Innovation and the rise of digital technology have forever changed how we work, interact with one another, and create and share information. Innovative technologies are also changing how we, at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), are supporting children and young people around the world.

Innovation has always been an important part of the story of UNICEF. Over the decades, our organization has supported a number of pioneering advances, including the scaling-up of oral rehydration salts, ready-to-use therapeutic foods like Plumpy’nut, and the India Mark II hand pump—the most widely used water hand pump in the world. But we must do more. We believe we will not reach many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without a significant step change in our work. Innovation provides an opportunity to help make this leap and do what generations of UNICEF staff members have always done: apply new thinking to old problems.

The most successful innovations have come about by marrying partnerships, financing and the vast promise of technology to the needs of children and communities. For example, advances in digital technology helped us create RapidPro, a system intended to improve the quality, reach and feedback of vital health information. Using RapidPro, national partners are monitoring the immunization of millions of children in Indonesia, training health workers in Senegal, speeding up responses to breakdowns in water delivery for rural communities in Zimbabwe, and supporting Palestinian children with disabilities.

In a similar vein, the rapid rise of mobile phone technology over the last two decades has driven the creation of U-Report, which is helping us reach children and young people in the hardest-to-reach communities in new ways—and helping them reach us. U-Report is now being used by almost 6 million children and young people in over 50 countries to report on issues affecting them, such as violence, HIV prevention and reproductive health.

U-Report is also being used in our responses to humanitarian emergencies, including the Ebola outbreak, where it provided vital information to people on how to stay safe and where they could get help. It helped us issue safety instructions to more than 25,000 people in the Caribbean during Hurricane Irma in 2017, and spread the word about available cash transfers for families following the landslide in Sierra Leone that same year.

UNICEF is using new advances in geographic software and technology to track unaccompanied and separated children during emergencies, through Primero. This software links them to local social welfare and protection systems, and is now managing the cases of more than 10,000 Syrian refugee children.  

We are also leveraging advances in data aggregation and analysis through Magic Box—an initiative that brings together private sector partners, including Google, IBM, Telefónica and Amadeus, enabling them to contribute real-time data. Using this data, we can better predict where people on the move will go, and design early warning alarms for natural disasters such as earthquakes, landslides or floods.

Innovation is also part of our work on Generation Unlimited, the partnership launched in September 2018 to identify and scale up solutions to help every young person access the education, skills training and support they need by 2030. In Argentina, for example, a programme is connecting rural students in mountainous, hard-to-reach areas with something they have rarely had: secondary school teachers. Students go to a real classroom with a community teacher and connect to teachers from urban hub schools using digital technology. By using such technology in an innovative way, students are gaining quality education and digital skills without having to leave their communities.

The UPSHIFT programme is another example of how we can use new technologies to empower young people. UPSHIFT provides mentorships and resources to create local solutions. In Viet Nam, a team of young people designed and built a new app to help connect people with disabilities with volunteers who can provide transportation and other assistance. This is a great example of how we can support young people as they solve local problems in their own communities. 

Guided by these inspiring examples, UNICEF is now working to address other big challenges using innovative approaches, matching existing technology to global needs. A good example is blockchain—a public digital ledger that can be used to track everything from payments to production supply chains to the availability of teachers in classrooms or health supplies in clinics. Last year in Astana, Kazakhstan, UNICEF convened our first “hackathon”—an event that brings together a group of innovators who collaborate to find technological solutions to key challenges—to test blockchain technology with the aim of developing “smart contracts”. For an organization that dispenses billions of dollars each year to support children and young people, administrative tracking is essential. UNICEF must always be on the lookout for the most effective ways to track the funds that we move around the world, including to the companies with whom we work to deliver services.

I have asked that we expand these hackathons to pose other big questions and test new ideas. Imagine the potential of identity and facial recognition in supporting migrants and refugees. Imagine being able to use technology to help young people on the move—facing interrupted education—work towards portable certification. The possibilities are limitless.

We are developing multiple product innovations to scale up the use of pneumonia diagnostics and oxygen therapy in disadvantaged communities. Our Supply Division has issued a call to companies to assist us in developing and scaling up rapid E. coli detection technology to help conquer one of the leading causes of death for children—diarrhoea. These new approaches can help us close the remaining gaps between communities and the health care they need.

We also know that innovation spreads beyond technology. Our Supply Division, for example, is designing innovative furniture for schools. It will be built locally with local materials, and will be easy to assemble and durable. This is an effective way to improve education for children and young people in disadvantaged communities, and to create local jobs.

Identifying and scaling up these exciting ideas, however, requires a robust ecosystem of support. Broad-based partnerships are critical among governments, United Nations agencies, businesses, philanthropists, innovators, and children and young people themselves—all of us, working together. For example, UNICEF is working with Dalberg, the global consulting firm, and with ARM, the semiconductor supplier, on supporting children in urban areas through digital solutions.

By mid-century, over 66 per cent of the global population will live in cities. Almost all of that growth will occur in low- and middle-income countries, which are already struggling with poverty and poor infrastructure. To help prepare cities for such growth, Tech Bets for an Urban World is examining a number of areas of need. One example is digital smart metering for water in urban areas. The partnership examined water access in Nairobi, Kenya, and found that investments in smart water metering could dramatically alleviate pressure on the city’s stressed water systems while saving money over time and improving access to safe water. This solution could be applied in other cities facing similar challenges. Johnson & Johnson and the Government of the Republic of Korea are joining forces with UNICEF to design, test and implement digital solutions that have connected 85 million children, caregivers and their communities to public health systems in countries such as Indonesia, Mexico, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia.  

Just as partnerships are critical to innovation’s ecosystem of support, so too is financing. The UNICEF Venture Fund is the first financial vehicle of its kind in the United Nations system. With funding from Denmark, Finland and three private investors, it is a co-leveraged $16 million fund for testing and scaling up solutions from around the world. So far, we have invested in 20 companies with promising projects, from textbooks that are accessible to children with disabilities in Kenya, to drones in Malawi, to using blockchain to improve systems for government payments to schools in South Africa.

Throughout our work to explore and apply innovations, we are also working with our sister United Nations agencies to tap into ideas from across the system. For example, UNICEF is co-chairing the UN Innovation Network with the World Food Programme. Over the last year, the Network hosted a series of six data innovation labs, creating new partnerships with agencies and private sector partners around key technologies, including Magic Box.

To help Governments deliver on the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, RapidPro is being integrated into the United Nations planning, monitoring and reporting system, UN INFO. It will be made available to all United Nations country teams for real-time monitoring at the national level, including through the United Nations Development Assistance Framework.

These are just a few examples of how we can develop, identify and scale up innovative technologies, financing approaches and partnerships to deliver services and support more effectively communities around the world.

While innovation has always been a part of the history of UNICEF, we want it to be part of our future, as well. With our public and private partners around the world, we will continue to seek out new and better ways to bring the benefits and efficiencies of technology to our vital mission to support children and young people, wherever they live.

Article adapted from the Executive Director’s Opening Statement to the Second Regular Session of the UNICEF Executive Board, 12 September 2018.