For all children to have an equal chance to make the most of their potential, innovation must not only benefit those who can afford it the most. It must also meet the needs and advance the rights of those who have the least.
We call this innovating for equity, and it is already happening: in tech studios and university laboratories; in government, business and development organizations; and in kitchens, classrooms and community centres around the world. Innovators are drawing on unconventional sources of knowledge and collaboration, disrupting established processes and structures, and using available resources creatively to produce practical solutions that deliver higher quality or greater impact at lower cost. But how is one to determine whether an innovation, and the process of innovation itself, serves to advance equal opportunity for all children, regardless of the circumstances into which they were born?
UNICEF and partners in governments, businesses, philanthropic organizations and the United Nations system have endorsed principles of innovation for equity. In our experience, this kind of innovation is:
- Targeted to reach children not reached by traditional approaches.
- Designed with and for the user to address the specific needs of marginalized and vulnerable children and families, and priced so they can benefit from it.
- Anchored in the principles of children’s rights, including non-discrimination, so that all children and their families have an equal chance to enjoy high-quality goods and services.
- Participatory – engaging children, young people and their communities as agents of change.
- Rooted in local social, cultural, economic, institutional and political circumstances – and adaptable to differing contexts.
- Based on sound evidence and subject to rigorous monitoring, evaluation and revision to increase the benefit to the most deprived and vulnerable children and families.
- Sustainable within countries’ or communities’ financial and environmental constraints; not reliant on subsidies or on the degradation of natural resources.
- Scalable, to bring benefits to as many as possible within each specific context. Since circumstances vary between settings, not everything will be appropriate everywhere.
- Unafraid to fail, because failure is both a natural consequence of testing new ideas and a critical part of creating successful innovations.
More is at stake than the need to provide high-end consumers with the latest gadgets. Innovating for equity aims to change the lives of children in need. So innovators must strike a different, more delicate, balance – accepting the degree of risk required to break through to new solutions while safeguarding the hopes and well-being of children.
So, how to put these principles into practice?
Innovation is about moving beyond boundaries and refusing to accept the status quo. And so a principled approach to innovation starts with, and is guided by, questions throughout the process – from identifying problems to developing and scaling up solutions to evaluating their impact.
Key questions for innovators and facilitators of innovation to consider include:
Assessing the context
- What barriers are keeping the poorest children and families from the goods, services and opportunities they need to realize their rights?
- What has been tried before? Why hasn’t it worked?
- Are there potential home-grown solutions available that could be developed with support? What kind of support do local innovators need?
- How can communities – and especially their most marginalized members, like women and girls or ethnic minorities – be engaged in developing and implementing solutions?
- Does the solution meet applicable quality standards?
- Will the poorest be able to afford it?
- Will it be equally accessible to children with disabilities or those from other disadvantaged groups?
- Is the solution appropriate to the intended age group and prevailing social and cultural norms?
- Do the institutions, infrastructure, legal framework, resources and capacities needed to make the solution work exist? How can gaps be filled?
- Is the solution financially sustainable or will it need more money to keep going?
- Is the solution environmentally and financially sustainable?
- Will all users have an equal voice in providing feedback?
- What risks are involved in implementing the solution? Are they acceptable?
- What happens if it fails? What kind of support will communities get to help them deal with the failure?
- How will lessons from the failure inform future efforts?
Scaling and adapting solutions
- How do you know if a solution is scalable?
- What will it take to bring the solution to scale?
- If a solution is not scalable, what is its value?
- When adapting a solution to a new context, what needs to be changed?
Engaging children and young people
- How can children and young people be engaged in the process of innovation?
- What measures must be taken to protect children involved in the process of developing and implementing solutions? How should children be compensated for their time and effort?
- What kinds of education or training can help foster children’s creativity and critical thinking? How to ensure that the poorest and most marginalized children are not excluded from such opportunities?