Researching Innovation Labs 3

Innovation Culture

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
21 August 2015

On the last blog post, we looked at ways that innovation labs operate differently from general UN agencies. We have observed two ways in which innovation labs are striving towards their goal of creating change by testing and applying new approaches, products and services. We’ll call them ‘innovation imperatives’ – one imperative to create organisational change, and a second to enable a community to lead its own change.

In relation to the first imperative, innovation labs support the growth of an innovation culture that helps shift bureaucratic stasis within large organisations. Underlying such organisational cultural change is the idea that a more innovative and flexible organisation will be better able to provide services for its target population. This may be thought of as an indirect approach – generating organisational cultural change in order for the organisation to then ultimately achieve better its mission. Mainstreaming a disruptive, innovative mentality is certainly not easy, and might be particularly difficult when innovation spaces are perceived as external entities (even if they are technically working under the umbrella of one organisation). As innovative mentalities become ‘the new normal’ within UN agencies, the work of innovation spaces should be met with less resistance.

A second imperative that guides innovation labs is to support the ideas and facilitate the projects of affected communities themselves – generating positive change for the target population through a more direct route. This direct imperative is reflected in the way that Josh Harvey, head of UNICEF’s Innovations Lab Kosovo, describes the ultimate goal of the Lab: to “work ourselves out of a job”. The Innovations Lab Kosovo seeks to give the community the tools to create their own solutions and improve their own futures, such that they eradicate dependencies on humanitarian or development sector support, thus disrupting the traditional models of humanitarian and development aid.

The concept of direct and indirect innovation by humanitarian agencies is depicted in the model below.

Direct and indirect innovation
Direct and indirect innovation

The ideas captured by the terms ‘direct’ and ‘indirect imperative’ have been framed previously as ‘two worlds’ of innovation: top-down innovation to improve organisational response and ‘bottom-up’ innovation that facilitates the innovative activity of traditional beneficiary populations (Betts and Bloom 2013). We have observed that these two theoretical worlds of innovation play out in the practice of UN innovations labs, which employ a range of activities and tools to simultaneously push for ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ innovation. In practice these dual imperatives are both simultaneous aims of most UN innovation labs.

Dual imperatives of a UN innovation lab
Dual imperatives of a UN innovation lab

To bring to life how the innovation labs are meeting these two imperatives, the image below illustrates a number of innovation lab activities on a spectrum between supporting the community directly in their own innovations, and focusing first on organisational change, to ultimately better support the community.

Innovation lab activities
Innovation lab activities

For more information about these activities, see our full paper.

Innovation labs have started to implement activities that show promise for more dynamically working hand-in-hand with communities. It is evident that the two imperatives underlie the work of UNICEF and the UNHCR, and are likely to also be infused in work across other UN innovation spaces. As shown by Figure 3, the tools and activities of the labs are not clearly delineated and relevant only to one imperative or the other. Rather, they sit on a spectrum in terms of their relationship to the two imperatives, and the two imperatives naturally interact and influence each other. That said, it is important that innovation lab teams are conscious of the separation between the two imperatives, so that the direct imperative, with the ultimate goal of facilitating bottom-up change, is not lost amidst the aim of achieving the first imperative of organisational change. The staff in innovation labs should be aware of the differences between the two imperatives and the short and long-term aims of both, such that they can monitor whether the imperatives are being balanced and both goals being achieved.

The direct imperative of strengthening the capacity of communities to “create solutions to their own pressing problems”, is a slower process and a long-term goal for many UN innovation labs. In the meantime, there is a need for labs to continue working towards the indirect imperative, of improving the ability of UN agencies to provide better services within the existing model of humanitarian and development aid.

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

The next blog will look at how impact is being measured in UN innovation labs and how impact measurement can be constantly improved.



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.