Collaborating for Innovation: The United Nations (UN) Way

[Published in UN OICT Newsletter, April 26, 2016]

As I researched the impact of organizational culture on innovation at the United Nations, in partnership with Unite Labs, the Office of Information and Communications Technology’s (OICT) innovation unit, a striking observation was that innovation projects deemed successful often entail inter-agency and external partnerships. This observation corresponds with a conceptual framework that Professor John Bessant calls “spaghetti innovation”, which emphasizes the need to weave more “strands” and “connections” in and out of an innovation network to facilitate “knowledge flows.”

Since the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) created an innovation unit in 2007, other departments from the Secretariat and UN funds, programmes and specialized agencies have also established their own innovation units with unique end goals. Here, “innovation” is understood as a new technology, process, or solution that creates value within a given context, even if it has been tested elsewhere. In this context, a question arises on how “spaghetti innovation” manifests within the UN system.

What my research found is encouraging and also reveals the challenges ahead. Member State governments like Denmark generously support innovation funds at UNICEF, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Successful partnerships with private corporations such as Microsoft, IKEA, and Philips have led some practitioners to conclude that private sector involvement in development is an opportunity for the UN to help match supply and demand to aid the “unreachable” recipient.

In the not-for-profit space, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) Policy Analysis and Innovation Section collaborates with NGOs to create a global alliance for humanitarian innovation. Academic institutions like Oxford, Harvard, Columbia and Jindal Global University in India also collaborate with OCHA. Unite Ideas is an open source innovation platform that allows UN staff to propose technology challenges to the public, academia and civil society. Within the UN system, the collaboration between the UN’s Global Pulse and the World Food Programme (WFP) in Jakarta to improve real-time data on Indonesian food prices is an example of a fruitful intra-UN partnership.

To deepen this institutionalization of innovation, it is crucial, as Lambert Hogenhout, Chief of Analytics, OICT, says, “[to create] an organizational culture that encourages innovation, rather than impedes or punishes it.” Furthermore, an area that requires greater coordinated action is demand-driven and novel approaches within the Organization to improve capacity-building of governments to tackle Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) commitments. Also important are new solutions that leverage ‘big data.’ Actively working to identify and foster the right “connections” and enabling “knowledge flows” to continue unimpeded remain the key to innovation, as a practice and culture.

Development practitioner & writer | Former policy consultant & researcher with United Nations | I work in migration, gender policy & technology for development.

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