Global Meeting of entrepreneurs: Discovering cutting-edge innovations

What is the emergency multi-purpose tents project about?  

In emergency situations, such as natural disasters or conflicts, UNICEF uses multi-purpose tents to serve numerous functions, including schools, child-friendly spaces, health clinics, and ablution units. We launched this project in response to feedback suggesting that the tents were not meeting their requirements in terms of logistics, set-up, use and resistance to extreme weather conditions. The project was initially launched in 2013 with a market assessment of emergency structures followed by field users’  global needs assessment, including interviews with supply and emergency experts in 20 countries, to investigate whether more suitable structures were commercially available or whether innovation was needed. The research showed a clear gap between the market and UNICEF’s requirements, which led to the development of a Target Product Profile (TPP) to specify the requirements for improved multi-purpose tents. 

How do the new tents support UNICEF programmes and how are they to be used? 

Optimized multi-purpose tents will make a strong impact on the ground in many programme areas. If a school or child-friendly space, for instance, is not able to sustain a healthy environment during extreme temperatures or is destroyed by inclement weather conditions, there may be no education programme or safe space in the area. When it comes to emergency situations, children are often traumatized, it is therefore important to have appropriate spaces that are safe, child-friendly, and that can help the children take their minds off the surrounding conflict or disaster outside. 

UNICEF staff at work on second sample evaluation at SD in Copenhagen Photo Credit UNICEF F.Gabellini

UNICEF is driving development of emergency multi-purpose tents through co-creation with industry as part of competitive tendering. Can you tell us more about the process? 

Co-creation with industry is a somewhat new approach, adopted by Supply Division, to bridge the need from the field to industry. We prefer to do this through a TPP, which is basically an advanced design brief specifying requirements and use cases for a desired product. The purpose of the TPP, and what makes it different from procurement specifications, is that it aims to communicate a list of performance requirements that combined describe the essence of an ideal solution while leaving enough room for suppliers to innovate. It is basically up to the supplier to prioritize requirements and propose to UNICEF the most optimal solution. Linking this approach to product development with public procurement principles inspired us to develop a model of co-creation within a competitive framework.  

Building up the tent during second sample evaluation at SD in Copenhagen Photo Credit UNICEF F.Gabellini

Can you tell us about your experience with the sample evaluations and lab testing? 

The initial sample evaluation identified the proposals that met the TPP requirements and enabled us to get a good understanding of those qualified before investing in costly field trials. In between two sample evaluations, we carried out a laboratory testing in a special wind tunnel facility in France. The laboratory testing was used to reproduce specific climatic conditions the structures are regularly exposed to in the field, for example wind, thermal and ventilation performance. Based on the results, suppliers who passed were able to make improvements in their tent designs and this iterative co-creation process has proven to be a positive process for both suppliers and UNICEF, where our end goal is to create better products for children.  

Tent undergoing laboratory testing at wind facility Nantes France – Photo credit UNICEF Bo Sorensen

How will you select the countries for the field trials 

We will identify three countries with different climatic conditions: a cold country (with low temperatures, strong winds, heavy snow); a hot and dry country (desertic, with sandstorms, excessive heat); a hot and humid country (with heavy rains, strong winds, intense humidity). Carrying out the field trials in different countries will allow us to assess the tents against different climatic conditions as well as to observe how cultural aspects might come into play and potentially affect the acceptability and usability of the tent. 

What are you most excited about?  

The field trials. And seeing the final products being used by children and our staff in emergency situations, hopefully fulfilling their needs. Throughout the entire product development process, you always have to keep your vision focused on that last stage, because getting there might take a long time and you have to stay confident that someday the product will be out there and will make a difference.  

What are you most worried about? 

The field trials. Yes, they excite me and scare me at the same time! No matter how much experience you have in product innovation, how many forecasts you have carried out, how many sample evaluations and lab tests you have undertaken, nothing measures up to real life conditions. In the field, there are many factors (sun, wind, sand, rain, etc.) affecting the performance of the structures, and they can strike all at once, unlike a laboratory where each factor is tested individually. There are many variables having an impact on the successful outcome of the tents performance, including cultural and logistic aspects. What might be very straightforward to someone during the erection of the tent, might be very confusing to someone else. There are instructions on how to erect the tents, but people respond to these instructions in different ways and at a different pace. 

Suppliers and UNICEF staff at work during second sample evaluation – Photo Credit UNICEF F.Gabellini

Where do we go from here? 

The fun part: scaling. Hopefully the product development process will result in the availability of new and more optimal multi-purpose tents. However, our work will not end there, you can develop the best products in the world, but if no one knows of their existence, how are they going to get scaled? We need to inform colleagues and partners about the new tents, about their features and many advantages.


About UNICEF Supply Division and efforts around Products and Markets: 

Supplies are essential in fulfilling children’s rights. In 2017, UNICEF, together with its partners, worked tirelessly to ensure that vital supplies reached children caught up in conflicts, natural disasters, epidemics, poverty and lack of access to healthcare, clean water, basic rights and education. Approximately $3.46 billion worth of supplies and services for children were procured by UNICEF in 2017.

Within the efforts of Product Innovation and Markets Influence, UNICEF drives research and development (R&D), implementation and scale of products to address programmatic and/or emergency needs currently unavailable in a procurable form on the market. In such a case, a Product Innovation Project (PIP) is initiated with the ultimate goal of enabling procurement of fit-for-purpose and value-for-money supplies in UNICEF’s programme areas, which have a positive impact on UNICEF’s programmes and emergency response.

Bo Strange Sorensen is a Project Officer in the Market Supplier Financing and Innovation Centre at Supply Division. He has worked in product design and innovation for over 15 years, the last five of which with UNICEF working on a wide-ranging portfolio of innovation projects for children, spanning from school furniture to height/length measurement devices, to emergency structures.

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Global Meeting of entrepreneurs: Discovering cutting-edge innovations