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Is Radical Innovation possible in a Multilateral Context?

31 March 2024

By Katja Hemmerich

Two hands holding a globe with a question mark in the background

21 April is World Innovation Day, so this month’s spotlight highlights new research on how innovation works in a multilateral context. Much of what we know about innovation comes from the private sector. Radical innovation is prized as a winning strategy for businesses to dramatically increase sales and capture significant market share, which is important for long-term grown and survival. A key enabler of radical innovation are organizational capabilities, especially the people who work in that organization.

“Imagination and the ability to envision the future of technology are important to the generation of the novel ideas required for radical innovation. Therefore, hiring better and more capable employees equips an organization to cope with sudden and drastic change.” - Christian Hoop et al, “What 40 Years of Research Reveals About the Difference Between Disruptive and Radical Innovation”, Harvard Business Review, 2018

Many of these ideas also underpin the UN’s approach to innovation outlined in UN2.0 and the increased focus on innovation skills and creativity that can be seen in UN job descriptions. But can UN staff really be the main drivers of radical innovation in a multilateral context? Is radical innovation even compatible with multilateralism?

Innovation in the Multilateral Context

A recent study specifically looks at how new inventions and innovations come about in a multilateral context. By examining the international policy regimes for data privacy, climate governance, and investment protection, three Canadian researchers expose an incremental and what they call ‘combinatorial’ process of change in international contexts. Their study illustrates that states tend to find agreement when elements of an institution or policy have already been agreed elsewhere. Accordingly, innovation results from a process of solving specific policy problems by combining pre-existing institutional elements to create an unprecedented institution. Each innovation then constitutes design elements that can potentially be used for future innovations (Beaumier et al., A combinatorial theory of institutional invention, 2023).

7 Boxes with Innovation and different numbers written inside linked by a series of arrows to show how they combine.
Fig. 1 Combinatorial innovation process (Adapted from Beaumier et al., 2023)

Figure 1 provides a visual depiction of this process, where later innovations such as no. 6, 7 and 8 are combinations of different elements of earlier innovations 1 through 5. A real life example is the creation of the innovative International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes committed in the Syrian Arab Republic (IIIM). The IIIM was a significant institutional innovation in the UN when it was created in 2016 because it is not a tribunal (something the UN Security Council was unable to agree on). It is however mandated to collect evidence for potential prosecutions in other jurisdictions, differentiating it from the more common UN fact-finding or commission of inquiry institutions. The IIIM mandate contains elements drawn from previous international tribunals and commissions of inquiry, combined to create a completely new type of institutional innovation.

For those less familiar with the UN, the IIIM probably does not appear to be a radical innovation. Those familiar with UN institutional politics recognize that this was a quite a novel approach, which continues to be subject to contestation by several member states. This is the complex and challenging environment for innovation that the new theory of combinatorial invention has unpacked. The implication being that incremental innovation rather than radical innovation is always going to be more likely in the multilateral context.

This is unlikely to shock UN practitioners who know that surprising member states with new ideas rarely leads to agreement and progress on an issue. This theory helps bridge this practitioner knowledge with data and evidence on how change and innovation occur in multilateral contexts. The theory is not just relevant for institutional or policy innovations in a multilateral context. It also applies internal innovation in the UN and other intergovernmental organizations because member states approve programmes (including new approaches within those programmes) and approve funding needed for new tools, staff or processes that are needed for the implementation of internal innovations.

Should the UN strive for radical innovation?

UN2.0 challenges the UN system to view challenges as opportunities for groundbreaking ideas and solutions. But if, as the combinatorial theory of change implies, groundbreaking solutions are unlikely to gain member state acceptance, it begs the question whether intergovernmental organizations should even bother striving for radical innovation.

Aspiring for radical improvement and change will always be important, particularly now when the UN and multilateralism are struggling to grapple with significant global challenges. This new theory of change does not change that, but it does provide important insight about strategies for change and innovation.

Conceptually, UN innovators need to understand they are working in a complex political context which is governed by member states. Any innovation process needs to consider and involve member states as key stakeholders in the process, not just as recipients or funders of innovation. UN peacekeeping, arguably one of the UN’s most radical innovations of the 20th century, was designed in close collaboration between UN staff, like Ralph Bunche, and member states, in particular Canada’s then Secretary of State for External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson. Thinking big, while being realistic about your political context, can and does work.

In some cases it also means acknowledging that incremental innovation can also bring about positive change, and should not be considered as a failure or weakness in the innovation process. The WFP Innovation Accelerator makes this point in relation to their work in delivering cashless payments to women in Afghanistan, WFP notes:

“Digitally delivering cash aid isn’t groundbreaking on its own. In areas like East Africa, where a robust mobile money system like mPaisa in Kenya exists, it’s a common practice. However, in regions like Afghanistan, where such infrastructure is lacking, it represents a significant shift.” WFP Innovation Accelerator, “Driving financial inclusion for women in Afghanistan: Cashless payments by HesabPay”, 2024

Radical Innovation requires more than Imagination & Creativity

More specifically, this new research highlights the importance of skills beyond imagination and creativity for innovation. Innovators who want to be successful in intergovernmental organizations need to understand their organization's governance context and be able to maneuver within it.

Such skills are most often associated with senior leadership in the UN. Creativity and imagination are often associated with more junior level staff in the UN. That gap is not helpful for innovation. Breaking down these vertical silos is another important skills set both for innovators, and their managers.

Greater two way communication and collaboration between innovators and the leadership engaged with governance mechanisms is important. The communication in particular should explore the benefits and potential risks of innovative initiatives, not just from the perspective of the organization and beneficiaries, but also from the perspective of different member states and regional groups involved in governance processes.

Bringing new ideas to a UN Board or governance mechanism is often fraught with challenges and risks. Aside from courage, leaders should consider new tactics, especially given the fractured multilateral context in which the UN is currently operating. UN Global Pulse, in its guidance publication on scaling innovation references an interesting approach from the private sector, which UN leaders may want to consider:

“Another model is BT Group plc, formerly British Telecom, that requires board level executives to act as “godparents” who coach innovation teams on how to bring their solutions to the board’s attention and help smooth the path to mainstream adoption.” - UN Global Pulse, “Scaling the Summit: How the United Nations can expand promising ideas to change the world.”, 2023

Imagination and creativity therefore need to be supplemented with strong communication and negotiations skills focused on articulating benefits and risks of innovation for disparate audiences with the UN and member states. The ability to tailor those communications to each audience and understand their preferences and concerns is key (along with the recognition that member states are more than just donors or recipients of innovation).

The new theory on combinatorial invention also has important implications for what to communicate to member states. And for many innovators this will seem somewhat counterintuitive.

Typically innovators try to communicate what is new and different about their innovation. For some audiences this makes sense. But this study highlights that for member states there may also be advantages in communicating clearly how an innovation combines previously agreed policies, institutions, programme objectives or approaches. Understanding previous member state agreements, especially agreement and adoption of previous innovations is therefore another important competence for innovators who wish to engender real change in the multilateral system. Even if an innovation strives for radical change - as it should - sometimes explaining how it is not so radical and builds on what has come before it, can be a winning strategy to achieve that change.

Points for innovators & managers of innovation to consider

In summary, radical innovation is perhaps just not an appropriate term in a multilateral context. Consensus-based decision-making, which is a cornerstone of multilateralism, is not conducive to radically new ideas. Consensus is more likely when new approaches build on and combine previous agreements.

This does not mean that innovators, and those who manage innovation in the UN, should not be ambitious. But it does mean that they need to be tactical in how they manage and facilitate the implementation and scaling of innovations. We suggest four key points to consider:

  1. Accept that not every innovation in a multilateral context needs to be radical. Often incremental innovation can also have significant impact.

  2. Consider member states as key stakeholders sooner rather than later.

  3. Ensure there are systems and processes in place for open and clear vertical communication around benefits and risks of innovation, including benefits and risks related to governance mechanisms and their members.

  4. Leadership needs courage to bring innovations to governance mechanisms, and innovators need to support them in highlighting how innovations combine approaches and policies previously agreed by member states.


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