Open Innovation: Inspiring Collaboration in the UN
Early last year, our partners at UNHCR told me about their new venture to employ the SpigitEngage online platform. Invited to carry out a review of the pilot-run for the platform, I was excited to learn more about how they were trying to use an innovation tool to facilitate innovation — not only amongst employees, but also partner organisations, refugees, and people of concern, with whom they work closely around the world. I was curious to see how UNHCR were engaging with a private company (Mindjet), how participants took to the platform, and what could be learnt more widely for humanitarian work.
Conducting Research and Making Connections
Collaboration, partnerships, and engaging with affected communities are not new ideals for humanitarian agencies. However many of them do struggle to regularly ensure that they are used effectively to improve their work on the ground. Humanitarian agencies can’t be compared like-for-like to commercial users of SpigitEngage, because the harsh environments they work in across the world pose vastly different social, physical, and political challenges. Planning and project implementation is difficult in such unpredictable environments — from working in zones of conflict or the aftermath of a natural disaster, to long-term situations supporting people in refuge or poverty. Although flexible working is a core practice at organisations such as UNHCR, their global reach to 126 countries and thousands of staff means that bureaucratic systems have gotten in the way of specifically finding funding for new ideas, and learning from them for use in other locations. It is this culture of innovation that UNHCR have been recently interested in nurturing.
Using SpigitEngage, UNHCR posted a question to invited participants — employees, partner organisations, and even some refugees. They asked: “How can access to information and services provided by UNCHR and partners be improved for refugees and people of concern residing in urban areas?” Three-hundred eighteen participants, moderators, and observers joined the platform to start posting their ideas and help answer the question. To obtain the information I needed for my research, I wanted to get a broad view from all angles of the platform. To do this, I regularly spent time observing the ideas and comments being posted, and held interviews with some of the participants. I also met with, and spoke to, a range of others involved in the running of the platform, including the team at UNHCR, an expert reviewer, and several of the Mindjet staff who were working on the project.
Suggestions and Implications
From carrying out this short review, there do seem to be some broad implications for humanitarian agencies interested in using innovation tools and practices. These are my recommendations to humanitarian agencies:
- Use, but adapt, solutions from the private sector appropriately and specifically to humanitarian environments and context. This pilot showcased how both Mindjet and UNHCR took time to build a relationship and understand each other’s work cultures and needs. Mindjet specifically had to adapt the way in which they do business with more corporate clients, and apply it to the flexible and unpredictable environment of UNHCR.
- Include affected communities in open innovation. The pilot in this case was used to better understand the platform before opening it to a more public audience. A few refugees did contribute to the pilot challenge, and offered important insights to the way that UNHCR works. For humanitarian organisations, it is often a huge challenge to effectively and practically include beneficiaries in the design and decision-making of their programmes. However, this type of inclusion may be one of the most important ways to ensure that solutions are appropriate and sustainable.
- Do not solely rely on technical solutions to do innovation for you. Technological solutions may provide a more efficient method for achieving better communication, data collection, or delivery of items and ideas. However, operating them requires skills and management. Even in the case of SpigitEngage, parallel management practices, communications, and resources are needed to make sure the crowd uses the tool effectively, and more importantly, that the ideas brought to the fore are actually executed. Organizations should also consider that access to the internet is not always a luxury enjoyed in humanitarian field offices, or in the lives of affected communities.
- Understand innovation beyond just ‘idea creation’. Pay attention to the iteration of ideas, as well as long-term implementation of any ideas that come out of innovation exercises. Do not only focus on getting the ideas and thereby neglecting how they can be applied, sustained, and scaled in the future. If ideas are not executed effectively, rehashed by the crowd, and learnt from, then participants may lose motivation to innovate.
- Consider the wider culture and ecosystem of innovation. Use a variety of methods to reach-out to those you want to include. Not everyone will have the same access to technologies, or enjoy using the same tools. Communication and variety may help to get a wider audience involved in innovation activities.
- Support emerging ‘innovation champions’. Individuals can motivate groups to be creative and positive about achieving change. Supporting individuals who stand out in the group may help them to become champions, eradicating the need to force ideas from top-level management or outsiders.
There is still a lot for humanitarian agencies to learn about managing and using innovation programmes effectively, and hopefully this example of UNHCR’s bold attempts to engage with a new tool provides valuable lessons and reflections for other organisations interested in humanitarian work.
Read the full report from the Humanitarian Innovation Project here.