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Innovation spaces: transforming humanitarian practice in the United Nations

December 06, 2016 by Louise Bloom, Romy Faulkner

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Since 2009 there has been a growing interest in defining and operationalising innovation for use in the humanitarian context. The increase in scale of new crises, the urbanisation of many displaced populations, and stretched financing for humanitarian assistance are forcing international aid agencies to think and act in new ways. Along with other international humanitarian actors, several United Nations (UN) bodies are engaging with new tools and practices to bring innovation to the forefront of their work. Within these agencies, there has been a growing movement to establish ‘innovation spaces’ or ‘innovation labs’. These labs take different forms – some virtual, others physical – and each is created with its own motivations unique to the context in which it operates. Despite the variation, there is a growing trend in the UN system, and more broadly in the international humanitarian community, to create labs as a way to engage in and facilitate innovation practice. This research seeks to understand the way in which innovation labs across several UN agencies are being used to foster new ways of operating within the UN’s bureaucratic structures. We ask four key questions: What form do innovation labs in UN agencies take? What motivated their initiation? What are their aims and objectives? What impact have they had and how is the impact being measured? As innovation practice gains momentum, we reflect on the future of innovation spaces as a way to foster innovation within the UN system. We conclude with six key recommendations.