Humanitarian Innovation: The Power to Change the World

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Shail Khiyara

November 19, 2013

Silicon Valley is far. Not far if you are in California, not far if you are in Berkeley, perhaps even not far from New York. We will come back to that.

Being in the technology industry, as I am, we are focused on innovation very close to home. We think of Silicon Valley — which is right at my doorstep — as the hub of innovation. In fact, innovation is alive and well in far flung corners of the world.

Emerging Technologies and Displacement

When we think of innovation, it’s typical to think about emerging technologies, SaaS, Cloud, enterprise software, biosciences, wearable technologies, etc. and the resulting impact on the user. Standout examples include Apple iTunes’ impact on the way consumers buy and store music. Or Hyperloop, Project Glass, or lab-grown burgers.

The collaborative or sharing economy and self-service economy are just a few examples of how innovation is driving growth in the private sector. But there’s another market ripe for innovation that’s often overlooked. While innovation is often used in the public and private sector, it is often neglected in humanitarian work.

The number of people forcibly displaced worldwide has reached 43.7 million, the highest number in 15 years, according to a report published to mark World Refugee Day. These people are displaced due to various conflicts, and very often not due to self-initiated reasons. Forty nine percent of refugees are women and girls. Six countries in the world are sources of two-thirds of the world’s refugees.

All too often, people get stuck in refugee camps for many years, with an average length of stay of 12 years — examples include Somalis in Kenya, Eritreans in Sudan, Sudanese in Chad, Afghans in Iran and Pakistan, and Burmese in Thailand. Refugees are some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Whole generations live in refugee camps in remote places and face challenges, besides accessing information and services.

Silicon Valley is far from this growing refugee population –however, the alchemy of innovation does not restrict change and transformation to Silicon Valley.

Innovation in the Face of Adversity

For the past 60 years, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been committed to continually adapting and innovating in the face of ongoing emergencies and the rapidly changing world to better enable tens of millions of people to restart their lives. Today, UNHCR is the leading agency providing refugees and others of concern with protection and humanitarian assistance through its commitment to innovation.

On August 12, 2013 UNHCR launched a six-week challenge asking its community — including staff members, partners and academic institutions — how to improve access to information and services for refugees living in urban areas, with the winning idea to pilot next year. By leveraging an innovation management platform, UNHCR is engaging its global community of staff members, partners and academic institutions to generate new ideas and help refugees.

This is just one example of how UNHCR is solving challenges that refugees face around the world with more efficient, effective and creative solutions to enhance their protection, empowerment, self-sufficiency and dignity. From process improvements including shelters, briquette making and solar cookers, humanitarian innovation is making its mark and transforming lives.

This should appeal to the private sector. Innovating for over 43 million people has a huge potential for growth. The alchemy of public, private, national, even global engagement is necessary and can work wonders. UNHCR’s fundraising strategy includes philanthropy, but also corporate social responsibility to recognize the power of innovation.

For example, the IKEA Foundation has a unique partnership with the UNHCR — a partnership to design and build better homes for refugee families. Many of the materials currently used in refugee camps, such as tents with canvas, ropes and poles, often have a life span of as little as six months because they are impacted by sun, rain and wind. This represents a huge burden for aid agencies to create a more dignified life for millions.

People with expertise in plastic, manufacturing, steel, and solar technologies came together to create the Refugee Housing unit that provides economies like never before. These are being currently being tested on the border of Ethiopia, with feedback mechanisms to collect information from refugees and feed that back into design. Such innovation is vastly different because it transforms lives and gives refugee children and families a safer place to call home. The IKEA Foundation is also funding UNHCR’s search for other innovations, such as solar street lights, that will improve the lives of refugee families.

Innovation has a chemistry, an alchemy that comes together to create innovation at personal, business, community, society, national and global levels. It is in fact, an intrinsic human desire that requires more attention in far-flung corners of the world. Humanitarian innovation has the power to transform lives and make a real difference through efficient, effective and creative solutions.

This article was originally published on Wired. Follow @Wiredinsights on Twitter or view the original post here.