Last week, UNICEF’s global innovation team convened in wintery Kosovo to discuss how to improve the lives of children. Sequestered in the wood paneled Hotel Afa overlooking capital city Pristina’s downtown, we debated the meaning of innovation, shared our successes and failures, and plotted ways to make innovation the norm instead of the exception.
The conference itself was an experiment: the agenda was live, open to editing by all via a shared Google Doc. Presentations were strictly limited to five minute “ignites”, where PowerPoint automatically advances and a buzzer moves the discussion forward. We discussed failure openly, and with reverence, for it is integral to success. We even crowdsourced the final report in an hour-long group writing session where each participant contributed 400 words for publication.
The group agreed on a common definition of innovation – to do something new or different that adds value and has a concrete impact – and explored a number of themes with one goal in mind: How do we deliver better results for children, especially the most marginalized?
The main takeaways: Successful innovation demands a deep and intimate knowledge of the needs and behaviors of “end-users” – whether they are children, parents, governments, or community health workers – so that we can support them with the right set of tools and expertise. Innovating also requires a focus on purpose, flexible planning, continuous review, and a willingness to change course. All of this must take place within an open learning environment and a supportive community, so we need to find ways to share experiences across regions and topics.
Finally, innovation is not just about technology. Technology is merely a tool – one of many – to achieve our goals. When we talk about innovation, we also talk about how to approach problems, engage partners, involve young people, attract the right talent, and make knowledge accessible.
Over the next few days, we will share the experiences, reflections, successes and failures of UNICEF’s global innovation team here on unicefstories.org. Through this process, we hope to inspire each other, both in UNICEF and outside, to take risks and fail openly in the pursuit of improving our work for children.