Innovation versus an intern’s comfort zone

I met Christopher Fabian, co-lead of UNICEF’s Innovation Unit at New York Headquarters, in spring 2012 in Finland. He was one of the panelists at the conference “Zombie Innovations or True Development” organized by Aalto University. During the conference I realized how close the subject was to my Master’s Study Programme in Service Innovation and Design and decided to talk to Chris about an internship at the unit. Now, I have been interning here at the NY Headquarters for eight weeks.

My academic and professional experience is in business management. Before joining the Innovation Unit at UNICEF HQ I filled different positions in the cards and gifts unit at UNICEF Finland for six years. Even though I was continually evolving in my work I felt confined to thinking inside of the box because I was limited to concentrating my focus in this one area. I realized that I desired to push the envelope and I enrolled in a pioneering Master’s study programme that marvels thinking outside of the box by emphasizing concepts like service-dominant logic, co-creation, learning by developing, design thinking, innovation, and multidisciplinary knowledge. I studied for two years while I continued to work at UNICEF Finland and tried to use my work as a study subject in school assignments whenever possible. This made understanding the study programme and its modules easier but still kept me within quite a narrow mindset.

Last week we were having drinks after work with the team and Erica (Erica Kochi, the other co-lead of the unit) asked us what we like or do not like about working with the team. Even though it might sound a bit weird, the thing that I both like and dislike is that I feel out of my comfort zone when working with totally new projects. It makes me think differently which is stressful and liberating at the same time. Stressful on the one hand when I don’t know what I’m doing but on the other, I’m learning new things all the time and teaching myself to approach issues from new perspectives. Personally, it has been quite difficult moving from a working environment where you master your doings to another scene where everything is new and unfamiliar. However, this is excellent practice for me to forget about the familiar box and try to find the magic that lives outside of my comfort zone. I should not only try to think outside the box but instead I need to get rid of the box entirely to truly liberate from my restricted way of thinking.

My box disposal has begun slowly but surely during the time I have spent here. Because I’m still new to this unit I have been gaining good knowledge of our team’s work in New York and in the field by managing our online communications. By ensuring our readers have interesting stuff to read in our blog on, adding and updating information on our fellow website, tweeting as @UNICEFinnovate and mapping our photo database I now have a good picture of the work this team is contributing to and the solutions they have created in order to better the lives of the most marginalized and vulnerable children.

UGANDA, 2011. Young Ugandans gather around to use UNICEF’s unique innovation the solar-powered Digital Drum, at Bosco Youth Centre in Gulu, Uganda. The Digital Drum was this month chosen as one of Time Magazine’s Best Inventions of 2011. © UNICEF/UGDA2011-00099/YANNICK TYLLE

UGANDA, 2011. Young Ugandans gather around to use UNICEF’s unique innovation the solar-powered Digital Drum, at Bosco Youth Centre in Gulu, Uganda. The Digital Drum was this month chosen as one of Time Magazine’s Best Inventions of 2011. © UNICEF/UGDA2011-00099/YANNICK TYLLE

The same way Chris and Erica are advisors to Anthony Lake, the Executive Director of UNICEF, our team can be seen as an internal innovation consultant for the organization. Like UNICEF supports governments in over 150 countries in the world our team serves UNICEF country offices in those countries to be able to meet the United Nations Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) through innovative solutions. Country offices are our customers to whom we want to offer our best support and service to reach our common goals of providing children with education, health, protection and equality.

Our team consists of 11 people at the NYHQ at the moment but the number often fluctuates due to short-term interns like me. Our diverse team has a pool of inspiring personalities and everyone comes from different fields of expertise ranging from data visualization, international and public affairs, environmental engineering to media etc. The office diversity nicely matches the premise of multidisciplinary working in design thinking. What is quite exiting is the fact that our team leads Chris and Erica made the TIME 100 List of the “World’s Most Influential People” this year. Additionally, there are 40 or so innovation people working in the country offices and local Innovation Labs (see also a CNN video of Uganda Innovation Lab). However, it is important to note Chris’ quote that it is not us who do the real work but it is done in the field – by midwifes and fieldworkers: “Our work is to provide them with research and technology that they can use in their reality.”

See what the first letters form? ;)

See what the first letters form? 😉 Photo credits: Erika Pursiainen, New York

By working in a foregoing team it is interesting to see the other side of UNICEF, which as a big international organization and part of the UN is still quite bureaucratic and traditional. It is small things like prototyping virtual work for two days and preparing the team for virtual January when all of us can work wherever we want (how does Bahamas sound?). But most importantly, it is huge things like using an oil barrel to build a computer for children that cannot attend school to access the national curriculum outside school premises. The Digital Drum is only one example of groundbreaking innovations this team has designed in collaboration with country offices, academia, and public and private sector. Want to know more? Read the unit’s Annual Reports.

Innovations like RapidSMS and uReport (see also a cool animation and TV show of uReport) that utilize dummy mobile phones prove that best innovations are often very simple. Innovation is not always something entirely new like a new technological gadget but when the innovation utilizes existing infrastructure and already established networks of data and people it makes scaling and acceptance much easier. According to Chris and Erica, the most successful innovations for development are user-centered and equity focused, built on experience, open and inclusive, sustainable, and scalable. They are built for and with the most vulnerable and outreached child in an open way so that everyone has access to the models and tools for the innovation to spread out to every child in need. That makes complete sense but it is at the same time, in this egoistic and selfish world, a very different and foregoing way to think.

The man behind the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Victor Soler-Sala gave us the honor of meeting him when he popped the other day in our team space at the office and reminded us by quoting John F. Kennedy that even though sometimes our work may seem like boring routines we cannot forget the importance of our daily work. These eight weeks have shown me the impact this team can have and I think I’m ready to see the world through new innovative lenses. So, bye bye box!

I will be here for four more months and I will continue to write about the exciting things that happen around here and in the field. Because I couldn’t find the exact John F. Kennedy quote Victor used, I will finish this blog post with another one that well matches the core of my post:

“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.” John F. Kennedy

Erika Pursiainen
Intern, Innovation Unit
UNICEF, Office of the Executive Director
3 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017
Email: epursiainen(at)

Read more stories of UNICEF Innovation on our blog

Innovation Unit staff with Victor Soler-Sala. Photo credits: Christopher Fabian, New York

Innovation Unit staff with Victor Soler-Sala. Photo credits: Christopher Fabian, New York

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