The InspiRED Days was the first time that the ICRC organized a global innovation workshop, bringing together staff from different departments and delegations to debate, collaborate and learn about innovation: what it means, where it comes from, why it matters and how it’s done.

More than just a buzzword

At the ICRC, “innovation” is a shorthand for the desire to do things better – for the populations we serve, for the organization itself, and for our partners. We are investing in innovation capacities, such as Futures & Foresight, to imagine unknown scenarios that can help us prepare for new frontiers. We are strengthening collaborative ecosystems and partnerships for greater coverage and leverage. We are accelerating change through emerging technologies, new financing models, and digital transformation.

But how do you make sure that this work is supported and that innovation is more than just a buzzword at all levels of a humanitarian organization?

A two-day ICRC workshop at Geneva’s Impact Hub in November sought to do just that by bringing together people from both inside and outside the organization to trigger discussions and new thoughts on how to do things differently – and better.

“You are all innovating in different ways,” Nan Buzard, the ICRC’s head of innovation, told the gathering of 70 people from 37 delegations and Geneva Headquarters. “Each one of you is creative, and thoughtful, and pushing the envelope.”

The event was a unique opportunity for participants to connect with other innovators, learn new skills, be inspired, and return to champion different ways of thinking and working within their teams. Practical techniques were learned for better analysing problems, planning and implementing solutions, and evaluating their results.

“I deeply believe that innovation is part of how we can achieve greater impact with and for affected populations, while anticipating and preparing for unknown futures in a changing world,” Buzard said.

Innovation InspiRED Days Group

Talk, listen, collaborate

The Innovation Facilitation Team invited author Ben Ramalingam, a research associate at the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) think tank, to facilitate. Ramalingam kicked-off with a compelling keynote speech drawing on his own experience as a child refugee from Sri Lanka’s civil war to illustrate the fundamental importance of innovation, new thinking, collaboration and negotiation.

Innovation can seem scary – ‘Are my ideas interesting?’ – or just irritating – ‘I don’t need any extra work!’ – but the truth is that much of it is about listening and about a drive for creativity, testing and learning.

At the ICRC, there is a lot of innovation already being done – whether you call it that or not – in different forms, from new technologies, to adapted products, to re-designed processes, to novel approaches for partnering and financing. Underscoring this point, more than a dozen ICRC staffers took turns giving two-minute presentations of their own innovations in the form of ‘Turbo Talks’.

From family tracing to satellite imagery, new prosthetics to new warehouses, virtual reality to behavioural science, and electronic messaging to diagnostic apps, the variety of initiatives as well as the quickfire format in which they were presented left the audience wanting to know more. These examples showcased the breadth of innovation across the ICRC – originating in diverse contexts, addressing diverse problems, and proposing diverse solutions – with most being practical responses to challenges experienced in the field that express a different way of working.

Innovation InspiRED Days Agilis

A common theme that emerged time and again was the need to talk, listen and work together. “You can’t say everything is interrelated and then continue to work in silos,” said speaker Aarathi Krishnan, who specialises in humanitarian futures at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC).

Panellist Maya Shah, from Doctors Without Borders (MSF), added, “Innovation has to be done in collaboration to be effective and to scale.” The involvement of representatives from outside organizations was deliberate recognition of the necessity for openness and for breaking out of institutional and mental silos that are so easy to build.

Proof of this came in the form of a surprising presentation by speaker Markus Nordberg, a physicist and head of resources development at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), home of the Large Hadron Collider, and a paragon of international scientific collaboration.

Despite his distance from the world of humanitarian crisis and conflict, Nordberg had useful insights for the audience. “The cross-disciplinary approach is everything,” he said of CERN’s scientific method. He explored the need to “take a leap into the unknown” rather than insist on incremental change, the time it can take to implement change, and the tolerance needed to build consensus out of a diversity of opinions, views, talents and skills. Being a physicist, he also bamboozled people with talk of dark matter and the multiverse.

Another fascinating contribution came from Pablo Suarez, a senior fellow at the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center and associate director for research and innovation at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, who spoke on climate change, conflict and geoengineering. He turned these topics into an opportunity to reveal the role that humour can play in innovation and change, and in fostering difficult conversations.

Innovation InspiRED Days Panel

The real innovators

The idea that change must be rooted in experience was powerfully made by panellist Hovig Etyemezian, who heads the Innovation Service at the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). He, like Ramalingam, was once a refugee, fleeing the Lebanese civil war for Syria.

“We talk a lot about innovation, but the real innovators are the refugees and the displaced,” said Etyemezian, who previously managed the city-sized Zaatari camp in Jordan where Iraqi refugees adapt to survive because they have to, because they don’t have the luxury not to. For humanitarian organizations, he said, “The answer to, ‘Why innovate?’ is so that we can actually meet them halfway.”

“If we really want to adapt to the needs of people, and listen to them, and offer a service that is efficient, we cannot do without innovation,” said Makram Soua, a fellow panellist and the ICRC’s deputy head in Rwanda.

“Innovation happens in the field,” Krishnan said, “We must amplify and support that rather than fly-in solutions.” To answer this call she provided a masterclass in analytical tools, which illustrated that while predicting the future is impossible, forecasting and planning is essential: What are the future threats? What are the future opportunities? How do we prepare and change?

Innovation, the InspiRED Days event showed, holds answers to many of these fundamental questions.

Innovation InspiRED Days