UNICEF Innovation Fund: Investing in Games-Based Learning Solutions

Written By Catherine Cheney. The original story was published in Devex on 30 March 2018. Access original article here.

Cynthia McCaffrey, director of the Office of Global Innovation at the United
Nations Children’s Fund. Photo by: UNICEF

SAN FRANCISCO — Ask about the leaders in innovation for international development, and you are likely to hear about the United Nations Children’s Fund, in part because it launched its innovation unit ahead of most of its peers. Launched in 2006, the Innovation Unit has since evolved into the Office of Global Innovation a 2016, her job was to make sure that all the work being done to leverage technology ultimately led to better outcomes for children.

In an interview with Devex as part of the Meet the Innovation Leads series, McCaffrey spoke about her efforts to mainstream this innovation work at UNICEF. “How do we use emerging innovations and technologies to really bring impact for kids and not just innovate for the sake of innovating?” McCaffrey told Devex.

She oversees three big innovation teams: Futures, which focuses on emerging technologies, Ventures, which invests in early-stage solutions, and Scale, which deploys innovations across different countries and contexts. She mentioned UNICEF’s work moving from handwritten to automated birth registration in Uganda as one example of the kind of impact she and her team are focused on.

Years ago, when the UNICEF innovation team started to ask how mobile phones might strengthen the impact of front-line workers, they got a lot of pushback from people who thought it was too early, given the apparent challenges for access to and affordability of mobile phones. But over time it has become clear the team was right in anticipating the global penetration of these devices. “We’re in the middle of mainstreaming,” McCaffrey said, describing how this work evolved from an experiment into a priority. “We’re in the midst of really moving that real-time communication into all of our programs.”

More recently, drones have emerged as a technology where the Office of Global Innovation and UNICEF more broadly see potential, and the agency has been an early adopter in testing the applications of this technology over the past two years. “The testing of drones was really grounded in that challenge around HIV and AIDS and newborn testing in Malawi,” she said of the drone corridor in that country, which launched in December 2016. “It was an old problem where it could take up to 30 days for a mom to get an HIV test result — and we tested drones and we cut it down to 20 minutes. But it cost a lot of money. So we made the investment with the government and with partners on the ground to open this humanitarian corridor.” UNICEF is exploring testing the applications of drones in areas including imagery, connectivity, and transport, again prioritizing the impact on children in its efforts.

McCaffrey said fearlessness is a key ingredient for innovation. Across the industry, she sees people jumping into challenging contexts that are far from familiar. Innovating means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, she said. McCaffrey added that one of the points that stuck out most for her in a recent Devex story on innovation labs was the need to move from an “innovation island” to an “innovation peninsula.” “You do need to have that edginess and stick out a little bit, but if you’re going to have the impact you have to be able to feedback onto the mainland easily and smoothly,” she said.

She talked about the digital development principles UNICEF developed, zeroin with the user, being collaborative, and building for sustainability as approaches that drive her work. Having worked in international development and humanitarian response her whole career, what has surprised McCaffrey most is the ability for innovation within a large bureaucracy.

Previously, McCaffrey worked as chief of staff for Anthony Lake, the former executive director of UNICEF, and she credited his leadership, as well as that of the current executive director Henrietta Fore, for much of the success her office has had. She has learned about the importance of leaders going beyond creating an enabling environment, and in fact offering a gentle push, because people rise to expectations, she said. “I know UNICEF is stacked with people who are fearless in so many ways, including trying to make change. But I also know that the rules, the regulation, and the culture can be one that is risk averse,” she said.

In 2011, the Innovation Unit helped launch the U.N. Innovation Network, a group of U.N. agencies that meets quarterly, convenes working groups and hosts a Slack channel where members share ideas. “The U.N. has a reputation perhaps of not working well together, not coordinating, and this [channel] is open to all U.N. agencies. And it’s a place where you’ll toss a question into the mix — say, ‘we’re exploring blockchain, but before we do it, who else has done it and what have your lessons been?’ — you wouldn’t expect it in the U.N. in a place where we may seem competitive. But it is a network sharing information with each other, and we’re trying to make sure more U.N. agencies know about it.” McCaffrey said.

“My message to tech industry is ‘we’re excited to work with them’ and, in fact, ‘we need to work with them’ — they have the expertise we need.” — Cynthia McCaffrey, director of the Office of Global Innovation at UNICEF,

which has an office and presence in the San Francisco Bay Area, often shares what is and is not working in engaging with the tech industry on some of their priorities. “My message to tech industry is ‘we’re excited to work with them’ and, in fact, ‘we need to work with them’ — they have the expertise we need,” McCaffrey said. She often comes up against resistance because of a perception that the U.N. is hard to partner with. And all too often, she said the conversations sound more like charity than partnership, with tech leaders saying something along the lines of “what a lovely thing to do.” She expects that over time, with more examples of partnerships with Silicon Valley driving real progress, these conversations will be easier to have. “The problems and challenges UNICEF faces are enormous, extremely fast paced, because you’re dealing with children’s lives, and not in a soft and cuddly way,” she said. “These are hard and ugly issues we often deal with and what better partner to have across the table — or on the same side of a table — than a business looking at how to take technology and crack major issues and really make an impact?” Partnership between the U.N. and the tech industry will also demand a real dialogue, McCaffrey added. “That comes down to language, and how we talk to each other, or talk at each other. I will sometimes say the U.N. has five official languages and not one of them is tech. One of the things our team and UNICEF is trying to do is to translate those challenges for our tech partners and start to speak that language,” she said.

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UNICEF Innovation Fund: Investing in Games-Based Learning Solutions