What should the UN's 'innovation embassy' look like? Tech community reacts

Lambert Hogenhout, chief of data analytics at the U.N., addresses leaders from the tech and innovation sector at a roundtable discussion in San Francisco. Photo by: Catherine Cheney

The United Nations Office of Information and Communications Technology, or Unite, is planning to open an “innovation embassy” in San Francisco to engage with Silicon Valley, officials have told Devex exclusively.

On several recent trips to the Bay Area, Lambert Hogenhout, chief of data analytics, partnerships, and innovation at the U.N, saw that Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs were increasingly focusing their attention globally, either because they want to have a greater impact, or because they see international markets as essential to their future growth.

He began to explore how the U.N. might build relationships with and between Silicon Valley leaders, to direct their enthusiasm to do business with a purpose in support of the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as to inform the U.N. about the ways emerging technologies will have an impact on their work.

The office of ICT is responsible for defining strategic direction for ICT to the Secretariat, the executive arm of the U.N. led by the secretary-general. Hogenhout, who addressed a roundtable of Silicon Valley leaders last week, is keeping most details on the innovation embassy behind closed doors for now. Devex was the only media organization to attend the invite-only discussion Unite hosted to gather feedback to inform its plans. We walked away with these key takeaways for the U.N. as it looks to engage with and learn from Silicon Valley.

1. Leverage strengths to change systems.

Several of the roundtable participants told Devex they were skeptical when they received an invitation to discuss innovation from an institution more popularly thought to be stuck in its ways. At the event on Oct. 27, the 20 leaders representing organizations ranging from Fair Trade USA to Facebook urged this U.N. innovation embassy to focus on systemic change, rather than any specific technologies.

“We need the U.N. to evolve the systems that produce poverty, inequality, and environmental crises, not try and ‘innovate’ new solutions to help those that suffer from them,” said participant Mark Horoszowski, the founder and CEO of MovingWorlds, which links volunteers to projects where their skills are in demand.

“The U.N. is one of few bodies that can actually put pressure on governments, markets and intergovernmental agencies to help evolve our current system.”

A wide range of agencies across the U.N. have their own innovation initiatives, with one example being the UNICEF Innovation Labs, which brings together the private sector, academia and governments in cities including San Francisco.

This new initiative presents the U.N. with an opportunity to leverage its global reach and political capital to be a matchmaker between needs and technologies. The SDGs would benefit from the creativity and capital of the Bay Area, while tech entrepreneurs could benefit from the U.N.’s expertise in where and how their technologies can reach those in need. The U.N. is in a unique position to approach Silicon Valley companies and say here are the problems no one has solved and these are the gaps you can fill, the group agreed.

2. Think beyond technology. But mind the gap.

From working to spread global connectivity, to investing in areas such as renewable energy, to supporting global entrepreneurs, Silicon Valley businesses increasingly have a global impact that extends beyond technology. Still, there are limits to the role Silicon Valley can play in advancing the SDGs, leaving gaps that global development organizations need to fill.

For example, the new wave of investments in developing countries may not reach the base of the socio-economic pyramid in those markets. Some areas will still require development finance projects, as opposed to, say, venture capital funding.

“Tech type capital products, and the type of returns they are built to deliver, don’t suit all or even many of the development player capital needs,” said Barrett Raftery, who is the executive director of the GivePower Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by SolarCity. He formerly worked on building rural microgrids in developing countries.

Raftery echoed a discussion at the roundtable on the role of aid versus investment for countries transitioning from relief and rebuilding to development. “While leveraging tech is critical, leveraging tech capital can be dangerous.”

Institutions such as the U.N. also play an important role in making sure Silicon Valley companies understand the complexities and constraints of developing country contexts. UNICEF encourages inventions and investments to support the best interest of the end user, in its key principles for innovation and technology in sustainable development.

“How will this embassy avoid becoming what one colleague described as ‘another top-down initiative trying to support bottom-up development?’” asked Brent Dixon, who led the creation of Unite Labs, an experimental “think-and-do-tank” within the U.N. office of ICT.  While he was not at the roundtable discussion, he shared his advice with Devex, emphasizing that communities should play a leading role in its development.

“Both sides of this conversation — formal development institutions like the U.N. and emerging communities like Silicon Valley technologists — will have to learn how to speak a shared language and grow together along the way,” he said. This will require more precise definitions of terms such as innovation and solutions, new ways of thinking and modes of operation, as well as patience from all sides.

3. Identify pain points. Align incentives. Get things done.

Leaders at the roundtable were asked to indicate which of the 17 SDGs were most relevant to their work, and SDG 17 — partnerships for the goals — was by far the most popular choice.

Participants urged the U.N. to do more than just bring people together; the organization should coordinate the collaborations that result from convenings, finding ways to turn ideas into action. In Silicon Valley, that can include everything from running pilots to writing checks to sharing data.

Roundtable participants also wanted to discuss what the U.N. could do to support their efforts. In the field of data, for example, the U.N. could use its convening power and leadership to help establish foundational, open technology standards, said Keith Hiatt, vice president of the human rights program at Benetech, a nonprofit based in Palo Alto.

The U.N. needs to put itself in the position of the organizations it is approaching, said Katherine Lewis, the senior manager of an innovation community at Singularity University, which works with development organization partners including two U.N. agencies — UNICEF and the World Food Program — as part of its mission to leverage exponential technologies to address global challenges. It takes business incentives, from cost efficiency to productivity to risk mitigation, to convince a company to mobilize resources, from capital to in kind to talent, Lewis said.

“You have to think about the pain points of the audience,” she said. “The reasons why these ‘do good’ initiatives sometimes fail in terms of getting resources is because they do not make a clear business case.”

She agreed with advice from the broader group: When the U.N., or any global development organization, gets on the calendar to meet a tech company or an investment firm, they need to align business and social incentives, show up with case studies and objectives, and take an approach that is central to the Silicon Valley culture: get things done.

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About the author

  • Cheney catherine%2520%25281%2529

    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.