Pathways to scale are different from solution to solution and place to place, but the ecosystem and partnerships within each pathway are critical to scaling success everywhere. In supporting the widespread diffusion and adaptation of new ways of working, the ‘how’ is as valuable as the ‘what.’ This is why UNICEF’s Strategic Plan 2018-2021 identifies innovation as an enabler, and not as an end in itself.
In 2015, UNICEF’s Global Innovation Centre (GIC) journey began in a repurposed warehouse on Mbuya Hill in Kampala, Uganda. Since then, we have continued to experiment with different ways of working in line with our unconventional origins. Some approaches have proved valuable, such as pioneering a model of blended internal and external engagement, designing reusable processes, and testing the limits of agile talent management and remote working. There are other aspects that we would do differently, including improving communication, documentation, and tracking evidence uptake.
Fostering agile teams and talent
At the start, in 2015, the GIC team of seven people was working together in an office in Kampala. Driven by demand for support from other countries, the team soon outgrew what could be effectively delivered via a single location model. With the flexibility to try a different structure and way of working, the team evolved to become nomadic and distributed across the globe to enhance effectiveness and efficiency. We pushed remote work to its limit. In 2016 and 2017, there were 17 team members, living in 11 locations, with 71 percent who teleworked, 53 percent who were nomadic, and 41 percent who worked part-time. Together, this team enabled a 24-hour cycle of support to countries, regardless of location.
This experience, and the tools and approaches the team applied to achieve seamless asynchronous collaboration were included as a case study on remote work: Extreme Remote Work: The Pros And Cons Of Teamwork Beyond Borders, shared insights on managing talent, visibility and the limits of technology.
UNICEF’s investment in mainstreaming the capability to scale up solutions into core functions has enabled the GIC team to scale down accordingly. As a result, in 2018 the GIC evolved from product-focused roles into a team of eight scaling practitioners.
The GIC has pioneered a distinct governance and advisory model, convening leading expertise and funding around innovating for children. It operationalized the notion of bringing together people inside and outside the UNICEF family. The GIC Advisory Committee blends the public and private sectors, as represented in its founding members – the Government of the Republic of Korea, the Philips Foundation, and the UNICEF National Committees of Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The Committee provides thought leadership, reviews the GIC’s portfolio and progress, leverages access to their networks, and promotes innovations in the portfolio. In addition to the added transparency, events around the meetings build partnerships around new areas of work being introduced into the portfolio. Young people, researchers, entrepreneurs, and academics have contributed their experiences, expertise, networks and strategic analysis of emerging issues and trends in areas such as human-centered design, and youth-led innovation and skills. In 2018, more than 30 experts from across the finance, investment, sustainability, grant, philanthropy, foundation and innovation sectors, and across United Nations agencies were engaged around how to accelerate the journey from pilot to scale.
Taking a “glocal” approach
Systematic, cross-functional collaboration is an enabler of innovation in organizations, and the GIC has benefitted from being set up to be cross-sectoral and cross-regional. This has allowed the GIC to recognize broader trends, opportunities, and insights, and connect and share them. By identifying common needs across countries and pooling funding, we have developed solutions that meet the local country demand in a way that is also built for immediate global uptake. Partner coordination dashboards, digital outreach, and chatbots on menstrual hygiene management, cholera, and the Zika virus are a few such examples.
This approach fosters South-South cooperation and supports solutions that connect across the humanitarian development nexus. For example, the youth empowerment platform U-Report provided critical information to young people in the Caribbean ahead of hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Maria, and continued to engage with young people on development issues afterward.
As the vision of the GIC extends beyond UNICEF to what others can do for all children, so too the benefits of this work accrue beyond UNICEF to partners, such as the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts and other organizations that have made use of these platforms, including the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), World Health Organization (WHO) and World Food Programme (WFP).
Designing repeatable models The close collaboration around digital health and related sectors from UNICEF’s country level to regional level to headquarters provides a strong and repeatable model of tackling programme-driven challenges and taking innovative solutions to scale. This process has moved through many phases, including undertaking a landscape study to identify and define UNICEF’s unique value-add; jointly exploring, testing and iteratively refining strategic tools; developing and packaging methods for implementing; creating systems of support; establishing operational mechanisms and institutional arrangements; consolidating and sharing learning, knowledge and expertise; developing, refining and sharing resources for building capacity; cultivating ownership of users and stakeholders; and making these solutions available as open source global public goods.
A number of strategic tools were produced that contribute to the broader digital health sector. These include UNICEF’s Approach to Digital Health, a global strategic framework that will provide guidance and a roadmap to any country office wanting to implement elements of digital health programming into their work; a human-centred design toolkit for designing digital health systems; and an online knowledge repository consolidating all the lessons learned, case studies and tools to date.
Nudging an organization
One of the influences the GIC has had is as a change maker within UNICEF. As a result, today we no longer require the support to scale innovation that we did three-plus years ago. Processes for transitioning solutions out of the GIC and mainstreaming them into the core functions of the organization have been established. One such example is the governance mechanisms for the Real-Time Monitoring initiative, which include multi-sectoral Steering Committee and Working Group structures. Elements of the GIC approach to portfolio management and prioritization have been adopted elsewhere, and the concepts and frameworks for GIC engagement are being used to design other events.
Also importantly, sustainable changes have been made that strengthen UNICEF’s ongoing capacity to adopt and adapt technology-based innovations. New Business Analyst roles have been established in each region to support the application of technology in programming. The GIC trained and transitioned implementation support to these roles, and product management for technology platforms is now led by a newly established team in the ICT Division (ICTD) in headquarters.
What we would do differently
The GIC emphasized support to country programmes as the priority, and until 2017, did not invest capacity in communication. This left a vacuum in which we were not effectively capturing and sharing the work that was being undertaken or the stories of what a difference our work made in the lives of children and their communities. This lack of communication about our work and its value was amplified across social media, and it did not allow us to adequately recognize our donors and partners.
Many activities were undertaken to catalyse the sharing of knowledge and expertise, and to disseminate learning and experience. These included launches, running events, delivering conference addresses, panel sessions, webinars, training, managing communities of practice, papers, newsletters and more. However, we did not effectively share these accomplishments through other channels, nor track these engagements as we ideally should have.
Having recognized this need for improvement, we are taking action in the remaining period to improve our knowledge sharing, especially of documentation and resources that others can use, adapt and apply. A series of open-source resources will be released, including a dedicated microsite on digital health, and a number of toolkits on human-centred design and youth-led innovation.