It's time for innovation to become the UN's new normal
Four years on from committing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the world has seen slow progress and even some reversals. We at the United Nations have an important role to play in helping countries get back on track and to accelerate towards the Goals. To do this, the UN – as a whole system – will need to support its partners to develop and scale-up workable solutions to very complex problems. Innovation is a methodology that we can and must use as part of our everyday work if we want to play this role effectively.
Turning islands of innovation into a system that innovates everyday
Within the UN, innovation is typically led by relatively small units made up of dedicated people who are definitely making a difference. For example, some UN Agencies now use payment cards rather than distributing food aid to refugees, migrants or displaced people, eliminating the danger of destroying local markets.
Meanwhile, other Agencies are making progress in the sexual and reproductive health of youth and adolescents by collaborating with crowdsourcing platforms to generate and fund plans of action with a real chance of success.
Embracing technology like this is important, but innovation is not just about crowdsourcing, AI and robotics. For example, over a year ago, Greta Thunberg sat alone with her poster in front of the Swedish parliament, asking for bolder efforts to address climate change, sparking a global movement. Meanwhile, a UN Agency developed its own Nongovernmental Organizations Innovation Award to honor innovative achievements, accomplished specifically for refugees as part of an effort to design for the end user through collaboration and accessibility.
But, these islands of innovation are not enough. We need to become a system that innovates as part of our everyday work because new solutions need to be scaled and sustained if we want to make the kind of difference that will see our partner countries reach the SDGs.
First system-wide UN Innovation Toolkit
By making innovation the new normal across the entire UN System, we can build a vibrant ecosystem of UN organizations that more actively see each other as innovation partners and collectively is more open to non-UN partners – including civil society, the private and public sectors. innovation is also a way to embody the spirit of SDG17: Sustainable development through global partnerships, by being less focused on our own solutions, but rather adapting as we seek to help countries and communities where they are.
To help the organization get there, the Secretary-General, the UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination and the UN Innovation Network have devised the first UN-wide Innovation Toolkit, based on global best practices and tailored to the UN’s specific needs. Hosted by the UN System Staff College, this new resource has benefited from extensive staff input with more than 120 people from 36 UN Entities invited to test the Toolkit.
We can help end poverty for millions of people and meet the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, but only if we start – as a whole UN system – to do things differently now. That’s why I am excited to see this important Toolkit become available soon to everyone working across the system no matter their role or where they are. This new resource will help guide them and their organization to solve a host of internal, external, actual and impending challenges. And, ultimately, will take us many steps closer to making innovation the new normal at the UN.
Jens Wandel is Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on Reforms. You can follow him on Twitter.