This is an interface to explore innovation directions in the United Nations, and raise awareness and increase the use of innovation tools and methods


As innovation practice gains momentum, I turn my attention to the future of innovation as an organizational cultural changer for organizations to achieve better outcomes in terms of their mission.

In the case of United Nations, there are two key challenges to achieve innovation as a common ground inside the system. First, achieving behavioral change. And second, overcoming barriers in the UN structure.

To address these challenges, I present United for Innovation. It is an interface that gives support to people to practice innovation in a deliberate and intentional way. It is an iterative process divided in five phases:

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Developing Understandings
Understanding is the centerpiece of a human-centered design process. The developing understanding mode is the work you do to understand people, within the context of your design challenge. It is your effort to understand the way they do things and why, their physical and emotional needs, how they think about world, and what is meaningful to them..

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Sharing Innovation Experinces
The sharing mode of the design process is all about bringing clarity and focus to the design space. It is the chance, and responsibility, as a design thinker to define the challenge you are taking on, based on what you have learned about your user and about the context. After becoming an instant-expert on the subject and gaining invaluable empathy for the person you are designing for, this stage is about making sense of the widespread information you have gathered.

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Co-creating New Ideas
Co-creating ideas is the mode of the design process in which you concentrate on idea generation. Mentally it represents a process of “going wide” in terms of concepts and outcomes. Co-creating Ideas provides both the fuel and also the source material for building prototypes and getting innovative solutions into the hands of your users.

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The Prototype mode is the iterative generation of artifacts intended to answer questions that get you closer to your final solution. In the early stages of a project that question may be broad – such as “do my users enjoy cooking in a competitive manner?” In these early stages, you should create low-resolution prototypes that are quick and cheap to make (think minutes and cents) but can elicit useful feedback from users and colleagues. In later stages both your prototype and question may get a little more refined.

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The Test mode is when you solicit feedback, about the prototypes you have created, from your users and have another opportunity to gain empathy for the people you are designing for. Testing is another opportunity to understand your user, but unlike your initial empathy mode, you have now likely done more framing of the problem and created prototypes to test. Both these things tend to focus the interaction with users, but don’t reduce your “testing” work to asking whether or not people like your solution. Instead, continue to ask “Why?”, and focus on what you can learn about the person and the problem as well as your potential solutions.

The driving force behind these initiative is to create change by testing and applying new approaches, products and services in a daily basis. The user can post and share their challenges and find partiners to create solution using research desing methods. The variety of methods can be found here. The project aims to bring the relevant actors – including volunteers, students, partners and UN members – together to create a ‘melting pot’ for new ideas and to devise solutions with the end user in mind.


The UN is a highly complex system, made up of several organs containing agencies all mandated with specific functions and aims. The UN was founded upon a structure aimed to serve its member states in promoting international peace and to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems.

In this kind of structure, often decisions are made at the very top levels of management, which is problematic if there is weak leadership and a lack of independence from the political pressure of member states.

To facilitate understanding the complexity of the UN System, the image below illustrates the hierarchical structure of the organization. Coming from the varied offices spread out in five geo-political regions, to the headquarters, and to the five Main Organs.

With a mouse hover, you can follow the flow of the operational hierarchy in each of the three nodes of the System. It is interesting to notice the duty distribution among the entities to see the distance and relevance that keep them apart.

United Nations' Hierarchical Organizational Flow

With a mouse hover, you can follow the operational hierarchy flow in each of the three nodes of the System.
It is interesting to notice the duty distribution among the entities to see the distance and relevance that keep them apart

More than ever before, there is recognition that innovation may serve as a useful way of thinking and operating at the organizational and system level. Given that innovation has served to positively impact the organizational culture of private sector tech giants such as Apple and Google, international organizations are now keen to explore what it may also offer them. Early on in the innovation debate, there was a heavy focus on innovation for organizational improvement. Now there is also increasing interest in using innovation to foster the ideas and solutions from affected communities themselves.


A number of UN agencies seem to be using the term ‘lab’ in the sense of a laboratory of ideas, for the testing of new approaches to development and humanitarian work. There is a fundamental notion that innovation is experimentation, and that spaces are a way of facilitating this experimentation in a ‘safe’ environment that allows ample room for failure - as much as possible within the constraints of time, funding and institutional control, which can certainly be significant hurdles to overcome

There are two different types of innovation, one is top-down innovation that is to improve organizational response and the other is bottom-up, that is to facilitate the innovation activities of traditional beneficiary populations. It has been observed that these two concepts of innovation play out in the practice of UN innovation labs, which employ a range of activities and tools to simultaneously push for ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ innovation.

However, the tools and activities of the labs are not clearly delineated and relevant only to one kind of innovation or the other. Rather, they sit on a spectrum in terms of their relationship to the two concepts, and the two of them naturally interact and influence each other. That said, it is important that innovation lab teams are conscious of the separation between the two, so that the bottom-up, with the ultimate goal of facilitating innovation acctivities change, is not lost amidst the aim of achieving the top-down of organizational change.

To bring to life how the innovation labs are meeting these two concepts, the interactive image below illustrates a number of innovation lab activities on a spectrum between supporting the community directly in their own innovations, and focusing first on organizational change to ultimately better support the community. The graph represents a snapshot of what was found online and perceived by me as one concept or the other. It shows that there is nonetheless some degree of interaction and knowledge-sharing between various UN innovation spaces and agencies, although there is still much room for improvement in this area.

Blue - Bottom-up innovation
Red - Top-down innovation

The models for innovation spaces have developed organically within their various departments, and there is no single UN model or form for innovation spaces. Some agencies are seeking opportunities for streamlining across the UN, a movement that is reflected in the development of the UN Innovation Network, which has only recently been formed.

Many of the labs operate in the UN’s name but actually have a high degree of autonomy, so it is interesting that there are only very few labs that operate to support multiple UN agencies simultaneously. Teams in the various labs communicate with each other, and some of the labs regularly host visitors seeking to learn about their work.

To conclude, at the end of the day, collaboration and knowledge-sharing is a crucial element of open innovation.


This Project Follows the Principles of Innovation

1.  Design with the User

  • Develop context appropriate solutions informed by user needs.
  • Include all user groups in planning, development, implementation and assessment.
  • Develop projects in an incremental and iterative manner.
  • Design solutions that learn from and enhance existing workflows and plan for organizational adaptation.
  • Ensure solutions are sensitive to, and useful for, the most marginalized populations: women, children, those with disabilities, and those affected by conflict and disaster.

2. Understand the Existing Ecosystem

  • Participate in networks and communities of like-minded practitioners.
  • Align to existing technological, legal, and regulatory policies.

3. Design for Scale

  • Design for scale from the start, and assess and mitigate dependencies that might limit ability to scale.
  • Employ a “systems” approach to design, considering implications of design beyond an immediate project.
  • Be replicable and customizable in other countries and contexts.
  • Demonstrate impact before scaling a solution.
  • Analyze all technology choices through the lens of national and regional scale.
  • Factor in partnerships from the beginning and start early negotiations.

4. Build for Sustainability

  • Plan for sustainability from the start, including planning for long-term financial health i.e., assessing total cost of ownership.
  • Utilize and invest in local communities and developers by default and help catalyze their growth.
  • Engage with local governments to ensure integration into national strategy and identify high-level government advocates.

5. Be Data Driven

  • Design projects so that impact can be measured at discrete milestones with a focus on outcomes rather than outputs.
  • Evaluate innovative solutions and areas where there are gaps in data and evidence.
  • Use real-time information to monitor and inform management decisions at all levels.
  • When possible, leverage data as a by-product of user actions and transactions for assessments.

6. Use Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source, and Open Innovation

  • Adopt and expand existing open standards.
  • Open data and functionalities and expose them in documented APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) where use by a larger community is possible.
  • Invest in software as a public good.
  • Develop software to be open source by default with the code made available in public repositories and supported through developer communities.

7. Reuse and Improve

  • Use, modify and extend existing tools, platforms, and frameworks when possible.
  • Develop in modular ways favoring approaches that are interoperable over those that are monolithic by design.

8. Do no harm

  • Assess and mitigate risks to the security of users and their data.
  • Consider the context and needs for privacy of personally identifiable information when designing solutions and mitigate accordingly.
  • Ensure equity and fairness in co-creation, and protect the best interests of the end end-users.

9. Be Collaborative

  • Engage diverse expertise across disciplines and industries at all stages.
  • Work across sector silos to create coordinated and more holistic approaches.
  • Document work, results, processes and best practices and share them widely.
  • Publish materials under a Creative Commons license by default, with strong rationale if another licensing approach is taken.

Created by

Marcio Oliver

MSc Candidate - Strategic Design and Management | Parsons

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