10 December 2014 – The organizers of a public seminar on innovation in Stockholm, Sweden were worried. Despite months of meticulous planning, the joint event organized by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and UNICEF Sweden was about to be washed out by an unpredictable event: the fall of the Swedish government. There was little hope for good attendance with the attention of the nation gripped by the crisis.

But innovation never fails to inspire, and when Charlotte Petri-Gornitzka, Director General of SIDA opened the seminar on 4 December, it was to a packed house with record attendance.

“SIDA is daring to do,” said Ms. Petri-Gornitzka. “We are committed to innovation, innovation that reaches a large number of people and markets in a sustainable way and in partnership with many, including the private sector.”

Charlotte Petri-Gornitzka, Director General of SIDA opens the seminar. (Photo: UNICEF/Accone/2014)
Charlotte Petri-Gornitzka, Director General of SIDA opens the seminar. (Photo: UNICEF/Accone/2014)

The next speaker, Tanya Accone, Senior Adviser on Innovation at UNICEF, transported the audience around the world on a guided tour of innovations designed by children, the private sector and UNICEF itself as she launched UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children report. The crowd-sourced report calls on governments, development professionals, businesses, activists and communities to work together to drive new ideas for tackling some of the most pressing problems facing children – and to find new ways of scaling up the best and most promising local innovations. The audience wanted to know whether UNICEF takes a ‘one size fits all’ approach to scaling up innovations.

Tanya Accone, Senior Adviser on Innovation at UNICEF, speaks about how innovation can be a driver in reducing inequity. (Photo: UNICEF/Asfaw/2014)
Tanya Accone, Senior Adviser on Innovation at UNICEF, speaks about how innovation can be a driver in reducing inequity. (Photo: UNICEF/Asfaw/2014)

“Context has deposed content, context is king,” responded Ms. Accone. “We know from experience that there is no such thing as ‘plug and play’, so we invest the time and have the advantage of our local presence in more than 190 countries to design with local users and local brains when we reuse and improve innovations. We’ve captured this knowledge into nine Innovation Principles that underpin our work.”

Kidus Fisaha Asfaw, Global Product Manager for UNICEF solutions RapidPro and U-report provided more inspiring examples of how applying these principles has achieved impact at scale and in partnership with many.

Kidus Fisaha Asfaw, Global Product Manager for UNICEF, talks about the law-changing impact U-reporters in Uganda have had.  (Photo: UNICEF/Accone/2014)
Kidus Fisaha Asfaw, Global Product Manager for UNICEF, talks about the law-changing impact U-reporters in Uganda have had. (Photo: UNICEF/Accone/2014)

“Small messages can bring big change,” explained Mr. Asfaw. “Using mobile solutions, the voices of more than half-a-million U-reporters across 12 countries are amplified and young people are empowered to speak out about the issues that matter most to them. In Liberia and Sierra Leone young people are part of the solution to the Ebola epidemic, in Zambia youth are using this tool to halt HIV/AIDS and in Uganda, the opinions of young people are aggregated through U-report and streamed live in parliament.”

The audience also learned more about SIDA’s work with innovation from Nina Strandberg, Innovation and Partnerships Adviser. She reflected on SIDA’s engagement with innovation as a process of organizational change. ”We talk about ’Daring to do’,” she explained. ”And that requires a new way of understanding risk.”

Finally, Mr. Johan Karlsson from the Refugee Housing Unit shared insights from this project, which is a cooperation with the IKEA Foundation and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

“You have to embrace, learn and share failures,” Mr. Karlsson emphasized, sharing how the project’s pilot designs had been improved in materials used for warm climates and window placements through learning from refugee communities in camps and refugee diaspora. “Beyond these obvious issues, we are also challenging organizations to innovate the fundamental way they operate. The average stay of a refugee in a camp is 17 years, so you need to be able to budget over multiple years to plan accordingly.”

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