The title says it all. You either get this, or you’re pushing tech and getting your bosses to be excited about products with little success in sustainability, and missing opportunities to innovate processes and approaches.

Our version of the truth is, that if you’re not making innovation accessible, making it inclusive, and encouraging diversity, then you’re not doing what needs to be done to make innovation as effective as it should be.

We work in an organisation with a workforce of around 15,000 people, in around 125 operations. We provide protection and assistance to millions of people. We’ve had to be innovative and we’ve had to innovate over the past 70 years in order to fulfil our role. We’ve recently reached a new stage in our organisation’s direction that our team will also need to support with: the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework – acronym ‘CRRF’ -, which requires a new way of working, and much, much more inclusive innovation. It also requires that we need to work more collaboratively with the ‘whole of society’. That is to say, a vast array of partners, a vast array of individuals, and a vast array of thoughts, and understandings. More diversity, more innovation, more flexibility.

Internally we need to equip and re-equip our organisation, and the people who work for it, to be now-ready, and future-ready. We need to adapt and dare I say, iterate constantly, which innovation helps us to do if it. The cynics will say that innovation is a buzzword. It’s not. The cynics will say with patriarchal under(over)tones, ‘what we really need is…’. It’s not. And the cynics will pick apart new approaches. Because that’s what they do. And their thoughts are also needed. The more naysayers, the better. The more counter-thoughts, the better. The more critiques as possible. Welcome: you’ll make us stronger, and better. Thanks for your free consultation.

Within our team, we try to practice what we preach, and we’ll need to do more in order to drive even more innovation within, and outside of our organisation. Some practical things we do:

1. We hire diversity. This means of background, experience, thought, gender, and much more. Don’t hire the person who talks a good game, or has been referred to us. We’ll hire the person that takes longer to understand because they have more substance. Don’t talk about how to hire diversity – you don’t need a policy on this, just go and do it. Our team is 72% female. We speak 14 languages, and come from ten countries. We have a range of sexual orientations. Our backgrounds are extremely diverse, from geography to architecture, and we can be more diverse, still;

2. We make diversity and inclusion the first thing we talk about when we talk about innovation, and explain why. At UNHCR, we want innovation to be as accessible as possible, because we want to make as much use of the diversity of our staff – their thoughts, their rich experiences, their expertise. If innovation is confined to how we use new technology, we’re clearly missing a massive opportunity for our organisation, and for those we serve – including opportunities to innovate systems, and processes. Make it the first thing that your bosses talk about when they talk about innovation. Put it on the agenda, and push it. It’s central to our work this year and will continue to be until we cease to exist;

3. In a privileged position that gives you a perceived or real influence over others, make the best use of it. Are you a white male in a room full of white males talking about ‘innovation’? Point it out, make people uncomfortable, make people think, and make people question. Asked for your opinion on something because you’re ‘the boss’? Ask the better-suited team member to provide it. Others will follow suit;

4. Do not accept anything other than exemplary respect in your innovation team – everyone is there because they have something to offer, especially if it is off-the-wall. Your team’s positive and inclusive culture will infect and influence other teams;

5. Don’t attend or participate in manels (all male panels) on innovation, or technology. Or any other subject. Full stop. Go further: recommend a female colleague in your place. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable for people, sure, but it gets better results;

6. Use and be open to a diverse array of communication media, methods, and styles. Not everybody wants to communicate face-to-face, or in that meeting. Pre-meeting, during meeting, post meeting, be open to gleaning those opinions. We’re not all good at public speaking, and those with complicated thoughts, or ideas, sometimes need several ways to communicate these to you, or to the team, or to others;

7. To innovate, we need to collaborate. UNHCR doesn’t have the answers, the experiences, or the expertise to solve many of the challenges that refugees and others face today, or tomorrow. So, to solve these challenges; we need to partner strategically. We need knowledge, and we need expertise. That’s why non-traditional partnerships are key – because we’re in a new reality now, and why we have over 25 excellent partners from the University of Florida, through to UN Global Pulse. Be open to collaboration. Have regular conversations with a range of people (including those that disagree with you) from the public sector, civil society, large private sector organisations, and to many others within your organisation;

8. Recognise the value that technology has to play, and the opportunities it has to offer – be opportunistic at times, but do not get lost in modernisation efforts, or worse, efforts to find an operation in which to land the newest tech.

9. Recognise profiles of people not necessarily so obviously linked to innovation. These people and functions will make or break your sustainability. Prosaic spaces are what make or break innovation teams and efforts. Procurement, legal agreements, programming, budgets, staff capacities and competencies. These can derail a project before it’s even begun. Read that manual. Talk to that admin person. Get in their jogging path. Include them;

Our challenge isn’t how to innovate more; our challenge is how to synthesise and understand more. Diversity and inclusion help us to do that. Fetishising technology does not.



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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