Working paper

Innovation spaces: transforming humanitarian practice in the United Nations

13 Mar 2015

Presents new research on the objectives, motivations, and challenges of ‘innovation spaces’ in humanitarian and development work.


The use of the term ‘lab’, more commonly seen in the physical and natural sciences, conjures a sense of a safe haven for experimentation, focused problem solving and solution creation. As laboratories for innovation have become part and parcel of innovation in the UN system, there is a pressing need to understand more about what these labs can truly offer and whether they should be isolated, instead of mainstreaming innovation into an agency.
This research seeks to understand the way in which innovation labs across several UN agencies are being used to foster new ways of operating within the UN’s bureaucratic structures. Asks three key questions to help unpack how innovation labs are taking shape and to inform lessons for future labs about what works and what does not, in trying to achieve a culture of innovation and improved humanitarian solutions. These questions are:
• What form do innovation labs in UN agencies take?
• What motivated their initiation? What are their aims and objectives?
• What impact have they had and how is the impact being measured?

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