One good idea can change the world. Not to get too flowery about it, but gardening does make a good analogy: If you plant a seed, tend it, and nurture it so it can take root, you create an environment for it to bloom and perhaps even propagate far and wide.

But how are good movements cultivated — and what catalyzes them to blossom into concrete, sustainable actions? What can turn a kernel of inspiration into a sustainable process that can be replicated across every area of an organization like the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)?

UNHCR’s Innovation Fellowship Program has a pretty good idea about how all this works. And offices across the organization are reaping the benefits as Innovation Fellows bring what they’ve learned back to their operations, where their smart approaches not only improve UNHCR’s capabilities but can prompt people and processes to flourish in unexpected ways.

To appreciate the significance of transforming inspiration into action, it’s important to understand the compelling demand for innovation. Discovering new and better ways to assist refugees is crucial in a world where the needs of displaced people are increasingly urgent and complex. Organizations as large and established as UNHCR can have a tendency to dig in their heels and respond to challenges with a “we’ve always done it that way” mindset instead of embracing new ways to solve problems.

UNHCR recognizes this reality, which is why it created the Innovation Fellowship Program as a strategy to equip people with the skills required to experiment with new approaches, in hopes of unearthing innovative solutions. Now in its fifth year, the program is proving to be among UNHCR’s brightest ideas.

Nurturing smart minds to spark innovation

Launched in 2013, the Innovation Fellowship Program trains roughly 25 people each year. Most of the participants are UNHCR staff, but one or two representatives from UNHCR’s external partners were included in the latest cohorts, reflecting the program’s commitment to teamwork and collaboration outside the traditional boundaries of a single office or organization.

Although it focused largely on individual projects in the beginning, the program has evolved to be very people-focused, says Emilia Saarelainen, the Innovation Fellowship Program Manager. After all, people are where the seeds of good ideas begin to germinate.

“Every Fellow has a project, but the project itself is considered a vehicle for the Fellows to try out new tools, approaches, and techniques — the success of the Fellowship is not tied to the success of the project,” she explains. “Instead of asking the Fellows to send us their good ideas, we try to find people who have the right attitude, the right motivation and the right passion for innovation.”

From the start, the Innovation Fellowship Program has attracted a diverse group of applicants. There’s a rigorous selection process that includes a detailed application with questions about the applicants’ motivation, willingness to collaborate, critical thinking skills, and resilience to go through the process, along with other key attributes considered markers of an innovative mindset. A selection panel reviews each application and interviews a short list of candidates before the final cohort is selected.

Fellows come from duty stations across UNHCR, from operations both large and small and from divisions ranging from finance to refugee protection to supply to technology support. The challenges of each country and office can be unique, but the tools and processes Fellows learn to apply through the program are consistent — an important factor in creating sustainable innovation practices.

Participants learn how to identify their most pressing challenges, and how to apply the program’s innovation tools and processes in addressing them. They take part in two interactive workshops, as well as hands-on assignments back at their operation that foster collaboration, while giving Fellows a chance to put the processes they’ve learned into practice. In addition, they are charged with serving as “innovation ambassadors” who encourage the people they work with to understand what innovation is so they can make it part of their operation’s culture.

“Anyone can be an innovator, but no one can do it alone,” says Emilia. “We want to give the Fellows a sense of hope that they are not the only person thinking the way they are.”

A critical component of the Fellowship is teaching participants how to turn innovation into action, so they can create practical solutions that make a positive impact on the lives of refugees. New tasks and processes are assigned to the Fellows throughout the program, motivating them to take prompt, decisive action and think in non-linear ways. As Emilia explains, innovation rarely moves from point A to point B.

“You need to go back and forth in a way that’s very uncomfortable compared to the way we are used to working,” Emilia says. “So it’s not only about the techniques and the tools but it’s a lot about the attitude and the courage to go back and say, ‘I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way as part of the process.’”

Fertilizing the garden of innovation

Willingness to accept this non-linear path and feedback from others in the pursuit of innovation has been a revelation for Simeneh Gebeyehu, an Assistant WASH Officer in Assosa, Ethiopia, who was in the 2016 cohort of Innovation Fellows. The Fellowship curriculum has evolved since Simeneh took part, but even before the role of innovation ambassadors was emphasized the way it is today, he instinctively understood how important it is to bring what he learned back to his operation.

Simeneh’s project to turn refugee camp waste into energy-dense briquettes to use as fuel has been very successful, a good idea that was strengthened through his participation in the program and collaboration with his colleagues. Simeneh’s project has evolved from a smart solution for a lack of budget and resources into an initiative that has secured funding to mechanize the process of creating briquettes, with the potential to expand to other parts of Africa.

Developing a solution that benefits refugees in Ethiopia and beyond is a measurably positive outcome in itself. But along the way, Simeneh realized that listening to input from others is integral to innovation.

“In the past, it was very challenging for me to receive feedback, because I was thinking I am right,” Simeneh explains. “Now I receive feedback without any hesitation and understand we must work on the idea as one team in order to act.”

He has also embraced his commitment to be an innovation ambassador who brings the principles of creativity and collaboration to his operation. Simeneh not only worked as a team with his colleagues to develop his project, he inspired others to follow in his footsteps.

Zeru Maru, an Assistant Program Officer in Assosa, says that working with Simeneh on his project — along with the workshop Simeneh hosted in 2016 to share what he was learning about innovation with his colleagues — inspired him to apply for an Innovation Fellowship. Zeru is now a member of the 2018 cohort.

“We see that Simeneh is bringing something very tangible to the operation that is addressing one of the day-to-day problems refugees are facing, and we see that innovation is crucial to addressing challenges like these,” Zeru says.

For his own project, Zeru wants to create better ways to monitor and report on the various initiatives being undertaken by different partners in Assosa operation He says the Assosa Program Coordination and Management team is constantly challenged by a lack of resources, and developing solutions requires adjusting their way of thinking to find new ways of doing business.

To that end, Zeru will apply what he has learned so far from Simeneh and his own participation in the Innovation Fellowship Program. This process begins with identifying the challenge, which comes directly from the input of those impacted by it — including UNHCR staff, partners, and refugees.

“Right now, we’re at the stage of identifying the problems and challenges in this area and then we’ll move on to generating ideas and experimenting with them,” Zeru says of the process, which includes gathering feedback and ultimately testing the concepts they develop. “Already the team sees that if they work closely with one another as a team, there are ways to develop better solutions to the problems of the Population of Concern in Assosa operation.

Creating fertile ground for culture change

Zeru and Simeneh agree that the Innovation Fellowship Program has inspired them to approach every aspect of their work with a fresh mindset. As Zeru explains, before Simeneh’s project the team in Assosa did not fully understand what innovation means for UNHCR and how it can be used to address problems. They are both grateful for the support of Senior Management in Sub Office Assosa, which extends across their team and partners in the field.

True to their mission as innovation ambassadors, Simeneh and Zeru are changing attitudes across their operation. The team now understands that innovation is not about technology, as many people believe, but about collaboration — a shift in perception that’s critical to looking at innovation in a more meaningful and productive way.

“They thought innovation was about sophisticated technology, which is not really possible in the refugee context, like in Assosa,” Zeru says. “Instead, now there is high motivation to create a culture of innovation using cooperation. By applying innovation skills and processes, we can solve problems in a much more efficient and sustainable manner.”

By serving as innovation ambassadors and continuing to work on their own projects with their colleagues, Zeru and Simeneh are giving them tangible examples of how innovation works in a practical sense, along with an opportunity to take part in the development of new initiatives. They believe this free flow of ideas will help their operation better meet their objectives in the future by infusing cooperative, creative thinking into every endeavor.

“We are now consistently looking for innovation at each level of a project and program,” Simeneh says. “The concept of innovation is a benefit to everyone. It changes your mindset, opens you to feedback and gives you a new way of thinking that lets you do your work more efficiently.”

To solidify the culture of innovation that’s growing within the Assosa operation, Zeru and Simeneh presented a two-day workshop for their colleagues from 21-22 June 2018. The workshop, which is based on the Innovation Fellowship Program training in Bangkok, was designed to educate and engage all stakeholders, both internal and external.

As part of the workshop, Simeneh, Zeru, and their colleagues developed a concrete action plan to make sure collaborating on challenges and Solutions continues to be an integral part of their operation. Elements of the action plan include establishing an innovation working group made up of UNHCR staff and partners, creating opportunities to share new ideas for better serving refugees, establishing reporting systems on innovation to facilitate follow-up, and developing strategies to identify and acknowledge innovation best practices.

Establishing this kind of systematic approach to turning ideas into action is exactly what the team behind the Innovation Fellowship Program hopes will take place at every operation where there’s an innovation ambassador. The ultimate goal is to mainstream innovation, making it a routine element of daily operations, and to pollinate innovation across UNHCR as people like Zeru and Simeneh move around the organization.

“Ideally, some of the Fellows will become Senior Managers, and if they have really embedded that relationship with acting and thinking then it will be spread around the organization beyond the Fellowship,” Emilia says. “We hope that innovation is rooted into them, so wherever they go they innovate in whatever ways are needed.”

If the Assosa operation is any indication, the vision of making innovation a sustainable part of UNHCR’s culture worldwide seems sure to blossom into reality.

“Since I started working with Simeneh on his project and attended the Fellowship training, I am personally changing my views,” Zeru says. “I am convinced that unless we adopt this concept of innovation, we will continue facing the same challenges every year. If we continue maximizing the knowledge and open the door that good ideas can come from other colleagues, partners, and refugees — and if they are applied properly — innovation will be a big influence in Assosa.”


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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