Chris Earney & Aarathi Krishnan at SSIR: “Contrary to popular belief, innovation isn’t new to the humanitarian sector. Organizations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent have a long history of innovating in communities around the world. Humanitarians have worked both on a global scale—for example, to innovate financing and develop the Humanitarian Code of Conduct—and on a local level—to reduce urban fire risks in informal settlements in Kenya, for instance, and improve waste management to reduce flood risks in Indonesia.
Even in its more-bureaucratic image more than 50 years ago, the United Nations commissioned a report to better understand the role that innovation, science, and technology could play in advancing human rights and development. Titled the “Sussex Manifesto,” the report outlined how to reshape and reorganize the role of innovation and technology so that it was more relevant, equitable, and accessible to the humanitarian and development sectors. Although those who commissioned the manifesto ultimately deemed it too ambitious for its era, the effort nevertheless reflects the UN’s longstanding interest in understanding how far-reaching ideas can elicit fundamental and needed progress. It challenged the humanitarian system to be explicit about its values and understand how those values could lead to radical actions for the betterment of humanity.
Since then, 27 UN organizations have formed teams dedicated to supporting innovation. Today, the aspiration to innovate extends to NGOs and donor communities, and has led to myriad approaches to brainstorming, design thinking, co-creation, and other activities developed to support novelty.
However, in the face of a more-globalized, -connected, and -complex world, we need to, more than ever, position innovation as a bold and courageous way of doing things. It’s common for people to demote innovation as a process that tinkers around the edges of organizations, but we need to think about innovation as a tool for changing the way systems work and our practices so that they better serve communities. This matters, because humanitarian needs are only going to grow, and the resources available to us likely won’t match that need. When the values that underpin our attitudes and behaviors as humanitarians drive innovation, we can better focus our efforts and create more impact with less—and we’re going to have to…(More)”.