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Innovating for Children: A Discussion with UNICEF Change and Development Manager Paul Molinaro
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Innovating for Children: A Discussion with UNICEF Change and Development Manager Paul Molinaro

A few weeks ago, we wrote about an open innovation initiative being undertaken by UNICEF, the United Nations agency charged with improving the lives of children worldwide. Intrigued by the story, we followed up with the folks over at UNICEF to see how the initiative came about and what the goals are. We spoke with Paul Molinaro, senior manager of change and development at UNICEF’s Copenhagen office – check out the conversation below.

Anton Root, Can you talk about the innovation agenda at UNICEF in general? How much do you stress innovation in your organization and what do you hope to accomplish with your programs?

Paul Molinaro, UNICEF change and development manager: At least in our experience, ‘innovation’ is a word that can be fairly broad. You can do a lot of things that can be lumped into that category. But I think at UNICEF, there’s always been a degree of innovation going on day-to-day. For someone working in Somalia, trying to figure out how to get something from A to B to C, they’re going to come up with innovative solutions.

I think there is a degree of it in the culture, but we were really looking at doing something systemic. We really wanted to look at how we can improve the products and services that we deliver in a thought-out and conscious way, and in a way that allows us to get more of an idea about the behaviors of the people who will be using those products and services. 

After several reviews of this, at least from the supply side, we had a large evaluation of our programs in 2006. One of the recommendations that came out of that was that we needed to be more innovative. I think the meaning of that was we needed to be quicker in how we develop products, and quicker in how we adapted them. As the world becomes more connected, it enables us to put ourselves in touch with end users and people who may have potential solutions to the challenges that we face.

So it stems from that – trying to put into place a systemic way of doing what one would call an ‘innovation activity.’ It’s early days under the banner of innovation. We have a small team in New York that looks at technology innovation, very much working around mobile technology involved in health and solutions around providing lab data results to patients. From the supply-division side, we are looking at how we can be more engaged in the product development side. We need to access the people who are wired for R&D-type activities. So on one side, we have a product development aspect, and on the other, we have an information technology and communication aspect. What we’re trying to do is put those things together.

Can you talk about how the idea for Innovate for Children came about?

We had an internal communication platform where we were looking at similar things – asking our colleagues about challenges or ideas. We ran that for a while, and one of the things that we realized was missing was an ability to share this information outside of UNICEF. It was a closed platform. We ran it, and it was fine, and we learned some things from it. But the area in which we will be finding solutions and new ideas is going to be outside ourselves. So this was a way to widen the net of ideas and possible solutions in a somewhat structured way, so we could try to get feedback. We had spent quite a lot of time thinking about what we wanted to put out there, how we wanted to structure it, how the content would flow. We went off from there, and a few weeks ago, we launched Innovate for Children.

There are two categories on the site that users can submit ideas for: challenges and projects. As far as I understand, projects are things you’re currently working on and challenges are things you’re looking to get to in the future. It does seem like some of the projects correspond with the challenges – was that how you intended the platform to work?

There should be a degree of correlation. The way we wanted to structure it was projects getting recognition that we are resourced and doing activities to come up with a solution. Whereas challenges were more of a wider canvassing on the gaps and issues we’re facing, and asking for input on possible solutions.

We needed to populate the site before we launched it, so we posted the current projects that we are running. It’s so early in the process, we haven’t yet figured out how we take a challenge from the site and move it into a more structured project and then start monitoring and following up from that point. So you will see that there are going to be different stages of maturity, both in the projects and also in how we define the challenges. The challenges we put up there are ones that we have been thinking about and defining. So we really saw the challenges as being a wider net of capturing ideas, the projects focusing that down, and not negating that people may still want to get involved at that stage. Once the project is completed, we will be turning it into a case study – what we learned from it, whether it was successful or not, what could be improved.

Why do you think it’s important to follow up with case studies? Why not leave it at just developing the product?

At the end of the day, any challenge that UNICEF has been able to articulate is something that is not going to be solved by UNICEF alone. The challenges would tend to be something that, we would hope, would have a positive effect on the lives of children. The more of that we can have, the better. It’s not necessarily that UNICEF is going to do it, but in a way its something that can be used as an advocacy tool. Here’s a challenge, there’s a limited time and resources that UNICEF has, and if someone else wants to take that up, we can point people in the right direction.

I think the same thing goes with the case studies. If we’ve undertaken something and there are others that want to come into that area, creating a body of work that others can refer to is as important as actually doing the thing initially. You want good ideas to spread, and you want others, who may also have limited resources, not to repeat the same mistakes that you may have made early on. I think you just have to have as much background knowledge as possible to proceed with something. It will require, I imagine, a degree of honesty and a bit of cultural shift, particularly if we get a solution wrong, to then put that in a case study. But I think that’s the direction that we’re going to have to go at some point.

Anyone at UNICEF can submit a challenge. From what you’ve told me, you’re putting out highly structured challenges at first. But as you move on, do you foresee a more open environment in which anyone in the organization can quickly post a challenge?

The answer is yes, but we’re limiting it. One of the things we learned over the last three years is a definite need to focus our efforts. The moment we had the innovation flag flying out there, we got a high volume of information flow, and we just realized that we really needed to have a degree of structure and focus. There was some time spent where we had to come in and ask which challenge areas we are more interested in that are closer to our mandate. We should focus on issues that are preventing a thing like a vaccine that could possible save hundreds of thousands of lives, and let’s keep the focus on that, rather than responding to every single idea that comes our way. That helps us funnel good ideas into areas of work where it is worth our limited resources to take it forward.

How do you foresee UNICEF implementing the ideas that come from the community? Would you hire people as contractors?

It’s early days yet, but seeing some of the input that we’ve received, the first wave of comments seems to be informed and from people who are already in these fields. Someone coming in, for example, raising some very good points on something like mobile technology for registering births may work for an organization that has a stake in this. What we would do is try to bring them into this process as a partner. Before the site went up, we had been doing this through our partnerships. In New York, we’ve had a lot of input from NYU’s ITP [Interactive Telecommunication Program], the one Clay Shirky runs, and from Columbia’s SIPA [School of International and Public Affairs]. We’ve widened that academic net to institutions in Europe and in Scandinavia. We provide challenges to students and they work on them as part of a school project. From ten projects, you’re going to have eight that are completely out there or unrealistic, as you would expect. But one or two will come out looking very interesting.

We’ve had one from there, which is a family tracking system using SMS for separated children during conflict. We’re piloting it in northern Uganda, and it came out of a student project. Initially, the student finished his work and it may end up that a country pays for home to travel and work almost pro-bono for the first phase. But once the potential comes through, that person is brought on at a project level, as a consultant. It has happened. I don’t necessarily think it’s going to be the defined operating model. I think there are so many other ways you can go about doing this.

We have a partnership with Frog Design, which we developed up over the last three years. It’s very similar – they provide expertise pro-bono, and we may cover travel to some of the countries for them to feed into our process. As far as institutions are concerned, it will be academia, civil society or NGO type groups that want to work in this area anyway but want to leverage some of what UNICEF can do, and vise-versa.

You also have another group in this, which is industry. We have contractual agreements with [companies], but how do we build an R&D aspect into that relationship? As a public procurement body, we have to be sure that there is fair competition among suppliers, so we have to be open. We’re going to start getting into the world of IP and patents, I would imagine, and we have to acknowledge a lot of the R&D that’s going to work may require investments that only industry can make. So for us, there is a number of ways of doing this, and it’s one of the things we’ll be looking at over the next four months – some principles and guidelines for putting this together. We have academia, we have some design institutions and partnerships that want to give us something, and now we’re thinking about the commercial sphere. And your average off-the-street individual who comes in, makes a comment, and is interested as an unaffiliated individual – we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it.

I know it’s early on, but what do you plan on doing to moderate the community and making sure the best ideas are recognized?

We have two or three people moderating the information. If there is a comment that’s relevant to a particular area, we ask them to talk to people in that area and say, “Listen, this looks really interesting, this person is serious, and its worth getting some more feedback from him or her.” Those people get an email for every comment that comes on, so they can take a look at it. If it’s spam, they’re capable of removing it. I don’t think we’ve gotten to the stage of being able to have a voting system or a way of determining that one idea may have much more traction than another, other than just looking at some of the analytics behind the hits, and who is coming on, and where they’re coming on from. For us, it’s a new area to undertake. We’re really learning a lot of this as we go along.

How much of this project related to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG)?

Yes, that was definitely in mind when we set up the innovation area. There has to be a drastic new way of approaching bottlenecks, if the goals are going to be met. I think this initiative was very much in that line. But having said that, going beyond the 2015 deadline, I think it’s going to make sense to have this approach, particularly with interconnectedness of ideas and the speed with which information and ideas can move.

What the MDG really helped us do was to have that full gamut of goals. When you take something that’s very important to us, like child mortality. Looking at child mortality figures, we said, “Well, we know there are 14 or 15 products out there that children can get at any time, that can reduce six million child deaths in a year.” That gives you a lot of focus, whether the goal gets met or not. Is there a way to improve delivery of the products, or improve the products themselves? You look at the deaths we can prevent with vaccines, it’s proven to be high-impact. The total number of deaths from malaria is shrinking, but look at pneumonia or diarrhea, which result in a lot of deaths. So, let’s have a rethink on those.

The MDG really help us get that focus and allow us in innovation to say, we can see 30% of child deaths are during childbirth or three days after. That’s because of hygiene, bleeding to death, and a whole host of other problems. If that’s now 30-35%, that’s a huge chunk, so let’s refocus on this area. In that sense, the goals help to reach the agenda. So it’s a pity we’re reaching 2015 soon, because we’re going to have to think about how we keep that iron hot.

Is there anything else you wanted to add, or perhaps share any other projects UNICEF is working on related to crowdsourcing?

Technology, just by its nature, allows for much more connection with a wider group of people. Our principles for mobile solution and data acquisition platforms are around an open-sourced methodology. It’s very much based on sharing as a way of creating sustainability. If you can teach a couple of youngsters – and they tend to be youngsters – in Uganda how to code, you create a market for them to sell their expertise.

What they’re doing in Uganda is a project called u-Report. It’s basically asking youth in Uganda to report back on various topics. That’s a lot more to your classic crowdsourcing model. UNICEF in Uganda will go out and say, "Can any of you go to your nearest district health clinic and check if they’re offering free HIV tests to the under-18s, and report back?” Because [volunteers] are signed up, their phones’ locations are registered, and you get great data that way. You can pin it up on a map and you see which districts are lagging.

The beauty of that is it’s been signed up with the government and the results of these questionnaires go into the national newspapers and become subject of debate in parliament. So I think we’re scratching the surface of the potential of getting feedback from our users and our constituency, and I think we’re definitely going to continue moving in that direction. Even from a supply logistics point of view, our biggest challenge is figuring out if the right things are reaching the right people. Some places we send things to are pretty isolated. How do we get that feedback very quickly? I think modern technology does give us the potential – if built correctly, with the right community, training, and communication around it – to transform how we do business over the next five years.

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  • Jeff Gross Jeff Gross Oct 01, 2012 12:20 pm GMT

    Good interview, and very illuminating about how nonprofits & NGOs are starting to use social media and other crowdsourcing tools. Having worked in this area for a while, I do sense concerns though just below the surface on balancing the PR buzz and real idea potential of the crowd vs. needing to rely on specialized expertise and observe legal guidelines for vetting input, and making best use of tight human resources. E.g. guarded stuff like:

    "But once the potential comes through, that person is brought on at a project level, as a consultant. It has happened. I don’t necessarily think it’s going to be the defined operating model… From ten projects, you’re going to have eight that are completely out there or unrealistic… But one or two will come out looking very interesting.... We have academia, we have some design institutions and partnerships … and now we’re thinking about the commercial sphere. And your average off-the-street individual who comes in, makes a comment, and is interested as an unaffiliated individual – we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it..."

    Still many of the ideas UNICEF is exploring esp. around using mobile technology, could as he says be transformative—and not just for NGOs working in developing countries. Large state social service agencies in the U.S. (e.g. for childcare, displaced workers or refugees) that rely on networks of nonprofit partners to get work done are a in point. On the one hand multiple nonprofits are doing case management of at risk clients, responding to tight gov't oversight, getting clients the right services, meeting crises, etc., a lot of them still relying on paper forms. On the other hand you have the clients or their families whose primary if not only technology platform is likely to be a smartphone, which could be used for all kinds of things from mobile banking, health & legal alerts, automated translation, etc.

  • Anton Root Anton Root Oct 03, 2012 06:03 pm GMT

    Thanks for the feedback and insight, Jeff, all great points!

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