We’re re-posting a blog into the work of UNHCR Innovation. Here Chris Earney gives background to Innovation in the humanitarian sector, the work of UNHCR and how technology can help.


Original Article by Chris Earney, Co-Lead, UNHCR Innovation


Managing innovation is terrifying

It’s terrifying for many different reasons, but here I’ll just outline four:


  1. Expectations are huge;
  2. Resistance to change is not insignificant;
  3. The need for innovation in our sector is not small;
  4. You have to manage people.


There’s been a load of research carried out on the need for innovation in the humanitarian world. Lots of private sector examples that we can’t (realistically) follow, lots of commiserations, and cathartic conversations with colleagues across the sector who have also been charged with driving innovation.  But now it seems that there has been enough of a push, and innovation is here to stay…at least for a while.

Innovation is the focus of the fourth pillar of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 and is also on the radar of the UN Secretary General. Needless to say, it is now an area of focus and a recognised need.  There are good practices, good examples, and an increasing amount of data and information on Things That Worked and, more importantly, Things That Didn’t.  We’re now – as a sector – in more of a position to talk about innovation in that mystical place we call ‘The Field’.  But now that it’s moved beyond a buzzword, and is now actually becoming a practice, these are the questions we now face:


How do we manage it?

Why should we manage it?

Can it be managed?

And what would that look like?


For our team, the ‘management’ of innovation focused primarily on getting UNHCR Innovation off the ground.  This was painful, and it was extremely hard work.  We needed to have a strategy in place, we needed projects, we needed the ever elusive ‘Quick Wins’, and we needed co-opters within the organisation.  To add to all of that, we needed projects on the ground to verify, justify, and prove the theory and rhetoric.

There’s still a lot of the above to do – don’t get me wrong – but we’re now in the position of needing to manage a set of processes that we put in place over the course of the past two years.  We have Innovation Labs – a virtual and real ‘safe space’ for experimentation. We also have Innovation Fellows, an Innovation Fund that provides a budget for operations that want to prototype some of their ideas, an Innovation Circle, that consists of external friends, advisors, and supporters from a range of academic and corporate sector entities, and now, an Engagement and Communications pillar.  Each of these pillars of our work needs to be managed as a service to an organisation spanning 124 countries, over 8,500 staff and affiliates, and works with and for over 50 million displaced people. Managing this is not easy.  And managing a team to run this is not easy.


Please continue to full article where Chris identifies UNHCR’s challenges in Innovation and how technology can help.


— full article —