Below are my notes from the two panel sessions.
Real-time field operations
Is real-time citizen engagement the engine of relief and development in the 21st century?
Recent experiences in both disaster relief and ongoing development efforts show that there is a potential to leverage real-time information and open collaboration for operational efforts. There are powerful—and dependent—connections between emerging technologies and communities. The panel will explore how new tools and approaches are already changing facts on the ground.
• Ms. Corinne Woods, Director, United Nations Millennium Campaign
• Ms. Katrin Verclas, Co-founder and Editor, MobileActive.org
• Mr. Sean Gourley, Research Fellow, Oxford University
• Mr. Jihad Abdalla, Emergency Officer and GIS focal point, Office of Emergency Programmes, UNICEF
• Mr. Nigel Snoad, Senior Information Management Officer, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA
Dynamics are Shifting
Members of the panel explained that dynamics are shifting between citizens and government as individuals and groups have the ability to communicate real-time, on the ground and quickly develop a cohesive voice. Citizens are more empowered to advocate for what they want and need and to take action. Given communication technologies, they’re more at the center of political dialogue and it’s now easier for citizens to build political will and reach a flash point where things begin to change. Interestingly, events in Egypt were happening real-time during the panel session: case in point.
In order to get coherent outcomes from a complex environment where there are multiple information flows and multiple players, new forms of collaboration and community engagement are emerging. Some of the building blocks of this engagement are common goals & standards, explicit ways of sharing information, and shared situational awareness (sense-making).
Projects like Global Pulse are creating conditions for this collaboration and data collection on the ground and, at the same time, understanding patterns in the data and developing models that can lead to strategic decisions that help the most vulnerable.
Culture of Innovation
Giving examples like the Ushahidi Project, the panel heralded a culture of innovation in the world of relief and development. Small clusters of people and social enterprise are circumventing large institutions and using new technology to do some “amazing things.”
A culture of innovation is also arising in the UN system (UN Global Pulse, UNICEF Innovation, UNDP Innovation Fund, World Bank Innovation). These are all “good bacteria” that will spread throughout the system. To support innovation we need more agile, fluid, adaptive project management.
One member of the panel warned that the UN would need evidence that this citizen engagement could contribute to development outcomes at scale before investing significant resources in innovation. (By that time, might the UN be irrelevant?) Others responded that we need a portfolio approach to balance risk and permission to experiment (“If it works let’s do it; don’t be shy”). And, we need to engage with technology because that in itself will change the UN system rapidly to adapt to today’s realities.
Institutions in the age of real-time
How must local, national and global institutions adapt to succeed in the real-time world?
Real-time technologies and strategies of openness represent both an opportunity and a profound threat to how institutions and governments organize themselves to deliver services in the 21st century. Increasingly, individuals are empowered to interact directly with one another, challenging the hierarchical structures and processes of traditional institutions. However for organizations that are able to harness the untapped potential of global communities in real-time, the possibilities are mind-blowing.
• Dr. Robert Orr, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Planning, United Nations
• Mr. Clay Shirky, Adjunct Professor, Interactive Telecommunications Program, NYU
• Mr. Richard Tyson, Co-founder and Principal, Helsinki Group
• Mr. Zia Khan, Vice President, Strategy and Evaluation, Rockefeller Foundation
• Mr. Carne Ross, Founder, Independent Diplomat
Global Action Networks
The panel named a shift in power – moving away from institutions and towards networks and knowledge that flow into structures to get things done. These global action networks are new supra-structures that cluster around issues like climate change, global health, food, etc. The global issue is the organizing principle of these networks (not member states.) The UN has the brand and credibility to be the convenor of these networks and play a critical role to address global issues. (The UN Global Compact is an example of an action network, the humanitarian cluster system (established by IASC) is another.)
In a world where the amount of information keeps doubling and where work gets done virtually by a distributed network of individuals and teams, panelists warned that institutions need to organize at scale and learn to be innovative, resilient, and adaptive as data shifts on the ground. Teams need the ability to convene quickly around emerging issues. This means giving autonomy and training to front-line employees, tolerating errors of commission from action (not omission), and assuming that information is moving at real-time with public access to information (so teams are given all information). This emerging form of organization works because teams have common values (and understand the strategic intent of the organization) so they can make aligned decisions on their own and coordinate them with the larger system.
One panelist let us know that the UN is actively promoting and incubating transitional, agile process that will create new institutional structures and forms that use technology to speed up our ability to know what’s happening and to act quickly.
This will move the UN more toward being an adaptive, learning organization. Global Pulse, for example, is increasing the prospect that shared information will cross traditional lines (across bureaucracies) by convening relevant actors around a problem (e.g. how data will be gathered and used by five food organizations), resolving the core issues, and creating a new local structure that uses real-time data to inform response.
Transitional structures are empowered to do more in the field – increasing capacity for cooperation, coordination, and alignment. Of course, building trust through working together is key to the success of these efforts. In order for the institution to adapt, it’s not just about changing the rules… rituals and culture must also adapt.
Redefining the UN
Transitional structures could organically lead to new relationships new rituals, and new ways of working that will redefine the UN over time and maintain its relevance. And, one panelist urged a more radical view that the UN structure is centered around member states and ignoring today’s realities of influential, non-state actors who cause 80% of conflicts. He called for a restructuring of the UN – a new meeting in San Francisco (1948 + 65) to rebuild the UN based on the full spectrum of players: global action networks, non-state actors and governments.