HELSINKI, Finland, 11 November 2015 – The second day of the Global Innovations Summit for Children and Youth brought its participants back to reality. How do we know if our idea is viable and strong enough to scale? What are the biggest obstacles to scaling up? How do we ensure that an innovation is inclusive and will help reach individuals and communities with specific, niche needs?
As the expert discussions held in smaller groups showed, there is no single clear-cut answer to tackle these innovation challenges. At UNICEF, teams can use UNICEF’s Innovation Principles as a guide. The Innovation Principles capture the most important lessons learned by the wider development community in the implementation of technology-driven social innovations. Yet this document doesn’t provide a blueprint to all the dilemmas that innovation managers may encounter in their daily work.
Innovation in communities: scaling small
Challenging the traditional notion of “scale,” one of the panels made the strong case that in today’s localized and personalized world, not everything needs to be taken to scale and that not all successes need to be big.
“Many organizations working around Lebanon strive for big numbers and offer uniform vocational programmes for large numbers of youth, without considering their individual interests and passions,” said Zeina Saab, the founder of The Nawaya Network, a Beirut-based non-profit, speaking on the panel. “We work differently by connecting disadvantaged youth to the resources that would help them develop their talents and interests and create better opportunities for the future.”
“About 10 per cent of the world’s population are people with disabilities, and they all need technologies to access things that others take for granted. A universal product design approach would help make sure that products and services are accessible for users with disabilities. We cannot deny opportunities for anyone,” said Gopal Mitra, UNICEF Programme Specialist from New York Headquarters’ Disability Unit. He stressed that children with disabilities have the same needs as children without disabilities, but require tailored solutions.
Staying small also means staying closer to your users, seeking their ideas and being able to offer them customized services, as one of the participants, a social entrepreneur from South Africa, noted.
Playing safe or taking risks?
Innovations, be it technologies, products or services, inevitably come with risks. But, as one of the panel discussions on “Tools in Your Hands” revealed, many organizations find it difficult to balance the risk of failure with the risk of inaction, thereby creating the most significant barrier to innovation themselves. Is a risk-taking and exploratory behaviour welcome in large public systems and organizations?
“It’s true that traditional businesses want quick return on investment. They won’t buy into a new customer or a new business model. I was able to solve this problem by creating an incubator within the company that we now use to test pilots,” says Maarten van Herpen, Innovation Director on Strategy & Business Development at Phillips Africa. “Phillips adopted innovation as a corporate theme, and we have established processes to take new ideas through.”
“It might seem challenging to convince management, especially if it represents the government, to accept innovation risks. In such cases, I borrow experiences from others who will have necessary answers and arguments,” notes Ehon Chan, Executive Director of MAGIC from Malaysia.
“Innovation is a key priority within our organization, and it’s my responsibility of a programme manager to give my team a space to innovate, to respect that space and to support failure if it happens,” said Johannes Wedenig, Senior Advisor at UNICEF ESARO, speaking on the panel.
Being unafraid to fail and accepting both risks and failures – it’s one of the key UNICEF innovation principles. It recognizes that “failure is both a natural consequence of testing new ideas and a critical part of creating successful innovations” and in that sense, resonates with “Celebrate Failure” – a famous slogan of the Silicon Valley based companies, whose representatives also attended the UNICEF innovation event in Helsinki.
Narrative of the future: telling real human stories
In this final plenary session of the summit, a stellar group of creatives and storytellers, joined by His Highness Prince Fahad Al Saud, NA3M Founder & CEO, took a critical look at the existing narratives and stories being told and going viral through global distribution platforms. They also talked about the current media portrayal of different regions and people that often seem to only fuel stereotypes and divide us rather than unite, and offered practical tips on how to reach a billion people to communicate the change we want to make.
“People respond to real stories about real people. They don’t want to be emotionally manipulated,” said Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan writer and humanitarian advocate.
“It’s critically important to think not only about the reach but also the impact when you decide to tell your story,” said Georgia Arnold, Executive Director of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation. She gave an example of Shuga, a TV show being produced since 2009 by the MTV Staying Alive Foundation in partnership with UNICEF and others to improve the sexual and reproductive health of young people. Using multiple channels for its distribution and broadcast resulted in reaching about 80 per cent of countries in Africa. In addition to television, MTV uses social media, radio and comic books to keep the messaging on HIV prevention and other health related topics going, and supports peer educator programmes for adolescents and youth to achieve greater impact.
A number of speakers on the panel, including Kamran Elahian, Founder and Chairman of Global Catalyst Partners, emphasized that young people should not be seen merely as a target audience to communicate change, and should be engaged as agents of change.