If we could call innovation something else, we would. The word innovation is rife with confusion, is loaded with misunderstandings, and has the propensity to cause all sorts of confusion. Yet, it doesn’t need to. Here are 5 myths about innovation that are not true. And why:

  1. Innovation = technology.

It doesn’t. But sometimes it can. Innovation needs to be as accessible as possible to our staff and partners so, for us, process and approach are important. That isn’t to say that innovation processes don’t sometimes result in new technologies – or even old technologies – but it’s how you get there that matters. The Liter of Light project is a great example of this. It uses very simple components, such as empty plastic drinking bottles, to create lights in a matter of minutes, and with great positive effects on refugee communities.

  1. It’s a generational thing.

Some of the most innovative people I know are a lot older than me; my mother’s one of them. Some people seem to think that innovation is only something that the ‘younger generation’ can do. It seems to be shrouded in some kind of mystery, but it really isn’t. Across UNHCR we have older people who used to be younger people. We have younger people who will become older people. And we all operate in environments that demand that we all innovate. The Innovation Fellows cohorts are indicative of this – the youngest 2015 Fellow was a then 23-year-old Iranian male. In the same intake, the oldest Fellow was around 55 years old. Age doesn’t matter; it’s what you do with your attitude that counts. Combinations of experiences, nationalities, and ages lead to not only richer, more thoughtful solutions, but also the substance to make ideas into realities.

  1. It’s completely new.

It’s great that across UN agencies and well-known international NGOs there are Innovation teams. It’s also great that recently there has been a turn towards innovating more. But, innovation within the humanitarian sector has been around for as long as the humanitarian sector. In UNHCR we’ve been innovating since our creation – we’ve had to. Drivers in South Sudan, Protection Officers in Afghanistan, Representatives in Niger, you name it, they’ve been innovating. The establishment of innovation teams demonstrates that organisations have recognized the innovative nature of staff, and decided to invest in structures to further foster, and capture innovation. This is testament to their willingness to continuously adapt, which is truly innovative.

  1. Bottom-up innovation isn’t the Holy Grail.

Some experts and practitioners in the field of humanitarian innovation often allude to the more romantic notion that innovation should always – always – come from the bottom, and then percolate up through the hierarchy, but that’s just not true. Plenty of innovations do in fact come from the top. Sure, people in field operations understand their needs often much better than senior managers in HQs. Senior managers on the other hand, understand needs in a different way and are sometimes required to drive organization-wide innovations that solve a multitude of similar – though not identical – challenges. Senior managers can also set the right tone for innovation, and encourage it at all levels. You have to have both a top-down and bottom-up approach to make it work.

  1. It’s all about ideas.

Sure, somebody has to come up with a good idea. Making that a reality is the difficult part. I’ve had colleagues who could come up with hundreds of ideas in a year; some of them are not entirely ridiculous. But as soon as they tried to make them happen, they were put off by the work required to do so. Some of them just weren’t equipped, or savvy enough, consultative enough, or (insert adjective here), to make it happen. Innovation is more about perseverance and strategy, and people, than it is about coming up with ideas.



We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create  impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at [email protected]

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