I have just come back from a short visit to UNICEF’s Innovation Lab in Pristina. The lab exists partly to develop and pilot products and processes to assist in UNICEF's work and that of its government ministry partners.  However, in a country in which 53% of the population are aged under 25 and 72% of those aged 17-25 are unemployed, the lab has a broader social aim: to be inclusive, involving what in the UN system is often referred to as the “beneficiary community”.  Rather than just building technological solutions, “innovation” in Kosovo is about building training, aspiration, and livelihood opportunities for Kosovo’s young people. It was this participatory approach that was of particular interest to me in thinking how it might be conceived in a refugee context in order to innovate with rather than simply for a “population of concern”.

UNICEF has a long history of innovation, developing products that it has either invented or taken to scale. Examples include “Plumpy’nut”, conceived for child malnutrition as an alternative to therapeutic milk in contexts where no clean water is available, or the “School-in-a-Box”, which provides all of the equipment needed for a class of 30 children for 3 months.  In recent years, though, it has tried to routinise this process of innovation, creating an “Innovation Unit’” at Headquarters and a growing series of “Innovation Labs” at the field level. Its first two labs were created in Kosovo and Uganda in 2010, and the model has gradually been unrolled to a series of other countries. 

The lab is the brainchild of Luciano Calestini, the Acting Head of the UNICEF Office in Kosovo. It is based on a collaboration between UNICEF and a local NGO implementing partner, PEN (Peer Educators Network), which runs much of the lab on a day-to-day basis. The lab itself is an open space, with a Google-like aesthetic layout, created by Aferdita Zymberi, a trained architect, who leads one of the core lab projects on behalf of PEN. It provides workspaces, computers, open spaces, beanbags, desks, and whiteboards, conducive for creativity, brainstorming, and programming. Over its first two years, three core areas of its work have emerged.

The first area of work is called “By Youth for Youth” (BY-FY). It aims to give young people a first project management experience. Providing seed funding of up to 2500 Euros for projects “with potential to being positive social change to the community”. The lab offers logistical support and mentorship before, during and after project funding. So far, it has funded 53 projects, working with over 4000 people in the process. Successful projects include the development of a website mapping Kosovo’s transportation system, which is now on the Municipality of Pristina website; resources to encourage young people to vote developed by two 20 year-olds; and three blind students from the university who developed a project to convert teaching material to brail for blind students.

Second, the “Design Centre” focuses its core activities on data management – especially supporting the government’s limited capacity in data collection. Its main project relates to birth registration, supporting a wider EU-funded initiative to increase registrations. The design centre is building upon work in UNICEF’s Uganda lab to pilot the use of SMS to facilitate birth registration, enabling incidences of non-registration to be reported and mapped. Other areas under development include using SMS temperature reporting for "cold chain" monitoring in vaccine transportation and a possible smoking project to crowd source map compliance with public smoking legislation.

Third, the "Youth Advocacy Platform" (YAP) aims to involve young people in civic activity. In the context of a 2010 Youth Opinion Poll, which revealed that 48% of young people no confidence in Kosovo’s institutions or its politicians, this strand seeks to develop a demand for civic participation. One of its many activities coincided with my visit: the inaugural Kosovo Innovation Camp, run in partnership with the London-based Social Innovation Camp. The Camp brought together a group of 16-29 year olds, divided into 6 groups, to work together for a very intensive 36 hours and work on developing a web-based social innovation in the presence of mentors with skills in programming, design, and project development. The groups conceived projects that use crowdsource mapping to lobby the government to repair damaged roads and buildings or a website matching employers with "small jobs", internship or volunteer opportunities with unemployed young people, for example.  The winners were offered BY-FY grants to launch their ideas but the main takeaway was opportunities for training from mentors. The experience led me to wonder whether the camp might be replicated within refugee communities, for example. 

I went to Kosovo with the primary aim of bringing back insights for what the UNICEF experience can offer humanitarian innovation in the refugee context. Three days of listening has given me a lot to consider.  However, a number of analytical features of the Kosovo lab strike me as particularly worth highlighting. 1) Innovation is relative. It is not about novelty or invention. It is about finding better ways to do things within particular cultural, political, and legal contexts. Whether they are novel elsewhere does not matter so much as whether they overcome ‘bottleneck’s within context. 2) Holistic benefits. Innovation does not have to just be about the value of the end products. Rather, a process that includes the "beneficiary community" in a participatory way can offer opportunities for training, empowerment and aspiration. In Kosovo there has been a trade-off between speed and inclusivity but it has led to real benefits. 3) Local partners. International innovation projects cannot be conceived as exclusively top-down; they require partners who know the context and have local networks within and beyond beneficiary communities. 4) Political and institutional space. The innovations that are worth pursuing in context have to work with the regulatory environment of the state, albeit possibly by innovating to overcome bottlenecks  - of capacity or will - within those structures. 5) Funding challenges. Traditional donors are often skeptical of holistically framed approaches to innovation. It means that funding either requires non-traditional donors or non-traditional messages to more traditional donors. 

The UN is not conventionally known as a place of innovation. However, the Kosovo Innovation Lab highlights what can be done by pioneering individuals prepared to work from the ground-upwards and in partnership with local actors as well as the ‘beneficiary community’. It offers useful analogies for beginning to develop inclusive and participatory approaches to humanitarian innovation in the refugee context.

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