we live is also changing. The climate is changing. And we know that this interacts with the decisions people make to move. It interacts with resources available to people. It interacts with the nature of conflict. Through our work predicting displacement in Somalia, we know that the weather in Western Australia has a direct impact on the weather in Somalia. It’s called the Indian Ocean Dipole. We need to be more aware of these global climatic changes and what we can expect of them in the future. Our member states are already doing this, private sector organisations are preparing for these changes within the geographies that they operate, thinking very much about how the behaviours of their customers will change, as their needs — perceived as well as real — adjust. Some are in the process of preparing to completely change their business models. We need to be prepared to also make big changes in how we understand future contexts, and how we provide different services to those we serve, in turn.

Technology is also changing at a rate that we cannot keep up with. We are seeing technology emerge from all corners of our planet. Some of it empowers us. It enables citizens to express their opinions, and to attain proximity to leaders, and to organisations, that was previously impossible. I can tweet to Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, and he might respond. I can express my opinion on the most recent iteration of an approach to Brexit. I can connect, and I can engage in ways that I would never have imagined. And refugees can do the same. We must ensure that we are ready and able to engage in the ways that people now expect us to be able to. But we must also ensure that we’re ready to change our approaches based on feedback provided through the engagements that are now possible.

We are also able to influence the way in which technology is developed — and why. We can inspire. But we must inspire ethical production methods across our sector and beyond. We must ensure that end-users are consulted. We must ensure that the most vulnerable are consulted, ensuring that they are not left behind, to ensure that their needs are taken into account so that technology does not evolve for the most powerful, for the rich, for the mobile. So when we look to the future, and signals of emerging technology, emerging algorithms, new ways to create insights, we need to be able to influence not only the how, but also the why. The values of ‘we the people’ must be reflected in the future. We need approaches that motivate the private sector to be more ethical and accountable.

Looking back to push forward

In 2017, this Service embarked upon another ambitious agenda of change to its own approaches. It sought to make innovation as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. We sought to look at different types of innovation approaches, from incremental innovation engines, to accelerators and scaling. We trained more Innovation Fellows, we trained entire operations, providing them with the knowledge, the processes, and promising innovation practises. We challenged bureaucracy. We served an organisation that knew it needed to change — and wanted to. The approach and efforts reflected the people that make up the organisation that we serve. This includes people who don’t necessarily self-identify as innovators that creatively work the bureaucracy the world over. Those communicating the hows, whos, and whys of what we do. Those creating evidence and insights for change, those creating partnerships, those working on frontline efforts to communicate and better protect.

In 2018, we continued on a path of change, seeking to base our work more explicitly on the values that our Service stands for. We thought that being values-driven would make us even more accessible to more people, so we looked beyond what seem to be becoming the more established models for innovation in the UN and humanitarian fields. We’ve always shied away from articulating our definition of innovation and instead have tried to articulate the behaviours that represent the mindsets that we need to see the length and breadth of the organisation. So, we embraced transparency, collaboration, we embraced our curiosity and our willingness to learn. Perhaps most crucially, we embraced an agenda of diversity and inclusion.

We recognised the importance of the diversity of thought that exists within the organisation, and that we need to make the most of this. We recognised that diversity is meaningless without corresponding inclusivity. We needed to create more opportunities to exchange, and discuss. That meant that we more actively engaged those who don’t necessarily self-present as innovators. So we worked with the ‘deep Headquarters’, such as Human Resources, Legal Affairs, as well as the so-called ‘deep-field’ colleagues. We used Artificial Intelligence to spot patterns, and to support humans in their endeavours to make better decisions. What we found was that using values made us closer to more people. Innovation became more principled, much easier to understand, and therefore yet again more accessible. All the while we created more lessons and more insights.

We learned that more work is needed to create that culture of innovation, or rather, to more explicitly recognise and embrace that culture. We learned that more work is needed to create bureaucratic spaces where innovation can thrive. We learned that a stronger compass is needed for us to guide our direction, and that requires a more robust method to look into the future. And we learned that these three things need to happen together.

In 2019, this Service is going to try to take another brave step forward. And it’s a step firmly into the future of displacement. It’s one that invests in the now, for the future. It’s one that creates the enabling environment for innovation now, but looks to the future to guide the what, and the how of the investments needed now for that future. The UN General Assembly has adopted a new framework: the Global Compact for Refugees, which also gives us an opportunity to up our game, to up our aims to match this new framework.

Actions we’re taking

For 2019, I propose a new agenda for innovation within UNHCR and beyond. It’s an agenda that questions and interrogates the more commonly associated nomenclature of Labs and Accelerators, UAVs, and 3D Printing.

The first thing that we need to do is that we again need to drive diversity and more inclusive approaches to innovation across our operations and at Headquarters. Too often our innovation stories are dominated by males, and too often we see our innovation teams focus only on technology, perhaps a hapless hope that tech will save us. And that just isn’t true. This results in approaches that are at worst, divisive and exclusionary. At best, it risks distilling innovation into something that many people just do not understand.

So, our first agenda item is to expand our efforts to build a stronger culture and set of competencies around innovation, within UNHCR and beyond, so we’re going to double-down on these efforts. The Fellowship will continue. But we’ll open it up to more partners, we’ll open it up to more people who want to learn about the tools and methodologies, the approaches, that underpin this important work. We will take another 25–30 individuals who go through a competitive selection process, through an intense 12 months of innovating together with their colleagues. These individuals are an inspiration to our Service, and to UNHCR. They have a history of innovating already. They are out there somewhere, pushing boundaries, trying to nudge our organisation and others into the future. They will sometimes feel very exposed, sometimes unsupported, and many times simply frustrated. They’re essential for the future UNHCR that future generations will inherit.

We’re also going to continue much-needed support through our workplace innovation approaches but we’re going to do that through projects rather than carrying out training only for whole offices. We’ll do that concurrently with requests for support from field operations, and from HQ entities, so that we’re matching projects with knowledge transfer around innovation — building that capacity by doing. We realised that we’re often missing a step when it comes to project support, and that step is around competency building.

So whilst we can go to Nigeria, or Uganda, or Tanzania, or the Americas, or support any number of operations remotely; the friends, colleagues, and partners who are trying to drive change, also need the skills to drive that change.

For managers of innovators, we need to put more effort into recognising their own efforts in creating space for innovation to happen. They also need to feel empowered, and informed. They should know when, how, and who it takes for innovation to happen. When they should embark upon an innovation process. They also need the knowledge and expertise to innovate. So we’re also going to step up our efforts to support our colleagues who have been with us for a longer period of time.

Those who have been innovating our organisation for decades — but perhaps do not see themselves as innovators. As with any other tools and methodologies, innovation has created new tools and new methodologies that at times scare people. The language used, the nomenclature, the association with technology, can make innovation the opposite of what it needs to be: it alienates and becomes inaccessible for those who want to be involved but just don’t know how. For some, who are now managers, this means simply creating spaces for innovation. Spaces of diversity and inclusion, spaces to discuss, to talk, to share ideas, and to identify problems. So we’re going to work with these colleagues who we look to somewhat as our north stars, our institutional knowledge, our mentors, managers, and leaders, and we’re going to make sure that they understand how best they can lift others up.

Secondly, this agenda must closely align itself with other changes that are needed in order to drive for sustainable approaches to innovation. We see an endless cycle of pilots and experiments the world over, which never reach ‘scale’. Time and time again we scratch our heads, baffled by why projects didn’t reach more people. And simply put, that’s because our approaches to scale have not been invested in sufficiently well. And I’m not referring to money. I’m referring to how we not only record and share lessons learned, but how we then convert those into actions beyond our own Service.

We also reflected that cookie-cutter approaches to innovation will only relegate innovation to a gentle tinkering around the edges. For the future of UNHCR, and indeed the UN, we will need braver approaches. More certainty in what we’re doing. More courage in doing it.

Approaches that challenge the very bureaucracies that at times protect, but at times stifle, and inhibit. We must be sure that we want the changes that the rhetoric seems to indicate. Transformational changes are needed from within our bureaucracies to scale up, to scale out, to increase value in what we’re doing, to scale the processes of scaling, to make innovations more successful for more people. We can challenge some of the assumptions that underlie the often seemingly rigid bureaucracies that seek to protect our institutions, as long as we use the tools of dialogue and respect. We have to do this strategically. Collaboratively.

We have to work more closely with the people who don’t necessarily self-identify as innovators, but certainly make innovation happen. In our recent past, we’ve seen Programme Officers make decisions to invest in partners, to invest their time and efforts into making somewhat non-traditional partnerships work out. We’ve seen Administration Offices find ways through the sometimes challenging procedures to provide resources to staff in unusual ways. We’ve seen human resources staff work out how to hire those profiles we need for the future of our organisation. These people need more support, and frankly, more recognition for their efforts.

The third thing we’re going to do is invest in the future. Gaining a deeper understanding of how changes occurring now and in the next emerging decade(s) change will impact not just our world, but specifically on those that are displaced. This is essential to ensure that our business model and service delivery is robust enough to not just withstand those changes, but that it is agile enough to navigate these emerging complexities and to be fit for purpose.

We are an organisation that is constantly responding to crises of displacement. But constantly responding to the issues of today runs the risk that we might lose touch with what is emerging in the ecosystem around us. This in turn puts our organisation at a real risk of not being able to be better prepared for the crises of the future, continuing to run the same types of services and programmes that might not be relevant.

Whilst we can’t predict the future, we can prepare for it — by ensuring that our organisation can be agile and flexible enough to creatively respond to the possibilities that might arise.

Investing in potential futures means that we can invest in experiments and innovations today that would place us in good stead for what might emerge, and be able to respond more effectively and efficiently. This will require investing in non-traditional partners who can help build the future we envision.

This agenda is more courageous than any of the agendas we’ve previously set in that it looks much more deeply at what needs to change, in really quite complex parts of our organisation. And so should it be. It’s in UNHCR’s character to try to be so. It’s the character of the partners we work with. We cannot do this alone. We must match the ambition, with the ethics and morals of the UN, together with the best brains that exist also outside of our organisation. These brains exist often in people who do not work for UNHCR. People who do not work in ‘the field’. We must partner to achieve these ambitions, we must partner to challenge our own assumptions. And we must partner to learn, and to adapt.

So our 2019 approach to innovation is even more challenging than any we have used before. It’s a big departure from the Labs approach we started out with in 2012. It’s an approach that looks forward, as well as critically at the prosaic spaces of our organisation and at the same time recognising what more we can do to adapt our culture, as well as the competencies that we need in order to innovate for that future existence. I think it’s more determined. It’s more inclusive than we had ever intended previously. And it’s bolder because of all of this.

Our commitment rests with those we serve, and those in the front lines in the field, and the front lines at HQ, and everything in between: a UNHCR that is ready for the future of displacement, and an Innovation Service that helps us all to get there.

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.