What the UN Taught Me About ‘Innovation’

What comes to mind when we hear the words “United Nations”?

Big? Definitely. Powerful? Probably. But — innovative?

That’s what I’m wondering as several excited UN Millennium Campaign staffers escort me through security at the UN’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters one sunny afternoon in the run-up to the UN General Assembly. And to put it plainly, I am bracing myself.

I was here because of UNMC Director Mitchell Toomey and my friend Anand Kantaria, a UNMC stalwart and all-around wonderful human who’d asked me to host the organization’s Peoples’ Voices Awards Ceremony during the GA. And if showing up for good people weren’t reason enough to accept the invitation, there were plenty more: On what was about to be the 70th convening of the UNGA, we’d be celebrating volunteers and allies around the world who’d helped advance the UN’s Millennium Development Goals over the

 The "We the Peoples" hub at UN headquarters

The "We the Peoples" hub at UN headquarters

last 15 years and driven the unprecedented global conversation to arrive at a development agenda for the next 15 years. And we’d be doing it just 100 feet from the spot where, that very same day, 193 world leaders would officially set that new agenda, known as the Sustainable Development Goals.

It was awesome. In the truest sense. “Innovative,” though — that’s the word that kept exploding in the air like fireworks as we made our way to scope out the awards venue. But the more folks said it, the more I couldn’t help thinking of that line often attributed to Margaret Thatcher: “Being powerful is like being a lady — if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” I’d put innovation in that category, too. And I’d lived through enough pitches as a journalist where this or that company’s innovative-ness amounted to a killer slide deck, some snazzy Bluetooth gadgets, and a whole lot of wine.

Imagine my worry, then, when I finally saw the tent that would house our event and others throughout the GA. For starters, calling this a “tent” would be like calling the Eagle Speedster a “car.” The “We the Peoples” hub, named for the first three words of the UN Charter, sat on a couple hundred square feet on the usually open grounds of UN headquarters. And while hardly unassuming from the outside — especially considering how secure it needed to be for the imminent flood of eminence and excellencies — inside felt like a scene out of Minority Report.

Screens covered every surface, made all the more impressive by the picturesque little slivers of East River peeking in between them. Production designers buzzed around testing light and sound seemingly more fitting for Madison Square Garden than the UNGA. And like travelers from another dimension, a few people stepped gingerly through the buzz, interacting with a whole different world inside their virtual reality headgear.

Let’s just say it wasn’t immediately apparent to me how all this would lead to, say, Zero Hunger — i.e., SDG 2, and one of the dearest to my heart. Or to accomplishing most of the other SDGs. And for me — not just as a writer, but as an immigrant, an American, and an impatient, socially conscious and sensibly cynical Millennial — that’s where the real innovation needed to happen.

Then, in the midst of my rising skepticism, Anand started tapping touchscreen buttons.

1. ANAND KANTARIA DEMONSTRATES THE MY WORLD SURVEY; 2. EXPERIENCING THE UN VIRTUAL REALITY DOCUMENTARIES AT THE MICROSOFT TECHNOLOGY CENTER IN MANHATTAN’S TIMES SQUARE; 3. A “HUMANS OF MY WORLD” POSTCARD.

Here were the searchable real-time results of MY World, an ongoing survey that had captured 8.5 million (and counting!) citizens’ priorities for their own countries and communities. And over there, using tech from Samsung and the Oculus Rift, some of the world’s leading decision-makers and media professionals would be able to experience life through the eyes of a young Syrian girl in Clouds Over Sidra, a 9-minute virtual reality documentary produced by Vrse.works on Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp. They’d even have the opportunity during the UNGA to enter a “portal,” created by artist collective Shared_Studios, where they’d be able to converse face-to-face with someone in Zaatari thanks to immersive audio and video technology. And for the old soul in me, scattered around the place were lovely “Humans of MY World” postcards — on paper, inspired by the brilliant “Humans of New York,” highlighting individual My World voters and the things that mattered most to them. “To change people’s behavior,” a Colombian parkour practitioner proclaimed on one card, “you have to get creative.”

That’s just what the UNMC and its partners — from UNICEF and the UNDP in the hub to Facebook, Samsung, Microsoft and so many others — were doing. And not only was it dazzling, it felt absolutely innovative. Because, for all the tech and big talk, there were real people — real stories, real problems, and real potential solutions — in every piece of it.

 Nadira and Richard Dictus, executive coordinator of the UN Volunteers programme, present at the Peoples’ Voices Awards.

Nadira and Richard Dictus, executive coordinator of the UN Volunteers programme, present at the Peoples’ Voices Awards.

My sense of this only deepened as the UNGA kicked off. Once I was actually on stage for the Peoples’ Voices Awards, it felt perfectly natural to introduce the Nurses Association of Uzbekistan — honored for its longstanding contribution to the Millennium Development Goals through volunteer action — and find a group of unassuming women in local garb on a wild hillside speaking to us via highly produced and subtitled video message. And by the time I’d journeyed up to the Microsoft Technology Center in Times Square a few days later for a “Data Playground,” it seemed there was no visualization UN Global Pulse data scientists could offer — from pedestrian patterns following natural disasters to keyword searches of local radio broadcasts using voice recognition software — that didn’t floor me.

All of this was — and is — happening at the United Nations. It is the ultimate behemoth, founded by governments “to employ international machinery,” as the preamble to the UN Charter reads, “for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples.” And it would be so easy, with a mission as fundamental as this, to aim straight for the obvious fixes. But consider: When it comes to something like Zero Hunger, soup kitchens and supply drops certainly matter, but so might public policy, and land-use planning, and crazy cool weather simulations. Issues as deep and wide as hunger, poverty, climate change, and inequality of all kinds require deep, wide approaches; they won’t be neutralized with a single campaign or moment of insight. They demand big experiments and bold entrepreneurial calls.

They demand innovation.

In the time since the UNGA, I’ve waited for the shine to wear off. I’ve asked myself, for instance, whether virtual reality will do any more to alleviate the plight of Syrian refugees than a traditional documentary or stunning standard photograph would have in the past. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter. True innovation means trying whatever serves the mission. And until the mission is accomplished, why wouldn’t we pursue all reasonable possibilities? Maybe the virtual reality resonates with just the right world leader to alter the lives of a million refugees. Or one of those postcards gives some young person the exact spark she needs to volunteer. Or the data gathered by that survey from people whose voices might otherwise lie quiet inspires a whole host of UN actions.

Actually — that last bit’s already happened.

  THE UNITED NATIONS’ SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS.

THE UNITED NATIONS’ SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS.

When the gavel fell at the 70th UNGA to signal the setting of the UN’s new development agenda — to usher in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that will define the UN’s mission through 2030 — it was literally the peoples’ agenda. Because, for the first time, MY World had made it possible for so many of the very people the UN was founded to represent to take part in its process: From volunteers knocking on doors with clipboards in hand to voters clicking through on their tablets and mobile phones, millions of ordinary people had been asked, they had answered, and they had been heard. (And they continue to be heard at http://vote.myworld2015.org/, where you too can vote!)

Nothing could be further from my nightmares of slick sales pitches wrapped in trendy tech surrounded by high-flying promises. And nothing, frankly, could be more innovative.

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Nadira Hira is a writer, speaker, and Fahrenheit Millennial Culture fellow who was most honored to host the Peoples’ Voices Awards for the stellar United Nations Millennium Campaign team (left). Find more from her here, on Twitter at @nadirahira, and at www.nadirahira.com.