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In Search of Greater Social Impact: The Challenge of Innovation in UN Agencies

Computers with a glowing globe in the middle

Digital transformation and the United Nations

Humanitarian and international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) have increasingly turned to digital technologies to innovate, a move that may also help them increase their social impact. In 2018, the UN launched a new strategy to promote the use of artificial intelligence, blockchain, and other digital technologies, hoping to improve the services delivered to millions of organizations and people around the world.

It is expected that by 2020, 40 out of 63 UN agencies will have set up and incorporated some of these digital platforms to rapidly implement the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. The agenda is an unprecedented call to action to protect the environment, eradicate poverty, and improve the lives of people across the globe.

However, it can be challenging to accelerate digital transformation in organizations that resist change. Managers and other internal stakeholders who take part of UN agencies often face complex administrative systems and slow decision-making processes. When negotiating the distribution of resources, these UN stakeholders may also experience tensions. Such challenges may have a negative impact on the proposed plans to scale up innovation initiatives at UN agencies. Can UN agencies embrace innovation by going digital like many other organizations have done? How can UN innovators streamline processes in these highly bureaucratic organizations and still manage the tensions that arise? And what can we learn from this transformative experience?

What’s this research about?

Saouré Kouamé, an Assistant Professor at the Telfer School of Management, has received an Insight Development grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to answer some of these pressing questions. Kouamé will collaborate with researchers from Switzerland and Singapore. By examining these innovation practices at UN agencies, the research team hopes to:

  • fast-track digital transformation in a UN organization that faces significant challenges to innovate
  • identify best practices to accelerate digital transformation strategies in the decision-making and resource-allocation processes at humanitarian agencies
  • contribute to the scientific discussion about social and inclusive innovation in the international community.

Project Title: In Search of Greater Social Impacts: The Challenge of Innovation in UN Agencies

Potential impact

“We believe this is a unique opportunity to understand the innovation process in a UN agency. Our research findings can also advance knowledge about how these leading organizations adopt digital technologies to address the world’s most pressing social problems,” explains Kouamé.

The research team will share their key findings with UN agencies based in Ottawa and Geneva, as well as government officials who collaborate with the UN. In doing so, the researchers will help Ottawa- and Geneva-based UN agencies improve their digital transformation processes. Kouamé’s findings will similarly help government officials better understand and support emerging innovation practices at UN agencies.

Learn more about the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Development Grants.

About the Author

Lidiane Cunha a été agente de la mobilisation des connaissances en matière de recherche à l'École de gestion Telfer de 2017 à 2022. Elle a notamment traduit des projets de recherche et des résultats complexes en un langage accessible, et a élaboré des histoires d'impact, des vidéos et des infographies. De plus, elle a fourni des conseils en matière de communication pour aider les administrateurs principaux, les membres du corps professoral et de la population étudiante aux études supérieures à rehausser le profil de la recherche à Telfer. Elle a élaboré une stratégie de communication pour le bureau de la recherche de Telfer, en plus de faire participer les diplômé.e.s et les partenaires communautaires à des initiatives visant à faire connaître la recherche de Telfer.<br><br>Lidiane Cunha was a Research Knowledge Mobilization Officer at Telfer from 2017 to 2022. She translated complex research projects and findings into plain language and developed impact stories, videos, and infographics. She also provided communications advice to help senior administrators, professors, and graduate students raise the research profile of the Telfer School of Management; developed a communications strategy for Telfer’s Research office; and engaged alumni and community partners in initiatives to raise awareness about Telfer’s research.