London — Alexander Aleinikoff, deputy high commissioner for refugees at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), is frank about the challenge of innovating within what he refers to as "stodgy and sclerotic" UN organizations. He says: "I have not been to one of our operations where people aren't doing really new and interesting things; they just don't tell headquarters about it. Because they are sure that if they tell headquarters it'll be squashed."
Aleinikoff came to the UN system at the end of 2009, from a high-flying career in the USA. But even he felt himself getting sucked into the culture of what he saw as inertia and negativity bedeviling the UN system. "I can give you a couple of examples," he says, "where I had to catch myself from doing the squashing."
The deputy high commissioner was speaking in Oxford, at a Humanitarian Innovation Conference organized by the university's Refugee Studies Centre.
His own organization is now one of those which has a dedicated innovation unit, as do the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). These are not necessarily very large or lavishly resourced - the ICRC innovation unit has just two members - but they can offer ways of freeing up staff to work on their good ideas, like the UNHCR's iFellowships (sic), as well as some funding for pilot projects.
Designing a refugee settlement
One of the things UNHCR has fostered is a collaboration with Stanford University and Ennead, a prominent firm of US architects. Ennead has experience of designing liveable and sustainable settlements, but in a humanitarian crisis when refugees are pouring across the border there is no time for the normal design process. So they have been devising a toolkit which allows the preparatory work to be done in advance, perhaps from many thousands of miles away. Overlaid data maps and google earth topography help identify a suitable site and layout for a refugee settlement, and visualization tools and 3-D printers allow the masterplan to be presented in an easy-to-imagine form.
Obviously the choice of a site for a refugee settlement is often a political rather than a technical decision but UNHCR's Monica Noro hopes the toolkit will lead to better choices. "Usually the government is the one selecting the location," she told IRIN, "but the tool aims to provide more information about whether those sites being proposed are viable or not, and whether another option eventually could have a better impact, not just on the life of the refugees but also on the life of the local population."
Noro hopes the toolkit will provide the kind of evidence that will allow UNHCR to make a more compelling argument for the most suitable site, and give it a bit more bargaining power in this kind of negotiation.
The project is innovative in its collaboration with a private sector architectural firm and its use of newly available technology. It has the potential to change ways of working and relationships between players. It is also good because it is trying to find the answer to a real, felt problem - how to design a good refugee settlement in the heat of an emergency. It is the antithesis of the kind of innovation where someone says, "Hey, look, we've discovered this really neat thing. Let's see what we can use it for."
Tarun Sarwal, the Innovation Lead for the ICRC, says it is this sort of innovation which worries him. "What we are finding," he says, "is that a lot of it is supply-driven. We are having solutions, in a sense, trying to find problems. And we find that when we go in the field and when we go into communities, it's not as if there is a huge demand at the moment. It's about new technology, and it's also about corporate interests which want to go into these areas - legitimately so - but there's just a little bit of a question about how one deals with this."
Learning from failure
UNICEF was early in the field with the idea of innovation units, and it has produced some successes, like the YouReport system, which lets young people communicate with decision makers through mobile phone messages. But innovation people tell you that you can only innovate if you are also prepared to fail, and that your failures are sometimes as important as your successes. Stuart Campo, a Roving Innovation Lead for UNICEF, told IRIN about a project called "Connecting Classrooms" which did not do what had been hoped - perhaps again because it was a solution for a problem that people were not aware of having.
"The concept at the beginning," says Campo, "was just to put computers in classrooms, or go to classrooms where there were computers and access, and connect students with other students. But what we've seen is that the technology is not enough. The teachers have to understand what the purpose of the connectivity is, and also the link back to what they are supposed to be doing, which is teaching and promoting learning. So our most important failures have been where we have not done proper design in the human sense, with a user, and around a user." Successful innovation still comes down to the good old-fashioned need for humanitarian agencies to talk to and listen to those they are trying to help.
But is even trying to promote innovation within the big agencies a lost cause? One of the private sector delegates at the conference, Jonas Kjellstrand of the SAS Institute, said the current debate on humanitarian innovation reminded him of nothing so much as California's Silicon Valley in 1985, dominated by large institutional capital owners.
"When innovation seriously took up speed in Silicon Valley," he says, "it was because private equity and small angel investors made it onto the scene and short-cutted the whole ecosystem of innovation. You are looking for this kind of innovation, but where does it come from? Having represented large institutional investors, I can say that it does not come from the large institutional investors. So that pretty much disqualifies anybody that says European Commission, probably anybody that says anything about the UN. So how do you create a system that is owned by nobody, that can actually invest in the on-ground, small innovative ideas, and do that without having the clumsiness of a gardener who pulls out the plant every so often to see if there are any roots - that's actually a no-no in innovation."
And when you do get genuine innovation - wherever it comes from - what happens then? Matthew Gray, who has worked for a range of organizations, including the UN Development Programme, Caritas and Médecins Sans Frontières, says: "The biggest point is that when all of these ideas come, all these activities have taken place, where do they get catalogued? How do they build? Where is the inventory of ideas and who is responsible for them? It can't be the NGOs independently. Is it going to be the donors, is it going to be the UN agencies, is it going to be the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)? OCHA coordinates funds, they coordinate relationships but they don't coordinate ideas."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]