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Scaling Innovation in the United Nations: Challenges and Opportunities.

2 April 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

Insights from the latest innovation research.

This week our spotlight focuses on innovation in anticipation of the UNDP/UNFPA/ UNOPS Executive Board’s briefing on innovation in UNFPA on 12 April 2023. UNFPA has been a leader in innovation, emphasizing it as an enabling principle for its work in its last two Strategic Plans. Nevertheless, UNFPA has struggled with the scaling of innovation, which according to the latest academic research on innovation in the UN, is not a problem unique to UNFPA. The same research also explains how innovation does scale in the United Nations in two very different ways. We share this research in this week's spotlight so that innovation strategies in the UN can be tailored to the type of scaling they intend to achieve.

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Much of the research on innovation is focused on the private sector, or on social innovation undertaken by community-based organizations or corporate firms. A key point highlighted by researchers analyzing innovation in the UN, is that international organizations are a unique environment, different from both the private sector and other typical social innovators.

First, because international organizations are funded primarily by member states who allocate funding based on specific programmes and mandates, there are often little or no possibilities for UN entities to allocate financial resources to new, experimental initiatives that come with a high risk of failure. Second, international organizations are characterized by heavy bureaucratic rules and decisionmaking processes with multiple gatekeepers to ensure that resources are being used for the purposes intended by member states. As a result, however, these bureaucratic processes are generally not very nimble and further reinforce risk aversion within international organizations. Finally, unlike other organizations involved in social innovation, which tend to be very localized, international organizations have a widely dispersed global presence, which adds an additional layer of management challenges.

Given this unique context, it is not surprising that UN entities struggle to scale innovation and that strategies used by other actors cannot be fully replicated in the UN. But researchers at the University of Geneva, who analyzed eight innovation case studies across several UN agencies found two distinct patterns of how innovations are able to scale up. These innovations studied started in field locations, and as a result of strong contextualization were able to demonstrate a measurable impact for beneficiaries - this was a key pre-requisite for scaling. Scaling then took one of two paths, primarily in order to overcome the challenges of bureaucratic processes and decision-making at headquarters.

The first, which they called ‘organic scaling’ was from one field location to the next, essentially bypassing headquarter entirely. This allowed the innovations to be replicated in other field locations, also with their own contextualization to local conditions and needs. Both in the initial innovation and the replication, beneficiaries and partners often played an important role in contextualization. Organic scaling from one field location to another was generally a relatively seamless process, facilitated by strong peer collaboration across the field.

The second form of scaling in the UN, called ‘strategic scaling’, was done via headquarters. An important success factor was a headquarters based champion, often innovation units or in some cases managers in key positions, who were able to help innovators navigate complicated administrative and decision-making processes. Innovation units in particular demonstrated added value by identifying funding sources and by helping innovators to identify KPI and data analytics to strengthen justifications for funding and/or to facilitate positive decision making by highlighting impact and reducing risk aversion.

Strategic scaling often allowed innovations to scale across larger number of field locations than organic scaling. But more importantly, strategic scaling and positive headquarters involvement also meant that the innovations were able to have a larger impact on the organization itself and its capacity for further innovation in the future. These impacts included recognition for the need for new staff competencies and learning, realignment of internal structures for improved performance, or replacement of organizational systems or processes that did not support innovation. So while strategic scaling was harder to achieve than organic scaling, it was able to demonstrate broader organizational impact and build innovation capacity for the future.

Many of the challenges and complexities of UN innovation highlighted by the researchers in Geneva were also identified in UNFPA’s first formative evaluation of its innovation initiative in June 2017. The evaluation also highlighted that the original intent of the innovation initiative had been both to demonstrate impact for beneficiaries at field level and increase the UNFPA’s organizational capacity for innovation, but it struggled to achieve both simultaneously. This is despite the foresight of creating an Innovation Fund to mitigate some of the challenges in scaling innovation. Part of the problem was the limited human resources specifically dedicated to supporting innovation, thereby limiting the ability for strategic scaling. Thus a recommendation of the evaluation was for senior management to choose a focus for the innovation strategy - impact for beneficiaries based on particular projects or increasing organizational capacity for innovation.

Both UNFPA’s evaluation and the latest research on innovation in the UN, therefore, point to the importance of identifying the specific aim of innovation strategies by UN organizations, and with that, to target the type of scaling they intend to pursue. For those with the aim of maximizing impact for beneficiaries, it will be important to create systems to facilitate organic scaling, such as peer exchanges and learning events, empowering innovators and managers in the field to take risks and establish partnerships for innovation. For those UN entities whose innovation strategy is intended to build innovation capacity, consideration should be given to headquarters support for strategic scaling, such as through innovation units, dedicated staff or management champions, whose focus is on supporting innovators with data analytics and information management and facilitating resourcing solutions.

Much of this research has been consolidated in the Geneva Innovation Movement founded by the aforementioned researchers, Tina Ambos and Katarina Tatarinov. The Geneva Innovation Movement provides useful resources for practitioners and accountability mechanism members to learn more about innovation in UN organizations.

To further support those involved in upcoming briefings, we have compiled suggested discussion questions to enhance strategic dialogue on innovation in the UN:

  1. How have innovations scaled across your organization most successfully so far?

  2. What data is used to determine whether an innovation is successful and how it is scaled?

  3. What human and financial resources are available to support innovation, in the field and at headquarters?

  4. What is the aim of your innovation strategy?


  • WFP's Executive Board has made draft country strategic plans for Egypt, Kenya, the Pacific region and Zambia available for comments until 11 April 2023.

  • The UNICEF Executive Board is also making the draft country programme for Chile available for comment by 10 April 2023.

  • The General Assembly's Fifth Committee agreed on a Human Resources resolution for the first time in six years. Normally, Human Resources is considered every two years, resulting in a resolution through with the General Assembly provides guidance to the Secretary-General. Difficulties in finding agreement in previous debates meant the last resolution was in 2017.


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