Researching Innovation Labs

What is a lab?

Louise Bloom and Romy Faulkner
Aliya, age 13, spends time with her classmates before classes begin in her school in Aktau, Kazakhstan
UNICEF/UN0214605/Babajanyan VII Photo
12 August 2015

In 2014 we embarked on a journey to try and explore the emerging trend within the UN of establishing ‘innovation labs’. We wanted to know what types of labs exist, what motivates UN agencies to establish them, and what kind of impact they are having on both the agencies and communities they seek to serve.

After a few weeks working in UNICEF Kosovo’s innovation lab in Pristina, and consultations with several other innovation labs within the UN family, we compiled our answers to these questions. This blog series unpacks some of the ideas and recommendations that have come out of our research, and the exciting work happening in UN innovation labs. This first post provides a glimpse at the definition and nature of some of the innovation labs we found.


What is an innovation lab?

Across the globe, organisations are increasingly establishing innovation labs. There are thousands of community-led ‘hackerspaces’ – hobbyist-tinkering labs with tools and computers for any technical project; community spaces for technology entrepreneurs across Africa; and myriad ‘co-working spaces’ – forms of shared offices and thinking spaces that are specifically designed to inspire creativity through collaboration, interaction and experimentation.

A recent collaborative book publication entitled Labcraft defines social innovation labs as:

…a unique kind of laboratory – one that creates a dialogue, listening carefully with an open mind to all the voices, and then tries to translate them, mix them, and amplify them to prototype and develop alternatives.

We define innovation labs as physical or virtual spaces that enable and support the innovation (technological or otherwise) of those who participate in the space. We wanted to know what these look like inside the UN.


How are UN agencies using innovation labs?

Although the UN exists to tackle global issues, the reality of such a heavily institutionalised structure responding flexibly to the needs arising under its mandate is not without problems. Innovation labs present a new means by which UN agencies can generate solutions and challenge the status quo in humanitarian and development work.

Several UN agencies are following a global trend in ‘humanitarian innovation’ and establishing bespoke innovation labs that house experimental activity and have varying degrees of autonomy from their parent agencies. Some examples include – UNICEF which has 10 innovation labs worldwide, while UN Global PulseUNDP and UNHCR have also created a range of ‘labs’ to house innovative projects and ideas. And this is just a snapshot of innovation activity in the UN.*

Young people in Za’atari take part in a woodcarving workshop with Turquoise Mountain as part of UNICEF X ONE Start Up Za’atari event.
Young people in Za’atari take part in a woodcarving workshop with Turquoise Mountain as part of UNICEF X ONE Start Up Za’atari event.

Variations in local context and purpose

Our research revealed that there is great diversity amongst the innovation labs within the UN system. Each lab is created with its own motivations unique to the context in which it operates. Even amongst UNICEF’s labs there is great variation. Each lab operates quite autonomously from UNICEF main offices and there is a great range of focuses – technology, data, youth advocacy, emergency response, supply chain processes etc. One thing that does tie these labs together however, are the UNICEF ‘Do-it-yourself guide’ – guidelines which outline the innovation principles used across UNICEF’s innovation work, and include how to set up a lab that is “user-centered, built on experience, sustainable, open and inclusive and scalable”.


Variations in the nature of space

We found that the meaning attributed to ‘innovation lab’ also varies widely across UN agencies – from physical spaces, to virtual networks, to the label ‘lab’ being used to describe the employment of creative processes and ideas (as is the case for UNDP’s Public Service Innovation (PSI) Lab).

It is thought that the environment of an innovation lab is fundamental to the way in which a lab team will interact, learn from each other and experiment together. A few of the UN agencies however, have noted that a network and personal relations can be more important than physical space, and have therefore established virtual labs to support innovation, such as the UNHCR’s Learn Lab and Energy Lab.

Many target populations of development and humanitarian agencies are exposed to constantly changing and uncertain physical environments and resources, in the research we found that this liminality calls for a dynamic provision of services. A number of UN innovation labs are beginning to respond to the mobility of end-users in more effective ways, for example through online tools, mobile labs and pop-up locations. Mobile and transient end-points allow the Innovations Lab Kosovo to reach young Kosovans who are physically remote or without access to online networks, and to centralise them in program design. This mobile strategy, however, would not necessarily be appropriate for other labs with different objectives.

The nature of a lab’s ‘space’ and the strategies that it employs to engage with end-users should depend on the specific aims and constituencies of a particular lab. Notably, some labs have transitioned between different types of spaces (eg physical to virtual). Such structural malleability is important for labs to best respond to the methods of engagement that are preferred by the particular end-users. Lab teams should be reflecting upon the nature of their location and space, and constantly re-evaluating to ensure that it is not out of step with the people the lab exists to serve.

Jaisminder Jaiswal, 5, coming back from school with his brother, Shyam Sundar Jaiswal, 8, in Sihawa village, Nawalparasi District.
Jaisminder Jaiswal, 5, coming back from school with his brother, Shyam Sundar Jaiswal, 8, in Sihawa village, Nawalparasi District.

Partnerships in action

Many innovation labs in UN agencies rely on the partnerships and expertise of local NGOs. These partnerships take different forms but are based on the sharing of networks, resources and in some cases physical space. For example, the UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo is partnered with the Peer Educators Network (PEN), which allows the Lab to connect with networks of marginalised youth. The Lab can therefore reach deeply into communities and design its work alongside the end-user. Many labs also benefit from open innovation with the private sector, partnering to exchange knowledge and resources. For example, UNHCR Innovation is partnered with IKEA, and UNICEF labs have drawn on toolkits from private companies such as OpenIDEO (an online idea collaboration platform).

Some spaces in fact operate through and facilitate partnerships more so than innovating themselves. For example, UNICEF’s Lab in Burundi does not focus on developing technology, unlike its sister UNICEF Lab in Uganda. Rather, it engages in partnerships with companies and individuals that are better equipped to design technology that addresses a particular need.


Collaboration and knowledge-sharing between labs

There is some degree of interaction and knowledge-sharing between various UN innovation spaces and agencies, although there is still much room for improvement in this area. The UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence (GCPSE) in Singapore is intended to act as a hub for documenting new trends, solutions and ideas with a view to spreading them to UNDP country offices around the world. Likewise, teams in the various UNICEF labs communicate with each other, and some of the labs (for example the Uganda and Kosovo Labs) regularly host visitors seeking to learn about their work. UNICEF’s intentionally progressive outlook on open innovation and knowledge-sharing stems from the agency’s core principles and the belief that sharing knowledge will benefit the world’s youth. Like UNICEF, UN Global Pulse also seems to have quite an open approach to innovation, and is keen to share its breakthroughs, as well as its failures and lessons learnt.

There are instances of UN innovations labs collaborating on projects, but this is not widespread. Given that labs often establish strong networks within communities ‘on the ground’, they are useful sources of information for various UN agencies. There could be potential for labs to feed innovation work into multiple UN agencies simultaneously. The UN Global Pulse Labs are perhaps the closest to this approach, as they support various UN agencies, however their focus is limited to data. The Kolba Labs, which run social innovation camps for youth in Armenia are also supported jointly by UNICEF and UNDP.

That said, whilst knowledge-sharing is of course very important across innovation labs and UN agencies, caution should be taken not to ‘UNify’ and centralise innovation space models, because this could not only burden innovations labs with unnecessary top-down bureaucracy, but would also crucially undermine the importance of the end-users, who should be the heart and soul of innovation spaces, determining their direction.


To see the full account of what we found, including case studies of some labs, read our full paper here.

The next blog will look at the ways that innovation labs operate different from general UN agencies, and how they are contributing to progress in the way that humanitarian and development work is done.

*Please add comments or get in touch with the authors if you would like to discuss other labs in the UN.


About the Authors:

 Louise Bloom is a Research Officer at the Humanitarian Innovation Project based at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford with a focus on understanding innovation in humanitarianism.
@loubloom and @HiprojectOx

Romy Faulkner is a Research Assistant at the Oxford Humanitarian Innovation Project, has just completed a Masters of Law at Harvard Law School and is also working on corporate engagement at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva.