UNICEF has a 70-year history of innovating for children. We believe that new approaches, partnerships, and technologies that support realizing children’s rights are critical to improving their lives.
The Office of Innovation is a creative, interactive, and agile team in UNICEF. In a sentence: we sit at a unique intersection, where an organization that works on huge global issues meets the startup thinking, the technology, and the partners that turn this energy into scalable solutions.
What We Do
UNICEF’s Office of Innovation works with partners – and through UNICEF’s network of global problem solvers – to tackle the big challenges and take advantage of the big opportunities facing the world’s children. Focusing on where new markets meet vital needs, we’ve partnered with leaders from the private, public and academic sectors to:
Connect young people to decision-makers – via U-Report, the social messaging tool that allows anyone from anywhere in the world to speak out on issues they care about, respond to polls, report issues on behalf of people in their country, and work as positive agents of change. Through its 3.6 million U-Reporters (and 39 countries), this tool has helped UNICEF and government partners to identify and shape policy to address sexual abuse in Liberia’s schools, track the distribution of more than 6 million textbooks in Zimbabwe, and get life-saving ‘be prepared’ messages in multiple languages to thousands of people affected by a hurricane in the Caribbean.
Bring an entrepreneurial approach to a traditionally risk-averse sector – including partnerships to develop innovative, affordable solutions that make wearables and sensor technologies work for communities in need. Through our Wearables for Good challenge, we identified stand-out social enterprise innovations – like a wearable health record (tracking immunization in the first two years), and a device that encourages children to wash their hands properly – and we’re now helping these technologies to attract private sector funding and to scale around the world.
Deliver long-term value for both businesses and communities – bringing together private sector partners to share their data and research; working with academic and technical partners to create models from that data; and developing systems for real-time information and action. Using data sets in this way allows us to better understand and respond to natural disasters and emergencies – like during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, where aggregated data from mobile network operators in Sierra Leone helped us map people’s movements and determine likely routes for the disease to spread.
Create a new model for how the UN invests in start-ups – the $11.2 million UNICEF Venture Fund allows UNICEF to quickly assess, fund, and grow open-source solutions that can improve children’s lives. The Fund makes $50-100k investments in portfolios of emerging technology being developed by companies in UNICEF programme countries (the first financial vehicle of its kind in the UN), and has funded companies that are: using blockchain for teacher payments in South Africa; building open-source mobile phone networks in disconnected areas in Nicaragua; and using facial recognition technology in Kenya to detect malnutrition in children.
Issues We Work On
UNICEF is on the ground in 190 countries, and we see the evolving challenges that are facing children and young people – from disease outbreaks and populations on the move, to urbanisation and climate change. We pair these changing realities on the ground with efficient, effective and creative ways to address them. Being able to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – adopted by the countries of the United Nations to change the way we develop our world through 2030 – requires innovation to shape these global efforts and implement their solutions.
The Office of Innovation specifically looks to form partnerships around frontier technologies (like drones and UAVs, blockchain, 21st century skills, urban technologies, new banking tools, or 3D-Printing) that exist at the intersection of $100 billion business markets and 1 billion person needs – and to identify how they can grow and scale profitably and inclusively. This often means creating provocations to industry to show how certain technologies, if built in the right way, could have tremendous positive impacts on the lives of children, while also opening new research, markets, and opportunities to our partners.
We’re an interdisciplinary team around the world tasked with identifying, prototyping, and scaling new technologies and practices. With our partners, we focus on convening and collaborating on new and different solutions, low- and high-tech, through our Office’s global arms:
UNICEF Futures – looks at the 2-5 year horizon to evaluate emerging and trending technologies (with an emphasis on digital), and to see how UNICEF can work with the private sector on doing better business while improving essential services for children.
UNICEF Ventures – invests in early-stage solutions that show great potential to positively impact children in the 0-2 year future (including the Venture Fund that invests in open source technology solutions from start-ups based in UNICEF’s programme countries.)
UNICEF’s Global Innovation Center – identifies proven solutions that can be implemented at national scale in multiple countries – taking the ideas that help thousands in one country, bringing them to dozens of countries across multiple sectors, and impacting the lives of millions of children.
How We Work
Our Office works to create new partnership structures that can narrow the gap between technologies (and practices) and the people we need to reach. Our partners apply their expertise, networks, internal platforms and data to not only delivering viable business strategies, but to creating long-term value for entire populations, systems and countries.
Knowing that the kind of results we want are impossible by traditional means alone, we look to collaborate with an interdisciplinary group of people working across industries, countries and cultures:
Private sector – convening corporations (like ARM, Amadeus, Google, Facebook, Telefonica, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer) designers, entrepreneurs, and other development partners around the intersection of high-growth tech industries and social good.
Academic – bringing shared value through the exchange of ideas, joint capacity building, and opportunities for applied research.
Government – taking successful solutions to scale, supporting local entrepreneurs, and addressing the evolving challenges affecting all children.
UN – serving as a convening force across the UN system, co-creating and implementing solutions, and leveraging local and global networks.
Working With Us
The best way to see if we could work together is to consider our Principles of Innovation – best practice guidelines (adopted across a range of UN agencies and foundations) that inform the design of tech-enabled development programmes. If these are your principles too, we want to hear from you.
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