Uncovering novel approaches to the challenges of our time
The Innovation Nodes are UNICEF’s way of widening our radar for new opportunities in innovation for children.
There’s a parable about six blind villagers who encounter an elephant and have to touch it to understand it.
The first villager touches the elephant’s belly and declares the elephant is a wall. The second feels its tusk and announces it is a spear. The third villager grabs the trunk and claims the elephant is a snake. And so on…
Each villager’s individual perspective, coupled with their specific and limited experience of the elephant’s body, created their own version of reality. And so the moral is meant to suggest that bias leads to a misinterpretation of facts, which in turn impairs judgement.
Acknowledging and owning our perspectives – along with their limitations – is essential to our work at UNICEF Innovation, and the Innovation Nodes team was expressly set up to mitigate the risks of excessive self-confidence and knowledge blind spots. By championing a transdisciplinary approach to finding and developing new opportunities for children, the team puts intellectual humility at the heart of research and innovation.
What is transdisciplinary research?
Transdisciplinary research is a unique approach to co-produce knowledge and address complex, real-world issues by synthesizing diverse disciplines, knowledge systems, know-how and expertise from different sources to create new conceptual, theoretical and methodological insights that transcend traditional domains and practices. Transdisciplinary research encourages a holistic and in-depth understanding of the problem and encourages systems-based approaches to co-creating possible solutions.
UNICEF works in complex environments. Even seemingly simple scenarios involve complexity, and change processes are unpredictable – what works today may not work tomorrow. At the same time, new knowledge and practices are emerging at a rapid pace, often outside our usual range of vision.
In the context of innovation for children, the Nodes aim to illuminate domains of known impact that we are aware of but don’t understand, as well as emerging domains of unknown impact that we are neither aware of nor understand. Through the Nodes, UNICEF collaborates with leading organizations to probe and explore the ‘unknowns’ of our work, connecting different networks of innovators to the needs of children, and exposing both blind spots and promising pathways in the process.
A recent example explores the potential of biotechnology and biosensors in health diagnostics, in collaboration with the Rhodes University Biotechnology Innovation Centre (RUBIC) – a regional leader in the field. Next, we’ll use the same transdisciplinary approach to explore and unpack the bioengineering and material science potential of mycelium.
Transdisciplinary practice can be uncomfortable. We need to be humble. We need to see and listen to others with different perspectives, from diverse knowledge systems. By embracing transdisciplinary innovation, we’re learning to deconstruct and challenge assumptions, including our own, to co-discover and co-create novel solutions – along with new kinds of wisdom – for every child, everywhere.
What do you think a transdisciplinary approach can bring to humanitarian and development innovation? Has your team adopted a transdisciplinary approach to innovation? Tell us about your experience and stay connected with UNICEF’s work in this space here: https://www.unicef.org/innovation/innovation-nodes.