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Josh Harvey, Innovations Lab Lead and Innovations Specialist, Kosovo (UNSC 1244)

Tell us a bit about your background.

I was born and raised in Amish country in rural Pennsylvania. I have a BA in History from Dickinson College and an MA in International Development and Education from Columbia University Graduate School of Education. Between undergrad and grad school, I was a Teach for America Corps Member in Newark, New Jersey.

What do you do?

I lead UNICEF’s Innovations Lab Kosovo, which is a team of 14 split across three units. The first, the Design Centre, focuses on service design and technology for development (which spans from developing software tools that speed up and improve data collection and analysis by UNICEF and our partners, to building platforms that are used by governments to provide rights holders with access to information, to exploring new technologies to improve service delivery for children); another unit, the Youth Empowerment Platform, develops new programme models for adolescent and youth empowerment and participation; and the third unit – By Youth For Youth – uses an approach we built called UPSHIFT to train and support young people to build and lead innovative solutions to challenges in their communities.

My job is a mix of general management (the Lab has a bit of an unusual structure, so in addition to the programme teams, we have a product development team and separate operations, communications, and finance teams), design, strategy, and policy work.

In addition to the Lab, I oversee UNICEF Kosovo*’s Adolescent and Youth Unit.

What’s your working day like?

Work changes a lot depending on where we are in either the programme or product development cycles.  I try to start most days with discussions out of the office with partners or peers. Then it’s a bit of organizational stuff—approve payments and check on spending, review programme monitoring data, work through HR, etc. etc.  From there I spend about a third of the rest of the day on immediate things—providing input for our products, discussing plans and progress with our programme teams–another third on longer term things like new programme design or communications and fundraising, and the last third on external things—this might be coordination with our peer organizations or advocacy with government partners; often, it’s dialogue with colleagues in other UNICEF offices as it’s become pretty common that the Lab acts as a resource to others engaged in innovation and/or adolescent and youth work. On the best days, I get to work directly with young innovators or lead design sessions with youth and partners.

How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old?

I help a team of really smart, creative, good people help other smart, creative, good people solve problems.

What did you want to be when you were a child?

I don’t know what his business card would read, but I wanted MacGyver’s job.  Creative problem solving and helping people. I actually got closer than I expected!

How/when did you join UNICEF? 

I first worked for the United States Fund for UNICEF from 2009.  There, I helped start the sports partnership team and was part of the two person team that managed partnerships with pharmaceutical and logistics companies. I think my boss sensed my innate nerdiness so I ended up tasked with building a strategy to support UNICEF’s innovation efforts with access to tech sector resources, especially tech knowhow, and be part of and lead some of the US Fund’s own innovation efforts. Over time, it became clear to me that UNICEF Innovation was where I wanted to be, so in January of 2013 I left USF to lead the Lab in Kosovo*.

What are the most satisfying parts of your job?

Young people come to us hungry to make things better for their communities, their families, their peers, and for themselves.  We teach them how.  It’s an extraordinary feeling when 15, 16, 17 year olds with whom we work are on national television recounting how their efforts have changed their communities.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?

There aren’t always precedents for the Lab’s work fits into UNICEF.  That, and it can be difficult to balance with UNICEF’s long planning cycles the imperative to experiment, be agile, and pivot to capture emerging opportunities.

What’s your best UNICEF experience/memory?

There are so many.  One from fairly recently, though, was from a mission to Jordan to share with the office how they might incorporate some of Kosovo’s UPSHIFT work into their life skills and vocational training efforts in Zaatari camp.  While we were in the camp, some of the programme participants rolled out a mobile library – a beautiful, cherry red tricycle with a lockable, weatherproof book shelf attached – that they built in order to provide access to books to children living in the camp.  It validated two of my biggest beliefs: one, that people want to help people, no matter their own challenges; and two, that the most powerful thing we can do is give others the resources, know-how, support, and opportunity to solve the problems to which they feel close and about which they are passionate.

What’s one of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken in your life?  

Well, there’s that time I left my job in New York to move to Kosovo…

What are your passions? 

Education.  There’s an H.G. Wells quote: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe”.  I don’t have such a dire view, but I feel quote captures the notion that education—in whatever form it takes, not necessarily formal education—is what lets us, collectively, overcome our lesser natures; it’s what enables us as a human community realize our hopes.  I often tell young people with whom we work that, if things are going to get better—in their communities, their countries, the world—it’s not going to be me or the Lab that does it; it’s going to be them.  Our role is to give them what we know about how to do it.

What advice would you give others who are seeking a similar job as yours?

The practical response is that getting a job with UNICEF is hard, and it’s extra hard to just pick up and be an “innovations person” as most offices don’t have a role focused expressly on innovation; better to seek opportunities related to your skills and experience and get connected to our great innovation network from there. The philosophical response?  Be curious. That’s probably the single most important trait of someone working in this space. You’re never going to know, ex ante (or ever!), all the things you need to know to do the job well. Read everything, ask “what if..?”, wonder what’s possible, learn programme development, learn project management, learn coding, learn design, learn as much as possible.  And then recognize when others have expertise, and empower them to use it.

Who do you look towards for inspiration?

Mom and Dad. Neither of my parents’ families had the money or inclination to send them to college, they’re nevertheless the smartest people I know.  My dad had an unfulfilling job with the post office for 30 years—awful hours, awful work—in order to provide for us, but always had time to help us and other people, and is the definitive jack-of-all-trades—he’s the best creative problem solver I know and his workshop is filled with awesome, hacked solutions. Mom cleaned houses while my sister and I were young to bring in extra money, and then when we were in college she went back to school.  Afterward, she started part-time at an organization for abused, neglected, and abandoned children and was so valuable that she worked her way up to manager of administration. Mom is deliberate and thinks hard about how to do things right; she taught me to leave everything you touch a little better.

My colleagues don’t know that… 

I don’t hear well; if we’re out and there’s music playing, there’s a 50% chance that I can’t hear what you’re saying and I’m just smiling and nodding. 🙂

You can read about Josh and other UNICEF colleagues on UNICEF’s ‘Faces of UNICEF’
Tumblr: http://facesofunicef.tumblr.com/post/139129080341/people-want-to-help-people-no-matter-their-own