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Humanitarian Innovation and the United Nations

Sara Farmer
Jun 5, 2011

This weekend I was in Toronto at the 3rd global event of Random Hacks of Kindness (a global community of software developers and designers building practical open technology to solve international development problems), thinking about humanitarian innovations.

Innovation starts when someone has an idea, a sense that they can make something in the world work better.  So far so good, but an idea plus 5 dollars is worth 5 dollars.  Innovation is about taking an idea, working out whether it has value in the world, then getting it built and adopted by the people who would value it.

Above all, innovation is a process, and the short paragraph above contains several parts of this process.  Breaking that process down, there are a few things that we need to do:

  • Understand what the problem space is – in our case, what the operational problems are that innovators need to concentrate on.
  • Know what already exists in that problem space – we need to tread the fine line between improving and not reinventing the wheel.
  • Clearly state the gaps in a way that allows people to help.
  • Connect the resulting problem set with the people who are available to help.  As Joy’s Law puts it, “not all the smart people work for you.” There are amazing people working across the UN, World Bank, NGOs, etc. on truly game-changing technologies, but we have a lot of other smart people who want to help and we need ways to let them into this process.
  • Try things out – internally and externally. We learn by doing, and there are now lots of places (hackathons, codejams, meetups) where people get together to experiment with solutions and proofs of concept. Currently at Global Pulse, for example, we are running a series of collaborative research projects.
  • Understand when something is useful, usable and significantly improves on what has gone before. Then, provide clear routes from prototyping to testing and deployment for it.
  • Find champions.  That idea plus 5 dollars is still only worth 5 dollars if nobody uses it: each good idea needs a champion, a person willing to advocate it to users and funders.  And innovators need champions too – people willing to both challenge their ideas and believe in their ability to make them work.

 

UN Global Pulse is an innovations unit, which is currently focused on capability and information gaps in vulnerability tracking, particularly in the wake of global crises.  We’ve done our due diligence, asking what the need is, surveyed what the current systems in place are, and looked for the gaps that we need to fill. We’re now at the stage where we know what the systems and processes we need are, we know that they’re a significant improvement over what currently exists, and we’re developing proofs of concept for these with help from companies, academia, communities, NGOs and individuals across the world.

But Global Pulse is itself a proof of concept.  The UN has several innovations units, as well as individual teams working on interesting concepts within most UN agencies, and we’re each learning what it means to innovate in this very special operating space.

And now is the time to build a bridge, a connective tissue, which coordinates innovations across the whole of our operating space – an entity that acts as a facilitator, connector and an institutional memory of how innovation works in this large international organization. We’ve designed a blueprint for such a unit, currently codenamed “Blue Hacks,” and we’ll be talking more about it soon. Watch this space for updates.

Sara Farmer is UN Global Pulse's Chief Platform Architect.

Photo credit: CrisisCampTO

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