‘Peak Lab’

In an entirely ‘non-scientific poll’, the Centre for Impact asked respondents where different government ‘innovation initiatives’ sit on a so-called hype cycle. Respondents indicated that [policy] labs were the ‘peak of inflated expectations’. The next ‘looming’ step for these policy labs is dramatically framed by the Centre as: the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’. In this trough, we face the vast disparities between what has been ‘promised’ and what can feasibly be delivered. The conclusion: we are at ‘Peak Lab’. But, does this also apply to humanitarian innovation – are we also suffering similar disillusionment and lack of delivery?

In a conversation with DEVEX earlier this year Chris Fabian, co-founder of the Innovation Unit at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), described how ‘The word innovation is dangerous, and the term innovation lab is doubly dangerous’. UNICEF has now deleted the term Innovation Lab from their innovation vocabulary. A Ground Truth solutions blog in September delivered a further, more damning, death blow to humanitarian innovation labs: ‘Absent a clear sense of direction, labs tend to focus on “innovation by gadget.”’ The growing backlash is clear. Keen not to jump blindly on the ‘no-labs bandwagon’, UNHCR’s Innovation Service wanted to establish what other modalities could work instead of the now beleaguered lab. However, on this journey, we realised we might not have had labs to begin with – recognising this leaves us in a better position for 2018.

UNHCR Innovation Labs: an identity crisis

In its ‘Guide for Making Innovation Work’  the IBM Centre for the Business of Government details five different structural models that have been adopted by government offices in pursuit of Innovation. These are: Laboratory, Facilitator, Advisor, Technology-build-out and Liaison. Each has a functional description. A ‘Laboratory’ is an autonomous group charged with developing new technologies, products, fixes. This structural model description, and external interpretations of what ‘makes a lab’ has caused a mild identity crisis within UNHCR’s Innovation Service. We didn’t have laboratories. We are certainly not an autonomous group, guided by the organisation’s mandate and working within the hierarchies of our structure. In fact, our stated aim is to ‘support a culture of creativity and collaboration across the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)’. We’d also strongly argue against the criticism of being ‘technology-driven’ and spent a substantial amount of 2017 debunking the ‘innovation is technology’ myth.

Returning to IBM’s guide, The Innovation Service finds greater resonance with the other structural models than with ‘Laboratory’. The model of Facilitator fits well for example: one person or small group working to convene government departments on internal improvements or external projects. Our UNHCR Innovation website even reflects this identity conflict: ‘We don’t consider ourselves innovators per se, but rather, the facilitators who bring innovation tools, and learning environments to those who require support, in order to help contribute to improvements in how UNHCR works’. So we didn’t need to ‘kill’ our Labs, but rather capitalise on ‘how’ to better facilitate innovation. How can we best address the criticism of Labs, and more broadly innovation, for refugees and the organisation?  

2017: A new way-of-working

Just over a year ago the Harvard Business Review published consolidated scientific research on ‘Why Diverse Teams are Smarter’, summarising that diverse teams process facts better and are ‘more innovative’. In 2017, UNHCR’s Innovation Service began a process-change in the way it worked, based on this ‘diversity’ assumption. Project teams began working outside the constructed silos of ‘Labs’. Practically speaking, this saw us mirror a common way-of-working in the wider organisation: the multi-functional team approach. For UNHCR, the multi-functional team brings together different professional backgrounds and experiences – as well as gender diversity – to work together on similar projects or outcomes. Recognising the advantages this multi-functional team working brings to UNHCR, the Innovation Service wanted to experiment with this approach and innovation facilitation.

Key project groups were formed around focus thematics – including Social Media Monitoring, Predictive Analytics, and Communication with Communities (CwC) in emergency contexts. This also saw joint missions to operations, to allow us to bring a range of perspectives and experiences into conversations with field-colleagues. We moved away from framing our missions as ‘a Learn Lab mission’ or ‘an Emergency Lab mission’, but rather work with an operation to determine which areas (thematics) of support they would need. This facilitation team model is still work-in-progress. Through an experimentation phase, we plan to determine how best to formulate these facilitation teams and how we can leverage wider collective expertise within the organisation.

A Lab by any other name ..?

Has this model been successful so far, or are we repeating the ‘mistakes’ of the Innovation Lab? Joseph Guay, an Associate at The Policy Lab, describes how ‘research and experience shows that when innovation does happen, it can be ad hoc, incremental, siloed and forgotten, affected populations and local communities are often excluded from the process’. Does our focus towards diverse teams go anyway to addressing this?  

Feedback from colleagues sees them welcoming this project focused, multi-functional approach – it’s a functional way of working that they are familiar with to some extent. From the Innovation Service’s viewpoint, there have been tangible benefits to adopting this ‘non-siloed’ working model, even in early stages. Working with differing opinions and experiences is inherently creative if space is allowed for disagreement and diversity. There have been some real breakthroughs for the Innovation Service this year, due in part to the power of these diverse teams. An example of such would be ‘Project Jetson’, the predictive analytics project bringing together data scientists, strategic designers, coders, data visualisers and former and current Mogadishu residents, to design an artificially intelligent model to predict displacement (arrival figures), in Somalia. This project demonstrates how we can work free of silos, with the early results showing more than incremental change in the area of applied humanitarian predictive analytics.

The Innovation Service is not claiming an innovation breakthrough – but are fully committed to rise to the ‘challenges’ our contemporary innovation critics share.

2018: Keeping our Communicating with Communities focus

Throughout this process, have we lost our thematic focus? The Emergency Lab was designed to support innovation in the field of Communicating with Communities (CwC) – is this no longer a priority for UNHCR’s Innovation Service? Quite the contrary, the need to bring affected populations into our multi-functional team approach is a key priority for 2018. The eternal challenge being, how to move beyond tokenistic representation and to their meaningful participation and leadership in the development of innovative solutions. Communicating with Communities is everybody’s job.

The Emergency Lab is dead, long live communication.


This essay was originally posted in the recently released report: UNHCR Innovation Service: Year in Review 2017. This report highlights and showcases some of the innovative approaches the organization is taking to address complex refugee challenges and discover new opportunities. You can view the full Year in Review microsite here.