I recently had the opportunity to travel with UNICEF to Uganda and Burundi to experience a different model of development aid: UNICEF Innovation Labs.  These labs were developed to create a space for ideas, experimentation and incubation of new solutions to help empower a community.  Due to their success, UNICEF has started replicating the model and building labs in other countries throughout the world, including Kosovo and Tanzania.  Each lab is a bit different depending on the space available and the situation in each country.

As I spent five days learning about projects that have come out of the lab, meeting with community leaders in Kampala and rural villages to see what is currently being done and what some of the greatest needs are, everything always came down to one key theme: it’s all about local.  Just like the bumper stickers I remember seeing growing up, “Think global, act local.”

UNICEF’s innovation labs helped create a “digital drum” computer that is powered by the sun. It was built by local engineers in Uganda from locally available products that are virtually indestructible and can hold up in an environment of dust and heat, not to mention are nearly impossible to steal due to their weight. The drum provides Uganda’s youth access to free educational videos, audio clips, games and reading materials. A replica now sits in the Smithsonian museum.

The “digital drum” is only one example of many new products and solutions I saw first-hand on this trip. Read Chris Fabian’s daily blogs from the trip to see other examples, such as U-Report SMS information sharing between citizens, the Government and UNICEF, a biogas facility at a school in rural Uganda, and so much more.

These labs and all of UNICEF’s innovation work is open source. UNICEF hopes this model is taken and replicated by other NGO’s, UN agencies, governments, business executives, and community leaders.

I am impressed and awed by the way UNICEF has changed the traditional model of foreign aid in developing countries, embedding  “act local” thinking  into the core of the work. The UNICEF Country Director in Uganda explained to me that he sees UNICEF as a catalyst which helps to connect local entrepreneurs, business leaders, University’s, and Government together around a new solution to a problem such as access to clean water, energy to charge cell phones or light a home at night, collecting data on needs in different areas of the country, finding children who have been separated from their parents in a refugee situation, education tools for children, new channels of distribution for vaccines and health services, etc.

I applaud UNICEF for encouraging collaboration, allowing for failure, learning from the failures to create an even better solution, and bringing together all different kinds of minds locally and globally to help solve our world’s greatest problems.

Please help raise awareness about these open source initiatives so that other countries can learn and replicate these models in their communities.

Additional links to UNICEF Uganda supported programs:

mTrac (mobile health monitoring system)

Mobile VRS (Birth Registration)

Edutrac (School Monitoring)

Rapid FTR (Family Tracing Reunification)


Hashtag: #uinnovate

Twitter handles

Chris Fabian @unickf

Sean @seanblaschke

UNICEF @unicef