By Ana-Julia Van Bilsen Irías, Innovation intern for UNICEF and the BICU Innovation Lab, Nicaragua

“It’s amazing, we can finally speak and give our opinion about the solutions to the problems that are affecting us”
– Student from a secondary School “Instituto Nuevo Amanecer” (INA), el Bluff, Bluefields.


If I needed to introduce myself it would be something like this: I’m half Nicaraguan half Belgian, and I’m doing my masters in France. Although I have lived in Nicaragua during my childhood and adolescence, it took me twenty years to get to the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, through the internship with UNICEF Nicaragua. The Northern Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCN) and the Southern Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCS) have historically been isolated from the rest of the country with lack of access to infrastructure and quality basic social services. The BICU Innovation Lab started in the Caribbean Coast, as a collaborative process to understand challenges at the grassroots level and to propose innovative solutions to social problems affecting the rights of children and adolescents. The Lab identified violence against children and adolescents as the major problem in the region, problems that are exacerbated due to a lack of equitable access to services in prevention of, and response to violence.

As one of the biggest events organized by the BICU Innovation Lab this year, the Social Innovation Camp took place in El Bluff, a port located on a peninsula, 15 minutes speed boat riding from Bluefields, RACCS. Due to a gradual erosion of the peninsula it is becoming a real island that closes on the east side of the bay of Bluefields. The Port of El Bluff, according to the latest available census, has an overall population of 5345 inhabitants for the statistics compiled in 2009, and with a strong ethnic diversity. For many years, El Bluff was the main port of the city of Bluefields, and a major seafood processing center. Nevertheless the situation changed quickly after December 2000, when Oceanic SA Gulf closed and Gulf King sent its entire fleet of ships to Corn Island, causing the biggest economic crisis in the history of this coastal town.

Although the foreign companies exploited for many years El Bluff’s natural resources, the population hasn’t benefited from the economic activity, and conforming to several Social Innovation Camp participants, they feel completely abandoned. Therefore the Innovation Camp aimed at identifying different sources of risks that are affecting children and adolescents in the community, for example violence, insecurity, drug and alcohol abuse, exploitation, unemployment, and environmental problems.

The involvement and the motivation of the community during the camp was incredibly high, they felt enabled to be a part of the problem solving process. Being in the frontline of this project made me realize that the field experience is essential and the Social Innovation Camp had an important impact for children and youth: to help them feel that they can be agents of change, not just being “affected” by problems.

The whole process- involving around 80 members of the community, started with a two-step problem analysis process. First through collaborative maps in which children and adolescents identified the places that they like or dislike, feel safe or unsafe, we were able to pinpoint the sources of risk within the community and identify the main problems affecting the rights of children and adolescents at El Bluff. And then through key informant interviews conducted by students from BICU University. The information collected by students not only gave us a comprehensive overview concerning the rights of children and adolescents in El Bluff but also provided the fundamental inputs for the two laboratory sessions. In order make the most out of the ideas and thoughts of the participants, we used the “Knowledge café” methodology where we rotated the groups after 20 minutes so that each group was able to tackle all the problems and propose solutions to the problem presented.

Lucy Medina and INA students during mapping session. Credits Van Bilsen Irías 2015
INA students during mapping session. Credits Van Bilsen Irías 2015

To reach out to isolated communities, we followed our strategy of community participation of children and adolescents, and a multi-sectoral cooperation, where the Lab facilitates an innovative process, implemented through partnerships with community key actors:  teachers, parents, police, council members, and students from “Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University” and “Universidad de las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe Nicaragüense.”

INA students during mapping session. Credits UNICEF/ Van Bilsen Irías 2015
INA students during mapping session. Credits UNICEF/ Van Bilsen Irías 2015

I felt extremely motivated by this experience; by the dialogue between participants. It was my first time as a facilitator. It represented a successful opportunity of experimentation and integration of various modalities of capacity building in tools and methodologies for innovating, this means strengthening the capacity of this community for them to try and overcome the causes of their social exclusion. This experience mobilized and strengthened the commitment of local and regional authorities in the fight against various social problems that affect child rights the community.

Lucy Medina and INA students during mapping session. Credits Van Bilsen Irías 2015
Lucy Medina and INA students during mapping session. Credits Van Bilsen Irías 2015

Our camp experience wasn’t only about work and dialogue, but it was also about getting to know the community. After a long day we moved to our camping site, a local primary school with a beautiful community view. It was an incredible experience, with the whole team (university students, UNICEF staff, and Peace Corps volunteers) we shared the same space, stories, dancing, different cultural background that at some point led to different conceptions of expressions, and of course a good time. Some of us even had the courage to go to an early morning walk to the beach, allowing them to have even more energy for the final day of the workshop. In addition, the experience of camping in the community gave us a better understanding of the conditions they live in and have a better approach.

The facilitators enjoying the view in “Virgen del Carmen” Primary School. Creditos, Ramirez 2015

Our problem solving strategy followed different phases, after a phase of sources of problem analysis, there was a phase of iteration (or brainstorming) then, the group selected a few ideas to develop them further (a phase of incubation) and finally, each group presented their project in innovative way. This presentation was “virtual prototyping” to see how other people think about their projects. Getting their ideas and comments which will further enrich the projects. Now the camping was completed with great success, and we’re now starting the prototyping phase, in coordination with the moderators in order to effectively develop these innovative solutions.

The Social Innovation Camp Team. Credits Van Bilsen Irías 2015

The work done during these days was exciting; this wasn’t just the first Social Innovation Camp, but it was my first time as a group facilitator. At first my group didn’t know how to react to the fact that a young intern was about to guide and support them during the whole innovation process. But at the end we were really happy with the result since it was, and still is, an opportunity of captivating experience, to improve the living conditions and opportunities of children and adolescents within the community.

The Social Innovation Camp at El Buff was a success. Credits Ramirez 2015
The Social Innovation Camp at El Buff was a success. Credits Ramirez 2015

Innovation is trying, failing, learning and repeating; moreover this demonstrates us that the community members, through their experiences, should define their own approach of innovation. What I liked the most about this process was that they were the ones to tell us what they wanted to change, and that it didn’t stop at the end of the camp. Now we’re moving into the prototyping phase where we’ll select the most promising projects and move forward with the community’s innovations.