This Spring, the ICRC Innovation Facilitation Team hosted the third and fourth InspiRED Days events – one in March and another in May. Held online, the gatherings brought together 70 staff from 26 countries to listen, learn and reflect on the meaning of innovation, how it works and why it matters.

The Innovation Facilitation Team considers InspiRED Days as an introduction to a mutual innovation space, where ideas, tools, and methodologies are available to each delegation and department.

Staff from all over the globe are invited to participate, share and compare the ideas and notions that could alter and improve the ICRC’s work – today and in the future.

Strategic Foresight

This year’s Spring sessions both featured an introduction and exploration of Strategic Foresight, a method of thinking about and planning for the future.

As presented by ICRC Innovation Advisor, Melissa Kiehl, Strategic Foresight is about reviewing and understanding what’s new, what’s next, who’s driving it, how they are doing it and—most crucially—why.

“The aim of Strategic Foresight is not just to understand and predict what’s coming, but to use relevant and various data to actively shape possible outcomes,” said Kiehl. “We cannot prepare for a future that we cannot imagine.”

“Effective Strategic Foresight is an inherently inclusive and participatory method,” Kiehl continued, “Futurists must cast as wide a net as possible about what is known so they can bring order to what is unknown.”

Head of Innovation Nan Buzard encouraged participants to begin by, “thinking long-term and listening to the kinds of signals that might be beyond what normally informs our planning.”

“This is a technique and methodology already used in the private sector and by governments,” explained Buzard, “so our team wants to help the ICRC get that muscle working on a more comprehensive and wholistic level.”

The May session featured two collaborative activities to encourage anticipatory thinking: ‘Headlines’, which transformed participants into time-traveling reporters, and ‘Signals’, which asked them to imagine an ICRC delegation in the year 2040.

Facilitated by the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre Associate Director for Research and Innovation, Dr Pablo Suarez, each humorous and thought-provoking activity triggered intense discussion about the future of humanitarian work and how the ICRC can evolve.

Voices from the Future

In a different approach to looking at the future, dynamic guest speakers were on-hand in March to introduce participants to the power and utility of Strategic Foresight.

Dean of Human Sciences at Namibia University of Science & Technology, Alinah Segobye, and futurist and Senior Manager at Acumen Academy Bangladesh, Shakil Ahmed, gave depth and function to the idea of foresight.

An archaeologist by training, Segobye encouraged looking beyond the present—including the pandemic crisis that continues to upend so much—to the past, in order to inform the future.

“We cannot limit our imaginations about what we can do in the future simply because of whatever crisis we have in the immediate term,” she said in a statement that resonated with her humanitarian audience. “The past helps us imagine the future.”

She encouraged “purposefulness” in thinking, because “every piece of data tells a story.” Segobye cautioned, “You cannot be haphazard about the way you want to go into the future.”

But these warnings were filled with optimism too. Citing the African concept of community and togetherness known as ubuntu (I am because we are), she insisted that “hope is an important resource… and you must consciously build that into your work.”

Ahmed expanded upon the idea of inclusion, stating “the future is not fixed, there are possible, probable and preferable futures which, once identified, can be actively pursued or countered.”

Collaboration, partnership and open conversation are at the core of effective innovation, and Ahmed said these same qualities can help define a preferred future and bring it into existence.

“It takes all of us to work towards the future, and that’s why diversity is so important,” said Ahmed.

Shaping Technological Futures

Future talk is frequently technology talk, so it was fitting to hear from experts in their field, Aude Billard, Professor of Robotics and Machine Learning at EPFL, and Cathy Hackl, a LinkedIn Top Tech voice and leader at the Futures Intelligence Group.

Explaining how machine learning has grown and continues to develop in the world, Billard told participants that, “technology has always been a support to humanity, making lives easier and augmenting human capacity.”

Billard said it was “also essential to be choosy about technology, and for people to be given the choice over what technologies they want to adopt and which they don’t” as a means to protect their personal information.

Indeed, data protection is a complex issue in which the ICRC is deeply engaged, including (but not limited to) its support for the ICRC’s work on humanitarian biometrics.

For Hackl, “looking for patterns and drivers of change, and sparking intelligent imagination” is vital when preparing a vision of technology for the future.

“Understanding emerging trends in technology, and the weak signals of today, can shift paradigms in culture, business, environment, psychology and society,” said Hackl.

“In the future, organizations and governments will need to anticipate any potential threats, challenges, competitors and opportunities with regard to any new tech – not only to be efficient but possibly just to stay relevant.”

Innovation in Action

After the theory, came the inspiring and practical application. Four ICRC teams presented their innovations that were developed through the Innovation Cycle methodology and introduced through a series of powerfully concise Turbo Talks.

  • Thao Ton That Whelan, GIS and Remote Sensing Specialist, described using high resolution satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to conduct a high-speed, remote needs assessment in a conflict-affected part of the Central African Republic. She also highlighted the continuing need for human intelligence and local knowledge. “You can see a lot from the skies, but it’s not the complete picture. People who know the context could add even more information and help to fine-tune the machine’s analysis,” said Whelan.
  • Dikolela Kalubi, Energy Challenge Lead, and Julien Camus, Head of Sector for Finance, explained the importance of making the ICRC’s energy transformation open to everyone. As humanitarians, like others, seek ways to reduce their climate impact, “We want to make energy transition as accessible as having a generator,” said Camus.
  • Elia Bernabeu Mira, Physical Rehabilitation Project Manager in Niger, described the particular challenges that people with disabilities face accessing and using wheelchairs in a sandy environment. Mira said that her work researching specialized wheelchairs in this context had been made possible thanks to “an atmosphere of trust” within the Niger delegation, “where we could work very easily, think openly and present things, and imagine our dream.” She continued: “We should do more to create these kinds of environment in which innovation can flourish.
  •  Edouard Delaplace, Detention Advisor, and Paul Blanchard, Detention Associate, offered participants something different, appearing in avatar form within an impressive and detailed 3D-rendered virtual reality simulation of a prison. By participating in the prison simulation training, delegates are less unsettled and better prepared when faced with the real thing. “The better prepared we are at assessing conditions of detention and treatment of detainees, the more useful and effective we can be at protecting them,” said Delaplace.

Inspiring Participation

For the ICRC Innovation Facilitation Team, innovation is about new and different ways of thinking, addressing problems that improve how the organization operates and how it can better prepare for the future.

What links the diverse initiatives, ranging from small and routine to big and transformational, is a desire to improve and push or rethink the status quo.

InspiRED Days continues to offer participants a rare opportunity in humanitarian work, one in which they can pause, reflect, listen and consider what has developed, what is emerging, and what may come to pass for the future of the ICRC.

No matter what topics or areas of interest are showcased, each InspiRED Days event has but one main objective: to inspire. And as each event occurs, inviting and serving 185 staff to date, efforts are made to improve, adapt and evolve to the needs of the Institution. The Innovation team looks forward to creating the next iteration of InspiRED Days for Autumn 2022.