Open Innovation Initiatives in UNHCR Refugee Communities

Open innovation, in which companies and organization source information from external sources, helps businesses approach strategic decisions in a creative manner. UNHCR, whose goals are to implement changes external to its organization, would highly benefit from sourcing information and potential solutions from the very people they are trying to help.

Open Innovation in UNHCR

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the United Nations initiative to protect refugees globally, assisting in their repatriation, integration and resettlement in a foreign country. The organization is responsible for guiding receiving countries in implementing regulations and rights to address 71 million refugees desperately in need of help[1].

The applied protocols however date back to post World War II and are almost identical to those created to resettle the then few million displaced refugees in Europe[2]. The current refugee crisis is at an unprecedented scale and is vastly different from that post World War II. The current protocols are thus arguably insufficient in creating an efficient and sustainable long-term economic, legal and social integration of refugees in receiving countries. As discontent increases between and within receiving states[3], UNHCR must be highly responsive and act quickly.

Implementing open innovation and crowdsourcing to gather information from the affected refugees, and potentially also the pre-existing citizens, will be important in future success of UNHCR’s goals of quick and efficient integration and resettlement. Without gathering ideas in real time from the people whose lives and well-being is at stake, the UNHCR risks missing important sources of discontent and content alike which will inevitably emerge over time.


Organizational Plans for Improvement

UNHCR has been aware of the knowledge gap between the organization and partner states and the refugees, and have initiated an idea-management platform, UNHCR Ideas[4]. Through the platform, staff members, partners, and refugee communities can provide feedback to challenges posed by UNHCR to contribute to solving various complex issues. The initiative is only in its early phases and expects to expand in reach and depth in the coming years.

Apart from UNHCR Ideas, UNHCR has initiated a new plan for possibilities of top-down and bottom-up information flow. It recognizes that a digitally connected refugee population can enable UNHCR to innovate and improve the quality of services provided and respond more effectively to the needs of the refugees. UNHCR intends to partner with private and public actors in the host communities to digitally connect refugees for strengthened communication and community empowerment. In collaborating with the technology sector, UNHCR may be able in the short run to provide refugees with pricing models that reduce costs of mobile connection. In the medium- to long term, UNHCR recognizes that it must identify sustainable market-based connectivity solutions[5].

Increasing digital connectivity is a means through which open innovation can take place, not the least in combination with UNHCR Ideas. However, there is no concrete plan for what necessary negotiations with public and private enterprises would look like. Furthermore, what remains to be seen are methods of creating honest and active engagement from the refugee population as well as systems in place for how UNHCR is to effectively respond to such engagement.


Recommendation for Improvement

UNHCR would likely benefit from further developing UNHCR Ideas and/or create similar initiatives, as a knowledge-sharing platform of the kind has major potential. However, if the initiative fails to garner reach and depth, it will likely turn out unsuccessful.

UNHCR must initiate serious efforts to inform refugees of the possibilities to improve their present situation in any language and form necessary, as well as prioritize solutions for connectivity. Information flow among disconnected populations could possibly be created through representatives in local communities who gather information from the people and upload to the platform.

Once connected -directly or indirectly-, creating e.g. contests in local languages with financial or other rewards for ideas acted upon (chosen through community voting) could generate high engagement[6]. In addition to / instead of complex challenges that may intimidate participants, UNHCR would benefit from a broader open platform where refugees can introduce encountered issues with or without solutions, as the UNHCR cannot always predict what issues are relevant. To incentivize questions, one could also award some type of credit to the person who initiated the question that later received a successful response.

Successful communication in real time can further incite trust and engagement not only with the refugee community but also with the citizens of receiving countries who now see responsiveness from UNHCR, potentially allowing a new crucial dialogue to emerge.


Question Moving Forward

Suppose that the aforementioned platform with high engagement existed, and that the UNHCR were responsive to ideas. Would the ideas of relevant parties be informed and thoughtful enough to create long-term and widespread impact, or will they turn into time-consuming and short-term efforts at local scale?





[1] UNHCR, 2017 Global Report, p. 5,, accessed November 2018.

[2] UN, The United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, p. 2,, accessed November 2018.

[3] Tobias Bohmel, Vincenzo Bove, Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, ”Politicians blame refugees for violence. But refugees are more likely to be its victims,” The Washington Post, September 19, 2018,, accessed November 2018.

[4] UNHCR, “UNHCR Innovation”,, accessed November 2018.

[5] UNHCR, “UNHCR Innovation Service; Connectivity For Refugees”,, accessed November 2018.

[6] Kevin J. Boudreau, Karim R. Lakhani, ”Using the Crowd as an Innovation Partner”, Harvard Business Review, April 2013, p. 64.


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Student comments on Open Innovation Initiatives in UNHCR Refugee Communities

  1. It seems there are a lot of different groups of individuals that might be able to contribute to this open innovation platform. The refugees themselves are of course the most informed about the challenges they are facing, but the local and national governments of the host communities, the individuals of the host communities, and corporations could all contribute to help develop solutions. How might an open innovation platform engage all of these different parties in a productive way?

  2. UNHCR Ideas seems like a great way to get the conversation going on an issue that is becoming increasingly challenging. I agree with Sal Paradise that there are several key stakeholders at play, and hopefully some thoughtful ideas can be generated to help all of the parties involved, especially with the rise of xenophobia as refugee numbers increase. Awareness of the platform and providing connectivity to the refugees seems like an important first step, both to get them involved in the conversation and also to provide a first step towards building new happy lives. There will certainly be very different issues between different refugee groups and host countries, so it will be important to see what common issues exist across several country and community lines that may be able to be addressed holistically, hopefully leveraging unified fronts such as the European Union to tackle these issues. I see funding and alignment of all the key stakeholders as the largest barriers to overcome in the long-term for this to be successful.

  3. Thanks for this insightful submission on the UNHCR! I agree with Brett and Sal that their are a few key stakeholders, notably governments, that must buy in to open innovation as a potential help to the ongoing refugee crisis. Distilling the many open sourced ideas into a form that is digestible for governments to institute change seems to be a key challenge that if overcome could help governments gather and implement from refugees. One way to do that might be to create a digital solution that would allows refugees to not only present ideas but vote on ideas they agree with. This could help elevate the most persuasive refugee positions to governments effectively?

  4. I hadn’t heard of this initiative before — thank you for the insightful piece. One concern that I had was that most of the issues that refugees are dealing with are likely highly personal and sensitive in nature. Is a digital platform truly the right way to get feedback on these topics, or will there be low uptake of the program because people are unwilling to engage in that forum? I wonder if there is a human element that they need to implement in order to make this project successful?

  5. I appreciate the author for sharing this UNHCR initiative which I was not aware of. Add to the insightful and valid comments above, I would add that it is critical to have repetitive mutual feedback system between UNHCR and the refugees about the refugees’ demand. In other words, I think it is not sufficient for UNHCR to just hear the refugees’ demand and respond. In fact, I think UNHCR needs to hear feedback again from the refugees on how they felt about the UNHCR’s response and reaction. Since the refugees’ demand should be highly personal and complicated, I believe such cycles of mutual feedback to keep improving the UNHCR’s solutions to the various groups of refugees would be highly effective in leveraging the power of open innovation.

  6. Great article! I have actually worked extensively on the refugee front and in close collaboration with UNHCR over the last 2 years and so this topic is particularly familiar to me.

    Regarding stakeholders’ engagement, unfortunately government bodies are not really active and/or usefull in the topic, at least in South Europe. Thus, in my opinion the key stakeholders that need to be engaged are local non-profits and the refugees themselves, who experience the problems at first hand. If we manage to convince these two parties regarding the platform’s value, we could go a long way!

    Also, regarding the potential impact, in fact UNHCR is equally concerned about both short-term and long-term issues and so, any kind of solution would be highly helpful. In addition, throughout my experience I have noticed that most of the major problems that refugee camps face are very similar across different locations, so locality will not be a problem!

  7. Thank you for this article – valuable insights!
    Coming from a country that has a number of refugees that is almost equal to 50% of the pre-existing population of the country, I see a lot of benefits in sourcing information from both sides, bottom up. However, the challenge i see here is that refugees often live in poor conditions, with no access to internet or no understanding of these kinds of digital platforms. As such, I do believe this initiative will ultimately have to be very labor-intensive to ensure its success.

  8. Interesting article! I had never considered applying open innovation in this way, but I wonder what learnings from UNHCR Ideas could be applied to other distress situations. It’s impossible to consider user input here without acknowledging the incredible emotional burden the users are experiencing: how do you design a digital product that is both effective and empathetic to a crisis situation? How do you prioritize input and information when much of it is dire, critical, and time-sensitive? And practically, how do you ensure your product is meeting users where they are, when they are likely without many basic supplies and possessions?

  9. Thanks for the thought-provoking article. It goes to show how Open Innovation can be leveraged not only as a means to drive firm performance, but also as a vehicle to solve critical human challenges that we as a global community face. I agree that empowering refugee populations by providing them with connectivity and a platform to speak out is crucial, but the implementation must be done in a careful manner. I believe the input system must be anonymized and also provided to other stakeholders such as receiving governments, non-profits, and communities. Furthermore, for those populations particularly at risk (physical safety, environmental safety, etc.), I think the power of OI will be limited – this is where emergency responses can produce better results.

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