At the World Humanitarian Summit in May, Google, Mercy Corps, UNHCR Innovation and ThoughtWorks were lucky enough to win an award for having one of the Top 5 Innovations of the World Humanitarian Summit for our collaborative project Translation Cards. While Translation Cards was a factor in winning the prize, Fabio Sergio – VP of Design at Frog Design – noted that really it was the nature of the partnership itself that helped win the team the award. For UNHCR Innovation Service, this means radical openness.

Radical Openness is a concept that has been around for some time, kicking off through TED with a book from Don Tapscott and Anthony D Williams, but as of yet was not something that had really been explored and adopted in a humanitarian setting. With little knowledge of the theories behind the concept, the Translation Cards project team found themselves square and centre in putting radical openness into practice. And now, this has become our default way of working.

Though we presented on this recently at both the World Humanitarian Summit and the ICT4D conference, the team has never unpacked, outside of our presentations on the topic, what Radical Openness really means, and how you can bring it into your organisation. This article aims to change that by providing our 10 defining principles of radical openness, some of the tools we use to achieve this and why we should be doing it in the first place.

Why ‘Radical Openness’?

Radical Openness really came as a reaction to the ever apparent ‘siloism’ beginning to exist in humanitarian aid and development. The tendency to think about your own organisation before thinking about not only what everybody else is doing and secondly, really what the outcomes are for the people affected by crisis. Through being radically open, we can tackle obstacles and bottlenecks more effectively:

  • Do you feel like you lack the expertise in your organisation to achieve your goals?
  • Are you lacking in funding to make what needs to happen, happen?
  • Are you constrained by access to the field?
  • Do you feel like you lack the buy-in or space to move an idea forward?

If the answer is yes to any of these, then it might be worthwhile thinking about how being radically open might be able to help you. By opening up to all your partners, it helps you bring in and leverage their expertise. Tasks can be shared, ideas can be honed and it will help you innovate. The checks and balances the community provide to your project will keep you on the right course, and in turn, focussed on the real needs of people themselves. Through being radically open it is possible to pool resources, have mutual contributions to each other’s projects to move them forward outside of bureaucracy and red tape.  Due to the open dialogue that is facilitated, there is an unspoken pressure – a positive sort of pressure – for all organisations involved to be motivated to react to the real challenges. The quick flow of information sharing helps ensure that everybody involved was constantly learning from the others about what  was having an impact, and what was required to move the project forward.

So now you’re saying ‘The concept sounds great but how does this actually work?’. There are two ways to address this—first with our 10 defining principles that you can take to your organisation to see whether they can be applied to your business processes, an overview of some tools to help you enact these, and subsequently some examples of how we have done it to give you an idea of how it can work in practice.

Radical Openness: Defining Principles

  1. Share a vision—or part of one. Above all, the motivation to move a project forward comes from a shared vision. This foundation of an open collaboration is that you and collaborators care first and only about achieving a shared goal—not about who does the work, who pays, or who gets the credit.
  2. Work in the open. People can only collaborate if they know what you are doing. Don’t wait to share this information until you are done! Work in the open so your collaborators are always in the know and can help you along the way. As a bonus, this transparency will keep everyone honest about delays and shifting priorities. Default all work to public and editable!
  3. Talk to everyone, all the time. Even to the people and organisations who aren’t (yet) particularly helpful or collaborative. If you share goals, stay in touch. That opportunity to collaborate will come. All contributors welcome.
  4. Kill your ego (and your employer’s). Do we really need to plaster our logos over everything? Sometimes our desire for visibility gets in the way of equity amongst partners. This can extend to the individual level. Nobody likes a show-off and it’s important to take people’s skills and expertise for what they are, rather than base anything on seniority or the hubris of others.
  5. Give praise and credit to all. No, this doesn’t contradict #4. Everyone who contributes deserves credit. And one way to kill your ego is to credit all equally and not worry about who is more equal than others.
  6. Crack open your partners/funders. When embracing a new vision, one of the first things some of the more pessimistic would bring up might be along the lines of ‘we don’t have the funding’. Don’t let money get in the way. If you have a vision shared amongst others, and can bring value, they will support you rather than compete against you. For numerous organisations, when they think about partnership it is usually with a subtext of “what can I get for free”. This isn’t helpful. It is important to open this information up
  7. Get concrete. No over politeness. Understand your strengths and weaknesses it’s important to be realistic about what you can and can’t do well. While everybody may want a bigger chunk of the pie, if you spend too much time fussing over your share it holds everything up. For UNHCR Innovation, we came to an ongoing process and realised we didn’t have a leadership role in the product development. Our thinking was that this was absolutely fine, because what we could contribute was an avenue for testing—valuable in its own right, rather than ‘why aren’t we playing a more central role?’.
  8. Fill gaps & avoid overlap. Everybody hates reinventing the wheel. The only reason we do it is usually because one small aspect of something doesn’t fit. If a team is transparently communicating what it’s doing at each stage of the process it will allow others to springboard off your work, without recreating it. Being honest about what you haven’t done also allows others to fill gaps that you may not have gotten round to.
  9. Be courageous and helpful. Some items on this list are frightening. Working in the open means people see your early, messy, draft work. While this can be genuinely embarrassing and scary, the pay off in speed-of-action and collaborative input is worth it. And often we learn that what we fear isn’t so bad afterall.
  10. Lead by example. Want others to pitch in? Work in the open? Kill their egos? The best way to create a comfortable space for others is to show that you are doing these things yourself—and flourishing for it.


There are some tools that can be used to make this process a lot easier. Here are a couple of examples but in the age of the internet there are plenty of interesting tools :

  • Slack. One nifty tool that can be used to make Slack even more open is Slackin which allows a widget to be added to a webpage that can sign people up to a Slack team themselves.
  • Google Drive. Or any similarly open shared storage facility such as Dropbox, Box or Onedrive. It is vital that there is openness so that it can be shared to any individuals or organisations who need access.
  • Google Docs / Sheets. The reason to state Google Drive predominantly comes down to its integration with Google Docs / Sheets. This tool really allows us to default to open and editable – any document that somebody is working on is visible to the whole team for edits, suggestions and remarks. There are again other tools such as Office online that allow for this degree of collaboration but Google have a little more flexibility with their permissions allowing any sort of sharing the owner deems fit.

There are also some specific tools for different work areas that can also help move things forward such as Jira, Github or Zeplin. The critical difference between simply using emails and using these systems is that everything has a public record, so nothing gets lost in somebody’s inbox.

Radical Openness in Practice

So with principles in mind and tools in hand, how does this apply to the realities including all of the everyday challenges we face in responding to emergencies?

As previously mentioned, one of the projects where we started doing this was the Translation Cards project. As an open-source web development project, I guess it was easier to be ‘open’: we had all of the development work openly accessible through Github, a code repository store. There were some elements that did require some decision making, for instance it was decided that rather than try to co-brand or fit the design alongside any organisation’s branding guidelines, we would just have it completely neutral – no logos. We also used a variety of the tools mentioned above to make our workflows as quick and transparent as possible. Through Slack the UNHCR team was able to bring the field feedback straight to the developers in real-time.

Of course one of the afterthoughts we had about this was that actually there was no formal agreement or Memorandum of Understanding between the parties on this project. And while the collaborators commit significant staff time to the project, the cash outlay has been tiny. A total of $335 was spent on some translations and publishing the app which Mercy Corps just took on themselves. All the other translations provided for the testing of Translation Cards were completed courtesy of Translators without Borders without any contract, and thankfully they were able to incorporate this work into a pre-existing project under the START Network. To try and bring this into a formal agreement would’ve created unnecessary work and just slowed the project down.

A second project was around Video Displays. UNHCR Innovation had the idea to implement this in response to fast-moving populations in transit through South East Europe. UNHCR had approached Xibo —an open source solution— to support with setting up these digital displays. Through discussions with Mercy Corps we realised that there was a lot we could gain by joining up. Why would we need to have two relationships with different organisations, perhaps different solutions and spend valuable resources managing this?

This in mind all the research on the software and hardware solutions was shared from each party and then it was agreed collectively to move forward with Xibo. Due to the relatively low licence cost, UNHCR simply provided these for free to any organisation who wanted to set up a screen. Mercy Corps offered to buy devices for anybody needing to run the software on a display. Following this, the admin role on the platform was shared so that we could support across time zones more promptly and Slack was used to provide updates on activating screens.

Radical Openness: the way forward

While the above examples are essentially related to our use of humanitarian technology in emergency response, the principles can be taken forward in any sort of programming. It’s possible to be open with your communication using tools like Slack. Write your documents online and open them up for all to see. Honest and frank discussions can lead to better progress. Those who aren’t in a position to contribute get found out quickly, so invite everybody to be part of the vision. These are some of first steps towards becoming radically open. Doing this will make your life easier, help you realise your vision quicker, build new relationships that all importantly make us more effective at responding to humanitarian emergencies.



Photo credit: © UNHCR/Mark Henley

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