One of the biggest reasons for the failure of the QOWA project was a lack of understanding of the rapidly changing nature of “situation on the ground” in countries that the project was going to be deployed. This lack of understanding was particularly due to a lack of local team involvement during planning processes. UNICEF has since addressed this particular issue through creating a network of Innovation Labs around the world.  These labs have been instrumental in ensuring that solutions are locally created and adapted to situations that are unpredictable and fluid.

IRAQ, 2013. On 14 December 2013 in Iraq, a girl stands at the entrance to her tented classroom, part of a UNICEF-supported school in the Arbat refugee camp, in the city of Suleimaniyah, Kurdistan Region. © UNICEF/NYHQ2013-1347/SHEHZAD NOORANI
IRAQ, 2013. On 14 December 2013 in Iraq, a girl stands at the entrance to her tented classroom, part of a UNICEF-supported school in the Arbat refugee camp, in the city of Suleimaniyah, Kurdistan Region. © UNICEF/NYHQ2013-1347/SHEHZAD NOORANI

In Learning From Failures – QOWA Assessment Part 1, we set out to document a failed attempt of the team back in 2007, as part of our team’s resolution to publicly document failures, reflect and learn from experience, and inform future endeavors. In Part 1, we discussed how the QOWA initiative came about, what went wrong at the initial stage, and promised to share the project plan (see regional project plan). In Part 2 of the series, we start to look at what we have changed in how we organize innovation projects in UNICEF, to increase chances for success.

Innovations Are About Humans

Technology is just a small part of innovation, the essence of which is about the users (see more at Part 1), the implementation teams on the ground, the contributing collaborators and partners, and the authorizers who you’d need an approval from in order to proceed. The list goes on.

As discussed in Part 1, the majority of the QOWA project plan was done in the regional office with input from a small group of education experts from field offices. What could be wrong with this? Wasn’t QOWA a multi-country proposal that requires regional coordination and supervision? We did not know the answer then but check this out now:

Principal 2: Understand the Existing Ecosystem

  • Participate in networks and communities of like-minded practitioners.
  • Align to existing technological, legal, and regulatory policies.

Despite the ability to marshal resources and devise high-level strategies, headquarters (global or regional) sometimes lack information and understanding of ground realities and existing ecosystems at local levels. Such information includes governmental policies, ongoing programmes, local practitioners running similar projects, and people’s tendencies to (not) accept new technologies, etc. Planning without such knowledge could be detrimental.

Here is an example showing why we need eyes and ears in the field closely following and building relationship with the existing eco-system:

The Iraqi Ministry of Education (MoE) was running an IT department managing technology application in secondary schools. It was running an e-learning project in the northern parts of Iraq with the support from the Swedish government and Microsoft Corporation. This initiative has similar attributes to QOWA such as providing access to education through information and communications technology. It however has a dimension of certification which was considered desirable for children and their families, and which QOWA does not have. Having much on its plate already, the MoE was not interested in investing in other external projects. The team devising project plans, sitting far away from the field where the project would be implemented, did not possess information around this. As such, the project plan did not obtain the essential buy-in from the MoE.

We learned that ideas of innovation come from the field, from country offices that understand and interact with local people and cultures on a daily basis. We recognized the need of an organizational structure and environment that facilitate close and dynamic relationships among users, innovators and collaborators locally. These kinds of environments can be found in many of the world’s leaders in innovation, such as Amazon, Google, Apple and IDEO etc. They often require conscientious organizational change.

From "Innovation Labs: a Do-It-Yourself Guide". Photo Credit: Zhiyao Ma, Innovation Unit, New York
From “Innovation Labs: a Do-It-Yourself Guide”. Photo Credit: Zhiyao Ma, Innovation Unit, New York

In order to address this, we have created a network of Innovation Labs (10 and counting) since 2010, with the longest standing ones in Uganda, Denmark and Kosovo, and newly established ones in Indonesia and Lebanon. Each lab is a space and set of protocols for engaging young people, technologists, private sector and civil society in problem-solving.

Indeed, “UNICEF is undergoing a transformation that will strengthen the innovation culture within the organization, build collaborative networks to facilitate new technologies and approaches and apply them in the field (from Innovation Labs, a Do-It-Yourself Guide)”; all of which can only be done working closely with local communities.

In Part 3 of the series, we’ll continue to discuss our lessons learned and efforts to address specific risen from the failure of QOWA.

Special thanks to Ms. Sareer Ara, former UNICEF ISCA project officer, for accepting our interview request.

Zhiyao Ma
Analyst, Innovation Unit, NYHQ

See also:
Learning From Failures – QOWA Assessment Part 1
Ecosystems for Innovation and the Role of Innovation Labs