Is Innovation a Buzzword?

IMD Professor Bill Fischer gives a keynote presentation on unleashing and harnessing innovation at the kickoff meeting of the Global Partnerships for Humanitarian Impact and Innovation (GPHI2).

IMD Professor Bill Fischer gives a keynote presentation on unleashing and harnessing innovation at the kickoff meeting of the Global Partnerships for Humanitarian Impact and Innovation (GPHI2).

ICRC’s Innovation Initiative has supported the launch of several innovative pilots that are currently being tested by ICRC and its partners. Over the course of the next months the GPHI2 blog will be showcasing a new innovation project every week. To kick off this series, Tarun Sarwal, ICRC’s Innovation Adviser, gives his perspective on the innovation process and the role of pilot projects.  

1- “Innovation” is increasingly seen as a buzzword in the humanitarian sector. What does innovation mean for the ICRC and what is your unit’s role in promoting this vision?

For many “innovation” is indeed a buzzword. In fact, the first thing people ask when we mention the innovation initiative is “what is innovation concretely?” Innovation means many things, but to us it is about gently, and clearly, bringing change within the organization to promote the adoption of products, approaches and technologies that allow us to provide a greater and better service to our beneficiaries. The ICRC is very good at what it does, but we can always do better. The true purpose of introducing innovation in the institution is to push us to surpass ourselves and be better.

2- ICRC has been implementing pilot projects for decades. How is the pilot process you are promoting different from past experiences? And why do you believe this is critical to promoting and mainstreaming innovation?

When introducing the innovation initiative we went through a long strategic thinking process to determine the best way to identify, select and pilot ideas. We wanted to introduce the idea that innovation could come from anywhere, and in order to catch low-hanging fruit we supported individuals who came to us with ideas that could clearly have an impact in the field. This built initial momentum, but as individual projects they did not necessarily build the inclusion required for institutional mainstreaming.

To achieve institutional buy-in and inclusion we decided to introduce crowdsourcing in our process by developing an online platform we have called RED Innovation. RED Innovation follows a three-step process where ICRC staff can express field needs, then ideas are crowdsourced to answer the needs and, finally, the best and most appropriate ideas are selected and become conceptual prototypes. The best prototypes are then given the necessary resources, both financial and human, to be tested as pilots in the field.

This process has the advantage of bringing field needs, external expertise and resources, and internal know-how together to support the testing and piloting of new ideas.

3- The innovation process that you promote relies on recovering field-based needs and crowdsourcing ideas to meet these needs. Given the number of ideas put forth, how do you select an idea rather than another, and how do you assess the success or non-success of a pilot?

There are two processes at work to help us prioritize. One is using the online crowd as described in the previous question, who generate needs, provide ideas to solve needs, and vote on priorities. A second concurrent process takes place as we move from stage to stage. In this an expert team listens to what the crowd is saying and then, using their institutional knowledge and technical expertise, make final decisions on which needs are most productive and pioneering, which ideas are most likely to address the needs, and put together a practical prototype for piloting.

I would like to mention here that we just went through our needs to ideas phase, where our expert team selected the most voted-on and pressing needs, and derived a set of challenges from them. We will be launching the challenges onto the platform in two weeks’ time (mid-June). We therefore urge you to stay tuned to RED Innovation and contribute with your ideas as soon as this new ideation phase begins!

As for the success, that is easy! If there is a demand for the innovation from our delegations, from our beneficiaries, from our staff, then we have been successful. Of course, we also have to ensure that the compliance and quality of the innovation meet the institutional standards. Pilots can fail for many reasons and we have found that pilots that are not given the appropriate resources, or that do not conform to internal systems struggle to move forward. More importantly, pilots which do not meet a clearly defined need will not replicate successfully. We have had some failure in the first category but because we have been adamant in innovation being needs driven, we have so far not failed on the latter

4- Is it realistic to think that ICRC has the expertise to develop innovative solutions? Given the speed at which technology is evolving, shouldn’t humanitarian organizations rather be outsourcing the development of innovative solutions to tech savvy companies?  

When we talk about innovation we must differentiate what is innovative to us as an institution and what is innovative as a technology. Many innovative ideas that we would like to pilot and implement are actually existing solutions that we just have not been using up until now. Therefore to us they are innovative as they introduce a new tool or technique to our work.

In other cases though, we would like to implement new technologies that are innovative to the humanitarian sector as a whole. And here we absolutely recognize that we do not have the expertise required in-house. We need to partner, to collaborate and to build solutions with others. Outsourcing does not really work as the innovation must be tested within the environment it will be used. We however think partnerships do. For example, a reality to which we are confronted in many contexts is the lack energy sources or the heavy dependence on fossil fuels. To help us with this, our corporate partnerships unit has approached ABB, leader in this field, to explore solutions appropriate to our contexts and needs. The solutions they develop will be designed and tested with our teams in the field to ensure that they fully meet the needs we have.

5- ICRC currently has over a dozen pilot projects underway, could you give us examples of some promising pilots that are likely to be scaled-up and replicated across the organization?

One of our great success stories up to date is the Virtual Reality Tool which has already been scaled-up and is in demand by many delegations within the ICRC. This tool is truly innovative and answers several concrete needs: the training of our staff using virtual reality, and the education of actors in conflict situations on International Humanitarian Law by using situational scenarios.

Other very promising tools that are currently being piloted in several locations and using different solutions relate to mobile device based data collection and beneficiary registration. Up until now the ICRC has been doing paper-based data collection and beneficiary registration, and through the testing of different technologies we will hopefully be soon selecting the most appropriate ones to digitalize the work, gaining efficiency, security and time.

As you can see these three examples are very diverse but answer a few of the many and very varied needs that our staff and beneficiaries are expressing via RED Innovation and other means.

We are of course working on many other pilots, ranging from redesigned body bags to telemedicine solutions for example, and have high hopes for them to succeed in their testing and ultimately be replicated across the organization.

6- Any final thoughts?

Innovation really needn’t be just a buzzword, and I can assure you that the innovators we have in house are designing, defining and testing very real products – based on real needs of our beneficiaries.

I would urge you to also get involved as soon as the Red Innovation platform is made public mid-June. Get on it and express the needs you see, provide ideas for solving needs, share innovations that you are already using, vote and get your voice heard on the ideas and prototypes that you feel should be given a chance. By actively contributing you ensure that the institution remains on top of its game and continues to provide assistance and protection to those who most need it.

Visit the GPHI2 blog every week to check out their new projects!


GPHI2 Blog

The mandate of the Global Partnership for Humanitarian Impact and Innovation (GPHI2) is to promote the development of innovative solutions to humanitarian challenges by harnessing the creative capacity of ICRC partners to respond to the needs of conflict victims. The GPHI2 brings together partners from the corporate sector, academia, research institutes, and leading humanitarian actors from the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement and beyond. For any questions or comments please contact us directly at