How UNFPA is responding to the call to innovate

Innovating for development means facing the challenge to respond well to crises, projects and programs. Photo by: Daniel Foster / CC BY-NC-SA

The concept of “innovation” is increasingly embedded in the global development discourse.

Today, as governments around the world craft the sustainable development goals and targets for the post-2015 development agenda, development has much to benefit from the radical disruption and new insight that innovation can offer.

Since the U.N. Population Fund started working in 1969, the number — and rate — of women dying from complications of pregnancy or childbirth have been halved. Families are smaller and healthier. Young people are more connected and empowered than ever before.

But too many are still left behind. Nearly a billion people still live in extreme poverty. Sexual and reproductive health issues are a leading cause of death and disability for women in developing countries. And more than 100 million girls face the prospect of child marriage and other harmful practices.

It is clear that we must act much more efficiently and effectively to deliver a world in which all individuals can exercise their basic human rights, including those that relate to the most intimate and fundamental aspects of life. Innovation is key for this.

UNFPA has a long history of seeking innovative and cutting-edge approaches in its delivery. As the latest step in this journey, in September 2014, we created a new innovation fund to bring together many of our innovative initiatives under a common approach.

For UNFPA, promoting innovation offers an opportunity for experimentation and creativity, and for testing new ideas and approaches through innovation projects, while also taking into account good practices across the organization. To realize this vision, UNFPA follows a two-pronged approach to innovation: testing innovation projects globally, while also promoting a culture of innovation internally.

We source ideas through regular calls for proposals from staff around the world to launch innovative projects. Currently, we are testing innovative projects in more than 20 countries that range from harnessing big data for development; developing mobile apps with young people to improve their access to sexual and reproductive health; and exploring innovative financing mechanisms.

We also recognize that, for innovation to thrive, we must create safe spaces for experimentation throughout the organization; we must instil in staff at all levels an understanding of the benefits of innovation; that acknowledgement of “failing fast” can reduce sustained losses; and that we must make a long-term commitment to change.

In one initiative, we invite teams around the world to host “innovation days,” where colleagues can come together in a different venue, using methodologies drawn from design thinking and creative problem solving, to brainstorm opportunities and challenges that could benefit from innovation.

Facing the challenges of innovation

For innovation to thrive, and to scale up new ideas in processes and programs, large organizations, such as UNFPA, must address a number of challenges.

Innovation requires flexibility and calculated risk taking. Innovation for development calls for unusual or unique partnerships, bringing the right people together in the right spaces with the flexibility to experiment.

Yet achieving such flexibility is not easy and success is not guaranteed. Organizations, partners and donors alike must be prepared to take these calculated risks.

Slow bureaucratic processes, traditional financial regulations and detailed reporting requirements can suffocate innovation in its nascent stages. To promote innovation, organizations must agree upon the degree of risk they are comfortable investing in, and view such risks as small-scale investments that have the potential to yield high-impact results. While individual pilots have high rates of potential failure, the overall impact of an innovation initiative may yield unprecedented successes.

Innovation initiatives may change course over time. Innovation is an iterative and ever-changing process. It is difficult in the early stages of an innovation program to know what later stages will look like, which can make it challenging to cultivate buy-in. Setting up a “learning-while-doing” approach, and embracing the need for continual review and reassessment, is a powerful mechanism to ensure that innovation programs have embedded within them the necessary fluidity to allow for adaptability and change over time.

Innovation is not an end in itself, but rather a tool with which we can address and solve problems. Its allure — its promise to radically improve outcomes at lower cost and with the potential for scale across settings and sectors — is powerful. Innovation programs must, therefore, continuously ground themselves in collective and creative brainstorming processes, and remain closely connected with the challenges at hand, to ensure that they will address real need.

The road ahead

The call to innovate is more than just an exciting opportunity; it is an imperative for global organizations to continuously strive to deliver the best responses to the challenges at hand, and to remain adaptable, agile and responsive in a rapidly changing world.

Yet, innovation does not mean throwing out best practices and tested programming. Rather, it is a call for courageousness, for reflecting on our work and recognizing where new approaches may be necessary, and for taking reasonable risks to bring about change.

Only time will tell the true impact of the innovation movement on global development. Yet, we continue to see its potential to galvanize interest and enthusiasm among staff. And we recognize the tremendous opportunity to use innovation as a mechanism to ensure that organizations are able to respond flexibly, creatively and quickly in order to deliver meaningful results.

Amid the challenges of thinking “outside the box” and taking risks, we continue to learn how to harness the power of innovation to stay at the forefront of a rapidly changing world.

You can help shape our coverage on global development innovations by emailing or tweeting #innov8aid.

About the author

  • Bruce Campbell

    Bruce Campbell is the global coordinator of UNFPA’s Data for Development platform and sponsor of UNFPA’s innovation initiative. UNFPA is the lead United Nations agency for delivering a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.