Researching Innovation Labs 2

What makes a lab unique?

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
19 August 2015

There is a fundamental notion that innovation is experimentation, and that labs are a way of facilitating this experimentation in a ‘safe’ environment that allows ample room for failure – as much as possible within the constraints of time, funding and institutional control, which can certainly be significant hurdles to overcome. One aspect that sets innovation labs apart from many physical science laboratories is that they are not quarantined or isolated from the outside world. The opposite is true – they often seek to develop the deepest possible relationships with the outside world, interacting side-by-side and within communities, as if they had no walls (which also reflects the value and importance of virtual networks).



In the context of the UN, innovation labs allow for experimentation and collaboration in a way that more rigid existing structures do not always have the freedom to do. One element that sets innovation labs apart from their non-innovation UN office counterparts is their deliberate and determined prioritisation of flexibility. Innovation spaces are intended to be constantly evolving locations, both physical and virtual, where people can share their ideas and energy, to which the space will adapt in a nimble, responsive way. As Josh Harvey of the UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo explains, innovation labs do not have all the answers to the new problems that the world is facing, however they are trying new approaches, forging new networks and calling on a broader range of disciplines to try to deal with the changing world. Part of this changing world is the erosion of traditional binary distinctions such as rights-holders versus duty-bearers, experts versus non-experts, haves versus have-nots, and innovation labs aim to harness the break-down of these traditional boundaries. Being entities that exist for the very purpose of trying new techniques and disrupting methods that have come to be seen as the norm in service delivery, innovation spaces can overcome inertia that UN agencies may face but find difficult to erode.

Of course, the degree to which such flexibility is practically possible in UN innovation spaces varies. Even those spaces that do have significant autonomy (such as UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo) are nonetheless not immune to structural and financial constraints or to the demands imposed by donors and mother agencies. Whilst UN Global Pulse aims to innovate from the grass-roots, it nonetheless responds to an annual research agenda, which would undoubtedly constrain its flexibility. UN innovation labs challenge power structures, but they must also inevitably work within them, if they are to effect change in the UN system as a recent publication noted.

Staff from the UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo participate in a day of activities organised by a group of young people for their community in rural Kosovo.
UNICEF Innovation Lab/Kosovo
Staff from the UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo participate in a day of activities organised by a group of young people for their community in rural Kosovo.

Embracing Failure

Connected to flexibility, another aspect that fundamentally underpins the innovation space ideology that is not commonly prioritised in non-innovation UN work is the creation of ‘failure-friendly’ spaces. UNICEF has initiated a practice of ‘Failure Fridays’ whereby they share reflections on the week, including one failure, thereby “institutionalizing risk taking”. That said, a strong failure-friendly approach might be difficult to achieve in the face of resource and time constraints, obligations to funders and to head offices. Within UN (and most) organisations, there is often pressure not to fail. For humanitarian and development practitioners the concept of failure raises concerns about the ethics and accountability of their actions. In most cases a realistic balance must be found, but it is important that learning from failure is at the heart of the innovation ideology, and that labs maintain the requisite independence to allow themselves a free space to fail.


Focus on the end-user

Such flexibility is abundantly clear at the UNICEF Innovations Lab in Kosovo. The Lab differentiates itself from the main office of UNICEF because it works within communities, deeply understanding the issues on the ground and responding to them as immediately as possible, rather than responding to an agenda set by UNICEF headquarters months or even years earlier. The Lab is using new approaches to communicate rapidly and effectively with its target communities, and working through very horizontal relationships that it cultivates with them. Flexibility and human-centred design are at the core of many innovation spaces, whereas other non-innovation departments are often more restricted by strategic plans and institutional bureaucracy (as discussed in a UNDP paper). Many innovation spaces have the potential to transform the roles of the traditional “beneficiaries” of UN work so that they can actively contribute and guide project design rather than remaining at the receiving end of activities. Compared to many UN agency offices, UN innovation labs often take more of a back-seat role and let their destiny be guided by the people who best understand the problems – those who are actually experiencing them. Thus, it is clear that innovation spaces are fundamentally different to traditional UN agency offices because the perspective from which they are approaching issues (that is, the perspective of the end-user) means that they are actually creating demands on UN services that were not previously captured, and responding to them with new tools and a more fluid, less risk-averse mentality.


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 how labs can balance the aim of responding to end-user needs with the concurrent aim of promoting organisational change.


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.