How innovation from within is transforming International Organizations as well as lives

Rwanda 2019

(Hanna Morris, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Tina Ambos, Director, Institute of Management at the University of Geneva & Katherine Tatarinov, PhD Student and Teaching Assistant, Geneva School of Economics and Management


Last year the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, made a call to action. “Beginning at the top, we must all – from headquarters to the country level – engage proactively with technology pioneers, innovators, policymakers and users.” But what does this kind of engagement actually look like in practice?

A new report by the Geneva School of Economics and Management answers this question. As academics looking in from outside the UN ecosystem, we set out to answer one important question: what does bottom-up innovation look like in international organizations?

We were particularly interested in understanding innovation structures, scaling methodologies, and key obstacles to innovation. After interviewing over 40 people, both in the headquarters and field offices of 15 different organizations and international NGOs, what we found was that innovation is not new and innovation is not just technology.

Here is what was less obvious. While the initial goals of these bottom-up initiatives are to improve the lives of beneficiaries, in many cases the actual impact is far greater. In fact, often these initiatives change the way organizations work and even sometimes expand the value proposition of the organization as a whole.

For example, the World Food Programme’s (WFP) Building Blocks initiative is making WFP’s cash transfers more secure, more collaborative, traceable and cheaper using blockchain technology. But WFP’s mission is to eradicate hunger and poverty globally. So how does implementing blockchain for payments match this mission? WFP is stretching its mission of delivering food to vulnerable communities by broadening its platform and embracing the potential of new technology.

As another example, The United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) Project Jetson is a predictive analytics project aimed at providing forecasts on the movement of displaced populations within and outside of Somalia. The UNHCR Innovation Service uses open data on weather and climate, conflict, market prices and historical population movement patterns (both for internally displaced people and refugees), in order to predict how populations will move.

The far-reaching effects of such a tool could reposition UNHCR and other organizations from being reactive to being proactive; through the power of data and a human-centered approach, UNHCR could be able to predict – and prepare for – the next refugee crisis before it happens.

Another example is the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) partnership with Baidu in China, which has led to the Baidu Recycle initiative. This works through an app that helps users price and recycle their electronic products by introducing nearby legitimate e-waste pick-up services, helping streamline the recycling process and cutting down on informal recycling stations.

As well as reaching Chinese cities with an important environmental and health solution, the project has demonstrated the impact of a culture of innovation to internal audiences in UNDP.

Louise Xi Li, deputy lead of the communication, innovation and partnership team at UNDP China, explained: “The ‘innovation journey’ helped to show the high potential of innovation to team members – not just show off the app itself.” It allowed her team to show that innovation was more than a buzzword. Building on the lessons learned from Baidu Recycle, the team is now exploring solution exchanges between China and nearby developing countries.

As initial efforts have started to pay off, several international organizations have created formal innovation arms:

⦁ UNICEF’s Office of Innovation was founded in 2006 and now includes the Venture Fund, which collaborates with innovators on the ground to build and test new solutions at the pace required to keep up with the rapidly evolving challenges facing children

⦁ UNHCR’s Innovation Service, founded in 2012, aims to support a culture of creativity and collaboration across the UNHCR by acting as a facilitator and providing innovation tools

⦁ The International Trade Centre’s (ITC) volunteer-based Innovation Lab acts as a service provider to support ITC staff with space, tools and support

Founded in 2015, WFP’s Innovation Accelerator supports WFP staff and external start-ups with financing, access to a network of experts, and global reach in the field.

But these new structures are only a stepping stone in the innovation journey. They exist to assist staff in the essential transition from viewing the world as stagnant, to viewing the world – and the activities of international organizations – as fluid, modular and mouldable.

The transformation is already visible. The 57 bottom-up innovations coming out of these organizations that we mapped in our database touch on almost all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most initiatives have two or three main goals; for example, the ITC’s SheTrades initiative targets women’s equal participation and opportunity in trade (SDG #5, Gender Equality) through a platform that seeks to create additional jobs and drive economic growth around the world (SDG #8, Decent Work Growth).

Our findings show that bottom-up innovation has the potential to fundamentally transform how organizations work. It is a way for organizations to be ready to meet the scale and urgency of the problems they are trying to address. There are three clear calls to action for organizations who want to see this change:

1) Share the successes, share the failures

The challenge this research presents to innovators is to share knowledge and to dare each other to think more creatively and design solutions more effectively. Embedding, sharing, and retaining the knowledge learned throughout the whole ecosystem is crucial to creating real value for all the stakeholders.

2) Feed the innovation beast

To succeed in doing this, international organizations must be empowered at all levels to make fundamental changes in the way resources are allocated – ensuring user-driven innovation is prioritized over the administrative status quo.

3) Design for outcomes, not outputs

International organizations must dedicate time to develop both incremental and disruptive innovation strategies, constantly designing improved solutions while simultaneously providing space to start with a clean slate and try out bold ideas. Tracking and measuring the metrics of these initiatives needs to happen from the beginning.

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