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UNICEF in Emergencies & Humanitarian Action

Searching for creative solutions in humanitarian action

The three-day Humanitarian Innovators Network lab brought together emergency response workers to discuss how innovation can improve humanitarian action.  Download this video


By Mari Denby

NEW YORK, United States of America, 21 October 2013 – What if vaccines could tell us their exact location and temperature in real time as they are transported along the cold chain? 

What if aid agencies could use a virtual marketplace to let beneficiaries determine which emergency supplies and services they need most?

How can we use SMS and Twitter to map threats to children and track the delivery of aid to communities in crisis?

Can indelible ink be used to help deter gender-based violence and identify perpetrators?

These were some of the concepts discussed when UNICEF brought together humanitarian field staff, partner agencies and technology and design experts to brainstorm on innovation for children in humanitarian action.

© UNICEF Video
Steven Michel (left), UNICEF Emergency Specialist in the Democratic Republic of Congo, along with Iain Murray from UNICEF Mali, give a presentation at the innovation lab.

The three-day innovation lab, co-led by the UNICEF Office of Emergency Programmes (EMOPS) and the Innovations Unit addressed some of the persistent challenges in humanitarian action, such as real-time data and information management during emergencies and the need for greater participation of beneficiaries in humanitarian programme design.

The ‘lab’ was not a laboratory in the traditional sense, but rather a space for colleagues to collaborate face-to-face and with open minds in working towards new solutions in humanitarian action. The initiative yielded several ideas to be explored and tested over the coming months. There were also training sessions on starting innovation labs with field colleagues and facilitating innovative practices in a humanitarian context.

Confronting operational challenges

From responding to humanitarian crises to helping build community resilience, UNICEF works with partners to save lives, protect rights and reduce vulnerability to disasters and conflict. These scenarios can present numerous operational challenges, such as damaged or underdeveloped communication infrastructures, threats to safety and security, and the risk of acute staff stress.

UNICEF staff developed solutions to specific humanitarian challenges alongside partners from the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID), among others. Technology and design experts from the public and private sectors contributed knowledge and inspiration.

© UNICEF Video
A participant in the innovation lab points to a brainstorming diagram. “We rarely have the opportunity to take a step back from our regular humanitarian work to collectively address some of the recurrent challenges,” said Genevieve Boutin, of UNICEF’s Office of Emergency Programs.

The concepts that grew out of the initiative combined technological innovations with improved processes, products and services, and were taken from preliminary concept maps to initial prototypes to pilot testing plans.

The lab marked the launch of a new UNICEF initiative to support humanitarian innovation, driven by a network of staff continually adapting to deliver assistance to children and women in humanitarian emergencies around the globe.

“These staff members innovate every day in their respective country offices,” said Genevieve Boutin, Chief of the Humanitarian Policy Section in EMOPS. “But we rarely have the opportunity to take a step back from our regular humanitarian work to collectively address some of the recurrent challenges.”

“We are here to listen to each other, to learn from one another, taking from one experience to connect it to another one, and make something new in order to deliver better,” said Guy Yogo, Chief of Emergencies at UNICEF Chad.

For further information on the initiative, please write to humanitarianinnovations@unicef.org.



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