UNICEF: Open innovation to tackle humanitarian crises

Open innovation is drastically changing the way the humanitarian sector delivers aid: UNICEF leads the way.

While UN organizations have long been criticized for its bureaucracy, risk-aversion, and relatively slow adoption of technology, UNICEF has been paving the way for social innovation. It has transformed its strategy to embrace open innovation, and to establish strong partnerships across the public, private, and non-profit sectors. These changes have in turn led to faster and wider-scale deployment of its relief efforts to children around the world.

Impetus for novel approaches to humanitarian aid

Over the past decade, the humanitarian sector has come to adopt innovation from the private sector for process improvement as well as product innovation. Innovative approaches to humanitarian aid have become increasingly important as the cost of international humanitarian aid has risen more than three-fold over the past decade, and victims of humanitarian crises have nearly doubled [1]. Agility, speed, and scale are vital to tackle global problems such as climate change, disease outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika, persistent poverty, and refugee crises unfolding across the world.

Moreover, the environment in which humanitarian crises unfold has shifted from rural to urban and from short to longer time frames [2]. With these changes, connectivity and access to information have become critical tools both for UNICEF as well as for crisis-affected populations [3].  In the face of these challenges, various social innovations have been developed to enable humanitarian aid to be deployed more effectively and efficiently.

Innovation at UNICEF

UNICEF launched its Office of Innovation in 2006 as an interdisciplinary, open innovation platform responsible for sourcing, prototyping, and scaling technologies that will enhance UNICEF’s aid efforts. Importantly, UNICEF has also made innovation a part of their organizational strategy [4]. At the Innovation Unit within their Supply Division, this culture of innovation has transformed the way UNICEF’s supply chain is overcoming logistical constraints, reducing supplier lead times, and designing new products [5].

Key to this endeavor has been the partnerships that UNICEF has formed with the private sector, academia, civil society, and government. For example, during the Zika outbreak in 2016, UNICEF Brazil partnered with Facebook in order to identify at-risk communities based on anonymized data of Facebook posts regarding the disease. As a result, UNICEF was able to design a highly targeted campaign to provide useful information about Zika for vulnerable communities. This campaign was a major success, as survey results showed that 82% of those whom UNICEF reached out to took preventative action [6].

In 2015, the UNICEF Innovation Fund was created to fund early stage start-ups with open-source technology. The Fund has raised nearly $14.4 million so far, with three key portfolio areas: products for youth, real-time information, and infrastructure [7]. As a result of this open innovation platform, UNICEF has developed innovations such as mobile birth registration in Nigeria and drone transportation of blood samples for early infant HIV diagnosis in Malawi [8]. In the short and medium term, UNICEF will continue to invest in the Innovation Fund. In particular, it aims to strengthen innovation leveraging block-chain, fintech, wearables, 3D-printing, and other groundbreaking technologies [9].

Going forward

In the short term, UNICEF needs to establish a set of operational norms and guidelines in order to guarantee that they ‘Do no harm’, which they identify as a key principle. Innovation necessitates experimentation. However, UNICEF works with the most vulnerable children around the world, who should not be seen as a fertile testing ground for innovation. This risk of exploitation is further heightened as data is central to all of the frontier technologies, and yet children have limited control over their personal data.

Moreover, UNICEF should design a systematic open-innovation process that meets context-specific needs. While open innovation is an effective channel for ideation, implementation of these ideas is highly challenging given the volatile environments within which UNICEF operates. Therefore, UNICEF needs to ensure that deep local expertise is constantly fed into the innovation process in order to maximize impact and minimize unintended consequences.

In the medium term, UNICEF should develop a repository of data and key learnings that are also open to the public. Due to its scale and geographical reach, UNICEF is in a unique position to become a hub for social innovation across the world. Building a database and codification of past learnings not only helps to diffuse the technology and further spur other innovation, but also ensures that UNICEF remains transparent and accountable. UNICEF can also benefit from building a “collaborative community” of innovators that share and build on this cumulative knowledge, and are driven by motivations to be part of a greater societal cause [10].

As UNICEF invests more in open innovation, they become more susceptible to external interests that do not share the same moral imperative. Can this moral imperative be sustained as UNICEF continues to expand open-innovation? If so, how?

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[1] Alexander Betts and Louise Bloom, “Humanitarian Innovation: The State of the Art”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Occasional Policy Paper, November 2014, pp.6

[2] Alexander Betts and Louise Bloom, “Humanitarian Innovation: The State of the Art”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Occasional Policy Paper, November 2014, pp.6

[3] Alexander Betts and Louise Bloom, “Humanitarian Innovation: The State of the Art”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Occasional Policy Paper, November 2014, pp.6

[4] Louise Bloom and Romily Faulkner, “Innovation Spaces: Lessons from the United Nations”, Third World Quarterly, Vol.37, No.8, (2016):1371-1387, via Hollis, Accessed November 2018

[5] Jarrod Goentzel, “Supply Chain Innovation Critical in Ebola Response”, Supply Chain Management Review, (Jan/Feb 2015): 6-7

[6] Erica Koichi, “How innovation in data generation can contribute to social good”, unicefstories, December 10, 2016. http://unicefstories.org/2016/12/10/how-innovation-in-data-generation-can-contribute-to-social-good/ Accessed November 2018

[7] UNICEF, “UNICEF Innovation Fund”, https://unicefinnovationfund.org/#/about, Accessed November 2018

[8] UNICEF, “Innovation at UNICEF”, https://www.unicef.org/innovation/innovation_73197.html, Accessed November 2018

[9] UNICEF, “UNICEF Innovation About Us”, http://unicefstories.org/about/, Accessed November 2018

[10] Kevin J. Boudreau and Karim R. Lakhani, “How to Manage Outside Innovation”, MIT Sloan Management Review, Vol.50, No.4, (Summer 2009):69-76, via ProQuest, Accessed November 2018

(Photo Credit to UNICEF)


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Student comments on UNICEF: Open innovation to tackle humanitarian crises

  1. UNICEF is a compelling example of how open innovation – often used by the private sector to encourage greater innovation – can be employed in a humanitarian context. As the article points out, there are risks to applying open innovation to an emergency context where you’re dealing with highly vulnerable populations. However, open innovation can achieve real impact in these communities by helping humanitarian organizations to improve their supply chains, make technology solutions more affordable as well as available, and create new solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Open innovation gives humanitarian organizations access to external knowledge and skills that they might not otherwise obtain. Together, external and internal resources can collaborate in ways that benefit communities. One way to improve open innovation at humanitarian organizations like UNICEF might be to make sure that beneficiaries are represented in the process. For example, if UNICEF were to launch a contest to solve a particular challenge, they might want to include a beneficiary into the design briefing process and ask for their thoughts on how success should be defined. Often, we rely on technology and platforms when sourcing ideas in open innovation. Another approach that might be effective is to go into communities and hold workshops to source ideas. That way, their voices are heard and needs outlined clearly to agencies trying to intervene. Without finding offline ways to engage people, humanitarian organizations risk leaving the unconnected out of the open innovation process. The line between “risk” and “experimentation” is one that organizations like UNICEF will have to keep in mind as they move forward with open innovation; however, there seem to be a number of compelling proposals as outlined in the article about how to mitigate risk and obtain the benefits that open innovation has to offer in this context.

  2. Thank you for this article – really important that we shine a light on efforts like this from non-profits like UNICEF. Wanted to address your recommendation for UNICEF to invest in a repository of data and key learnings, and keep it open to the public. While I agree that this could be a great way to connect with likeminded organizations and even some benefactors, I worry that it too could cross the line towards exploitative towards vulnerable communities and children. As you said, UNICEF will have to be extremely careful and measured as it evolves this platform in the future.

  3. Thanks for sharing! Open Innovation seems like exactly the right way for UNICEF to expand the top of their funnel for new ideas and projects – by sourcing ideas from a passionate community of global citizens, they are best placed to generate a wealth of concepts to drive impact around the world. As you point out, though, the key will be in understanding how UNICEF can best harness this data, and I’m curious what role AI and Machine Learning may have in better understanding suggestions that are submitted. As you note, UNICEF is well-positioned to develop a repository of data and key learnings to inspire the public and share best practices. Can UNICEF also utilize this data to better understand which suggestions will have the greatest impact on society? Given their extensive history and success with rolling out these products, UNICEF may consider coupling Open Innovation with AI and Machine Learning to tackle the entirety of the funnel – and not just the top.

  4. Very interesting! In addition to many of your insightful cautions, UNICEF also is working with limited time and resources in times of crises, which can exacerbate problems of rushing to link with organizations that do not share the same underlying moral imperative. As we have seen in some of our cases, they can be unintended consequences of well-intentioned decisions. As UNICEF opens itself up to collaborate with other organizations, startups and leverage emerging technologies, I agree that they should be thoughtful about the long-term consequences. These new technologies hold a lot of promise, but without a strong connection with the population they serve and close monitoring by outside parties, there could be unintended harm.

  5. I am really glad to see an example of open innovation in the development and humanitarian sector – most examples have focused on the tech industry, so this perspective is quite refreshing. I completely agree with your concerns regarding UNICEF’s mandate/goals moving forward. In addition, I have two concerns:
    -First, what is the right balance of depending on data vs. being on the ground, from UNICEF’s perspective? By focusing on sources such as Facebook and other networking/social platforms, will UNICEF get complacent in its strategies and neglect some of its more hands-on initiatives across various global communities? This is something that UNICEF should absolutely consider as it determines the best course of action for all new problems/areas of focus.
    -Second, I worry about telling communities that UNICEF will crowdsource ideas from them without actually showing those communities that further implementation will also happen on some of their ideas. In the city of Boston, an “open innovation” system was set up for individuals to reach out to the Mayor’s office with ideas for how to improve the city, where to put in new technologies, etc. However, it was unclear whether many of the suggestions by the community were acted upon/even discussed. In order to maintain its credibility and good standing, UNICEF will need to assure global community members that it will use their inputs.

  6. Thanks for sharing this! It is extremely interesting to learn more about UNICEF’s use of open innovation and how it is driving their development of technology and impact. As you noted, there are some key risks such as exploitation that I worry about. While I love the idea of being able to share data and key learnings to generate more ideas, I wonder if at this point the data sharing would be “dangerous” to the volatile communities served by UNICEF because of the sensitive information collected. While I would hope the people using this information are well intentioned, I do worry about companies using the data for exploitative reasons. I wonder if there is some way to monitor the use of the data to keep track of its uses and over time expand the repository if it is driving positive change.

    Additionally, as mentioned in the above comments, as this practice of open innovation grows at UNICEF, I hope they continue to include local voices in the conversations to ensure that they are capturing opinions and suggestions of experts and people who are on the ground of the populations they are servicing. By including local experts in the conversation they will have deep know how which can only advance the conversations and implementation of ideas.

  7. A very interesting aspect of how open innovation can better our world! I think Unicef’s use of open innovation is quite key especially as you consider the sensitivity and lack of time in the issues being handled. One concern I have is the reliance on social media as an effective way to trace the impacted areas – especially with the risk of cyber security. Also, will this type of strategy work in the more remote areas in which Unicef currently operates – where there is little to no connectivity? Although this is a novel way of obtaining data more quickly, I feel it is important for Unicef to also stay strong in the their other manners of retrieving data on the ground.

  8. Thank you for sharing – wonderful to see how open innovation can be used for social impact! I think the point of innovation requiring experimentation is particularly poignant here – how do we wrestle with the fact that the communities UNICEF’s serves are particularly vulnerable? Can we really rely on social media given cybersecurity concerns and the potential amount of “noise” in the data? Are we overlooking certain communities in need that may be more closed to the digital world? As you pointed out, I think a marriage of human expertise / boots on the ground and open innovation/technology will be key to ensuring vulnerable communities are not exploited.

  9. I would argue that open innovation could be use to foster new ideas but I am not sure it is the best approach in the humanitarian crisis situation. In those situations, quick decision needs to be made and also a lot of times, the decision is at high stake, it is either no feasible or dangerous to have tested all the solutions before implemented the final ones. However, if there are two systems within one organization, there might inevitably be culture conflicts.

  10. A very thought provoking article – thank you! Regarding your question, I think UNICEF will need to develop and maintain a strong capability to evaluate which proposals will have the greatest positive impact and have very strict criteria by which they enter into partnerships. It sounds like they already have these capabilities institutionalized in their Innovation Unit, but nevertheless, it’s critical that they continue to stay the course. It’s also important that they maintain the ability to reject proposals if they do not meet their high standards. One of the best ways to protect against third party interests, as discussed in the comments above, is to include several community members and local advocates who are invested in the cause to also serve as key decision makers.

  11. Really interesting article! It sounds like UNICEF’s Innovation Fund might benefit from focusing on startups/organizations who are trying to get Internet-connected technology into the hands of those who currently do not have it; both for the social good of what Internet access can provide to those who do not have it, but also for the opportunity to then collected anonymized data from these populations to better inform their operations (as in the case with Zika). I believe there are roughly 3 billion people on the planet (many in poor, rural areas) who do not have access to Internet, so chipping away at that issue could be a good investment for the long-term.

  12. Great posting! I wonder whether there are opportunities for best-practice sharing among other humanitarian and development-focused organizations similar to UNICEF who are engaging in open innovation – for example, and as others have noted, mistakes may be outsized given the vulnerable population UNICEF serves. If other organizations have found ways to source partnerships and ‘experiment’ with innovation in safe ways, UNICEF might stand to benefit.

  13. This is a very interesting concept and it shows how open innovation and partnerships need to be carefully managed! To your point, these are communities and people in need you are dealing with therefore you have to make sure your partners aren’t looking to do harm to your community of interest. To do this, its important to really be critical on the 1) what value/expertise are they bringing to the table? and 2) how will you measure positive impact? they will be helping in this partnership. In Facebook’s case, given its interconnectedness it was really able to add value in a way that didn’t require potential additional investment for them but they were able to get preventive action by their communities of interest. So when you think of partners and how they will support, think about their unique advantages and if they are Day 1 ready to help with the situation at hand, or if they need to experiment which is were you may potentially end up doing more harm than good. Great topic!

  14. Thanks for the article. It is really great to see that open innovation can be extremely helpful for a great variety of organizations – also for non-profits. Other comments have already pointed out many thoughts regarding how open innovation impacts communities and also about the trade-off between the trade-off that UNICEF faces in working with other organizations.

    On another note, I wanted to question UNICEF’s long-term commitment with Open Innovation. UNICEF has a total budget of more than $17 billion dollars for the 2014-2017 period [1]. However, according to the article, they have only invested $14.4 million in its Innovation Fund. Is Open Innovation only a marketing tool for UNICEF? Are they planning to scale it at all?

    [1] UNICEF. “UNICEF Integrated Budget, 2014-2017”. September 3, 2013. https://www.unicef.org/about/execboard/files/2013-ABL4-UNICEF_integrated_budget-11Jul2013.pdf, accessed November 15, 2018.

  15. Fantastic article. I had not realized that UNICEF Innovation Fund raised over $14 million to fund early-stage start-ups with open-sourced technology. This is a great example of a leveraging innovative process design to create social value and make a positive impact. I will be sure to follow the fund’s performance to see how its short-term focus of strengthening innovation leveraging block-chain, fintech, wearables, 3D-printing, and other groundbreaking technologies play out. That said, it is quite controversial, as you pointed out, that a global philanthropic organization that is working with the most vulnerable children around the world is inherently using these children as a fertile testing ground for innovation. I totally agree with your assessment that this risk of exploitation is further heightened as data is central to all of the frontier technologies, and yet children have limited control over their personal data.

  16. This is incredibly interesting to think about- I feel like so many people come to HBS to work on projects like these: crossing social enterprise with business and technology. I wonder if there are ways to simulate testing in these cases that do not directly involve vulnerable populations- but if this testing a necessary evil that can be countered with so much good, I feel like risks can be far more good than bad. Or maybe the testing should be done in cases where there is another alternative already in play to be more safe. I think even though companies that partner with UNICEF may not share the same moral imperative that UNICEF does, companies now are aiming more than ever to differentiate themselves with social initiatives. Therefore, it is a good time for UNICEF to partner with companies. Excited to see the results of these partnerships!

  17. Really interesting article, thank you for sharing. You mentioned in the article that the implementation of ideas is extremely challenging for UNICEF given the environments in which the organization operations. Something that occurred me while reading this is: could UNICEF use crowd sourced ideas to innovate on their implementation and execution processes as well? I do think these ideas would need to come from individuals with deep local expertise, but I think that could also be a really interesting way to engage different communities. Has UNICEF tried anything like this?

    With regards to UNICEF’s investment in open innovation making them more susceptible to external interests – I’m not sure I agree. They are under no financial obligation to act on the ideas they crowd source, right?

    Lastly, an interesting note – the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has also been a public advocate of open source: https://www.gatesfoundation.org/How-We-Work/General-Information/Open-Access-Policy

  18. I think the not-for-profit sector provides the perfect conditions to employ open innovation. Typically, the tradeoff an organization faces when thinking about open innovation is economic control vs. speed. In closed innovation, you maintain complete economic control over the IP created, but are limited by your external resources. In open innovation, you are able to harness collective resources, but tradeoff economic control. In the not-for-profit sector, economic control is not an imperative. Rather, bringing the most effective solution to the market as quickly as possible is the only imperative – a condition under which open innovation makes the most sense.

    In terms of the influence of external interests: I don’t believe that by employing open innovation you create any obligation to those that are involved in your process. However, this could become an issue if you solely come to rely on a few parties who drive all your incremental innovation. I think maintaining your own innovation engine is important, in that sense, for maintaining true independence.

  19. Fantastic article! Astonished to realize “as a result of this open innovation platform, UNICEF has developed innovations such as mobile birth registration in Nigeria and drone transportation of blood samples for early infant HIV diagnosis in Malawi”. Very important to understand how the impact of open innovation is bringing transforming and revolutionary positive impacts in the world.
    As for the question of the article, I do agree that UNICEF becomes more susceptible to external interests that do not share the same moral imperative. However, I do not see this impact as negative. I would say that being susceptible is their manner to leverage their impact, and actually be able to follow and have a thermometer to see what is the populations matureness in the process, and how is the behavior in the world/population impacting what UNICEF stands for. It is a perfect mechanism to understand the real impacts if they are in the right track. Although hard to implement all initiatives, it is extremely important to keep track of ideas (and if possible, implement some of those), and also know what is the population thinking about.

  20. In my opinion open innovation can be really helpful in the context of humanitarian causes because it creates an alternative for people to engage and it can attract people that otherwise would not get involved. I cannot think of a better area in which a collaborative approach can make a real difference, especially because under normal conditions the access to diverse perspectives and resources is very limited in this field. The one thing that I think is important (in line with one of the prior comments) is that beneficiaries need to be represented in the process because sometimes things that external parties may consider feasible may not be actionable in practice.

  21. Great article! I was particularly intrigued by your first recommendation, as I agree that Unicef should establish norms and guidelines to guarantee that they ‘Do no harm’. As you mention, data is fundamental in many of the innovations discussed in this essay, e.g., the Facebook data used for Zika in Brazil. Therefore I wonder how privacy legislation such as GDPR will change the effectiveness of open innovation at Unicef in the future

  22. Thank you for sharing KRiver! Like many of the commenters, I found this article extremely thoughtful with careful considerations on the pros and cons of open-innovation. Reading this article, I was curious about the selection process UNICEF undertakes to pursue these projects. Presumably they are working with a limited budget and face financial constraints as to how many projects they can select. How do they weigh short-term (quick win) projects versus long-term projects (e.g. blockchain)? I would imagine that some of the most impactful projects are also some of the costliest projects, with a lot of associated risk. Another question that came mind (that I also read in one of the comments) is how does UNICEF go about driving awareness to this open-innovation fund and soliciting project submissions on their platform. I could easily envision an “International Day of Civic Hacking” or “Hack for Good” campaigns that could raise the number of ideas submitted to the open-innovation platform. This is a great read for those of us who are looking for examples on how technology can create impact for government and non-profit organizations!

  23. Thanks for writing about this topic. In order for UNICEF to do no harm while partnering with external organizations, they will need to set clear guidelines on the nature of these partnerships. These partnerships should center on providing UNICEF with inputs they would not otherwise have — Facebook’s anonymized Zika data is a great example. What UNICEF does with these inputs should solely be in UNICEF’s control. This is where UNICEF can set rigid boundaries such as not experimenting with at-risk constituents.

    On another note, I am a bit weary of providing a repository of data to the public. If this data can be anonymized like Facebook’s Zika scenario, then UNICEF can effectively balance both open innovation and privacy. What is complicated is everyone has their own tolerance of privacy, so UNICEF may experience backlash from some constituents.

  24. It appears that wherever there is innovation, ethics needs to be thought of carefully. In many instances, the need to experiment will require careful consideration of guardrails to ensure ethical conduct.
    I believe UNICEF stands to gain a lot from open innovation, and their “office of innovation”, which has been established 12 years ago is best positioned to consider the ethics implications of all innovation ideas.

  25. KRiver, thank you for the wonderful article on the use of open innovation at UNICEF. It is great to see an example of this as it applies to non-profits, especially in the humanitarian sector. As I read your piece, the big question that came to my mind was access and whether an open innovation platform is reaching the most vulnerable and affected populations. I agree that this is a tremendous step forward in the direction of open collaboration and the sharing of ideas and key learnings. I certainly believe this will foster a community of more conversation and engagement in UNICEF’s projects. However, I wonder how the local voice is being heard given that the majority of these populations do not have reliable access to the internet. As others have mentioned above, this is a great movement and I would recommend that the next step be in the direction of creating access for these local, inflicted populations.

  26. Really interesting stuff. My biggest concern is what are the institutions and organizations withing the UN architecture that ensure the best ideas from these open innovation sources that eventually decide what is put into place. As an organization with so many different stakeholders and often competing objectives, and essentially huge amounts of information and priorities, what are the structures in place to bring these ideas forward and make sure that all relevant ideas are given their fair share.

  27. Thanks for sharing KRiver – very interesting read!

    I agree with Jake Meiner that open innovation seems a great way to expand the top of their funnel for new ideas and projects. I share his concern around how this then drills down to concrete projects. I do not, however, think that AI would solve this problem for us. I feel UNICEF, while having great intentions, lacks a clear overall innovation strategy. You write they want to prioritize “products for youth, real-time information, and infrastructure” and they want to do so by using “block-chain, fintech, wearables, 3D-printing, and other groundbreaking technologies”. It feels way too broad. Especially given the very small size of the Fund as compared to their overall budget (see Josep Mele’s comment). Without more focus, this Innovation Fund will remain a marketing tool with a bunch of buzzwords that hits on a nice project only once in a while (such as the one for Zika with facebook). I sincerely hope they get there soon, as I truly care about UNICEF’s overall mission.

    Happy to continue this discussion!

  28. Very interesting article on the application of open innovation for creating more ideas to provide support with. One concept I struggled with was why Facebook was chosen as a proxy to potential outbreaks. I had read a couple of years back that studies had been done using Google data and CDC information on when certain searches for symptoms and diseases had been done versus when outbreaks occurred. I had also heard CNN mention Twitter as having the same predictive potential being able to predict outbreaks even 6 weeks in advance. This is less helpful if we consider that most communities in the countries that would be turning to the UN for help might not be using Twitter, Google or Facebook on a daily basis, if at all. What options do you think are worth exploring to deepen this well of data? Would pushing for digitization in developing countries for this purpose be ethical?

  29. This is super interesting. I am really excited by the innovation fund, however, I do wonder if UNICEF actively inviting innovation might cause some people in government to think, “Ahh, we don’t need to keep investing in UNICEF because they’re using their spare money to invest in startups.” While I don’t have this problem, I suspect that initiatives like this could get certain nationalist-leaning parties up in arms. I personally hope they find lots of great initiatives though to prove any skeptics wrong.

  30. Very interesting article! To answer your last question, I absolutely do think it’s possible for UNICEF to sustain its moral imperative. In fact, I think it’s critical that the organization do so. It’s great to see open innovation bring revolutionary and innovative products to the market, but because UNICEF is such a high-profile organization, it needs to make sure it has mechanisms in place to prevent abuse. Any negative will have immense consequences on the organization going forward, and might endanger it’s funding and ongoing existence, something which would negatively affect populations around the world that rely on UNICEF for support.

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