5 common themes that emerged from #HIP2015

Conferences. Some say that if you’ve been to one, you’ve been to them all. You know the scene: name-tagged professionals moving from panel to panel, ruminating on really important issues during coffee breaks, and of course, performing the beloved business card swap with promises of keeping in touch. Needless to say, I was more than excited to get to the Humanitarian Innovation Conference (HIP) in Oxford last weekend.

Having been to the first conference last year, I see this event almost like group therapy for professionals working at the nexus of humanitarian affairs and innovation. As a community, we have a lot of problems opportunities, and HIP is that safe space where we get to connect with and learn from one another. 8 cups of coffee, 6 panel sessions, and about 75 conversations later, there were some common themes that I found to pop up everywhere.

Here are five of them.

1. Everyone is obsessed with 3D Printing.

Not just 3D printing, but all of the cool, shiny products that have entered the humanitarian marketplace in recent years. As a sector we seem to still focus on the innovations (product outputs), and not innovation (processes and mechanisms that lead to more sustainable outcomes).

At UNHCR Innovation, we see our role as facilitating the large-scale adoption of innovation as a process within UNHCR. This means that we aim to find ways to ensure that the agency as a whole applies concepts of prototyping and human-centered design in our service delivery to persons of concern.

For innovation to have real, meaningful impact in the humanitarian space, we need to think more about how we keep ourselves agile, responsive, and adaptive to changing contexts. We need to think less about the what, and more about the how: how we develop and implement solutions, and the methodologies we use to devise solutions for persons of concern.

Whether we decide that we’ll use phone calls or SMS to reach refugees rather than creating an elaborate mobile app, innovation is the process that guides that decision, not the app itself.

2. We all really want to collaborate more. We just don’t know how yet.

“How do we break down silos?” is most certainly the question du jour coming out of the humanitarian community at HIP2015. “IKBs” (Innovation Knowledge Bases), “communities of practice”, “network of networks”, and “knowledge exchange” were some of the catchphrases featured prominently in the conference program and numerous coffee-break conversations. The consensus seems to be that we know we need to collaborate and we very much want to; we just haven’t yet  found a way to do it effectively. And, now that the sector is maturing, this is exactly the conversation we need to have.

Innovation thrives when there is an enabling environment comprised of several actors across sectors and industries. For this ecosystem to develop and mature, we need synergies and mechanisms that facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing. What would such mechanisms look like? There is a lot of talk about creating a platform where producers can share their innovations, humanitarians can test and vet them, and funders can invest in them. Exactly how that will materialize remains to be seen.

3. While we intellectually understand the need for collaboration, our inherent competitiveness sometimes gets in the way of doing so.

Let’s face it; we’re all competing for the same pools of funding. And just like the private sector, we naturally get giddy about the idea of being first to market. We want to please our donors and partners, and we want our agency’s brand to be seen as more innovative than the other agency. The temptation to succumb to the flash and glamour associated with having an innovation unit is real (who doesn’t want to featured in Wired magazine for a brand new invention that brings about social good?).

And so, while we know that we have a lot to learn from one another, and we recognize that we’ll actually do better as a sector if we shared knowledge, some of us might still be reluctant to adopt ideas that aren’t “home grown” because we feel a need to protect our ideas. This mindset is what keeps us looking for the next new product to roll out in the field, rather than surveying our counterparts across agencies for existing solutions so that we can avoid duplication.

4. Innovative solutions should come from the ground up.

When we were coming up with a tagline for UNHCR Innovation we settled on “we innovate for and with refugees”. That “with” became really important to us and here’s why. The humanitarian innovation community is not Apple or Google; nor should we strive to be. Our role is not to push solutions through R&D to production and then find a market that could adopt these solutions. Our role is to respond to the pull of the market demands of persons of concern and then innovate for and with them.

There’s a fine line between truly innovating and “innovating for innovation’s sake”.

Asking ourselves the tough questions (do we like this solution because it’s cool, or because it meets users’ needs?), and keeping the communities we serve as part of the entire innovation process will help us to avoid this trap.

5. Organizational culture is going to be a consistent barrier to applying innovative methods to the humanitarian sector.

We all want to innovate, and HIP2015 attendees don’t need convincing as to why it’s important to our work. But there is a real struggle for humanitarian innovators because we are operating within an organizational context that either isn’t innovative, or doesn’t reward innovation. Big, wieldy bureaucracy is the kryptonite of the humanitarian innovation community. Our hands are sometimes tied by the system in which we work, and we ought to divert some of our focus to how we can innovate our own organizational cultures so that they enable, foster, and reward innovation.

This list is by no means exhaustive as there were countless other takeaways – scaling for example was a big one. But what’s reassuring to know is that, as a sector, we are thinking about the same things. And that, above all, was the highlight of #HIP2015. What were some of the common themes you found?


This article was written in my capacity as UN staff. It was first published on innovation.unhcr.org.