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The United Nations’ Innovation Learning Journey

A growing body of success stories are contributing to continuous organizational learning

“Without innovation, we cannot meet the challenges of our time. […] We must learn not only new things, but how to learn. We need to share ideas, push boundaries and move faster. And we must harness the opportunities brought by digital technologies. Innovation across the United Nations system is essential for us to deliver at the scale and pace needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.”—United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, 2019.

From displacement and poverty to illness and environmental degradation, the urgent challenges facing the world today call for innovative approaches that combine an entrepreneurial spirit with a clear understanding of the problems and a firm footing in communities. While local organizations and the public sector are vital in tackling these overlapping crises, an often under-discussed arena of innovation is the role of the United Nations (UN) and its related agencies—the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and so on. In all, the entire UN system employs close to 120,000 people across 193 countries and deploys an annual budget of more than $3 billion.

The UN organizations are tasked with solving the world’s global problems, but often the very rules that keep these organizations accountable stifle potential to increase speed and efficiency in service delivery. Founded 75 years ago, these organizations were not designed to innovate. While certain initiatives, such as the WFP’s hydroponics initiative H2Grow, UNICEF’s digital platform U-Report, and UNFPA’s GRID3 geospatial data project have been able to scale globally, the road from idea to scale is often long and rocky. Even successful projects face institutional roadblocks when bureaucratic processes hinder experimentation. Idea champions within the UN tell rich stories about the barriers to identifying, scaling, and implementing innovation. Funding models and strict accountability processes imply that resources cannot be spent on an experiment with potential to fail—which is an inherent risk of innovation. Tight budget lines lead to strict team mandates where pressure is high, over-work is rife and time for creativity is low. Hierarchical structures and strict reporting lines mean that some voices remain unheard.

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