Innovation at UNHCR
“Innovation” is an over-used and under-defined word. I tend to use the term to describe strategies for problem-solving that rely on previously unused modalities and products and that seek to benefit from the “minds of many” both within and beyond UNHCR. The relevant question, of course, is not what innovation is, but rather what innovation does.
We have established a small Innovation Unit at UNHCR that seeks to work with our field operations to identify problems (in providing protection, assistance and solutions to persons of concern) that need solving in new ways because the old ways haven’t worked. Examples of projects we have undertaken include the development of a new kind of shelter that is more durable and livable but not much more expensive than tents; adapting a device used in the private sector so that we can track electronically the distribution of core relief items; working with anthropologists in a camp to help us better understand the needs and goals of a refugee population; and exploring of new forms of data visualization to better communicate information to decision-makers and the public.
We have attempted to mobilize the “minds of many” by forging partnerships with outside organization. For example, the new shelter was developed with the financial support of the IKEA foundation and the technical know-how of a dozen private companies; and the distribution tracking device is being supported by UPS.
We have also sought to develop an innovation culture within UNHCR by using the Mindjet/Spigit social networking platform (with financial support from Hunter and Stephanie Hunt). With the platform, we launched a “challenge” in which 250 participants generated ideas for improving access to information and services for urban refugees. (The “winning” proposal recommended creation of a website—help.unhcr.org—that we hope to develop and launch over the next year.) We are currently running a challenge on rethinking our “Core Relief Items” package—i.e., what relief items are more useful and relevant for persons of concern in emergencies. You can watch Assistant High Commissioner Janet Lim’s video description of the Challenge here.
We have also established Innovation Fellowships within UNHCR, bringing together a cadre of staff interested in pursuing innovation projects. These “iFellows” will be supported in their work aimed at crafting novel solutions to challenges in their home operations. Examples of iFellow projects include the development of tools to monitor refugee livelihood in rural regions, a vulnerability study to fix targeting issues with the food assistance programs, and the creation of a Corporate Social Responsibility program to link refugees seeking employment with the private sector.
Each of these developments is a crucial step in our effort to create and nurture a culture of innovation within UNHCR. Already, this century has presented a new set of refugee crises and a new set of challenges in serving the needs of displaced persons; UNHCR is committed to meeting these 21st Century challenges with the technological and problem-solving innovation that the our epoch demands.