Incubating innovation: how UNOPS is tackling our time’s greatest challenges

Interview with Jonas Svensson, Head of Innovation, UNOPS

Author: Ina Andersson

What do multi-billion-dollar companies such as Uber and Google have in common with Ikea’s solar panel-powered refugee shelters, or a bloodless malaria test? Innovation. It is a buzzword of our time, frequently attached to new ideas that claim to be able to solve all the world’s ills – or at least make a load of money. But what do we actually mean by innovation? How do we move beyond its shiny exterior and begin to understand its substance?

With these questions on my mind I sat down to speak with Jonas Svensson, the Head of Global Innovation and Technology at the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS). UNOPS is an operational arm of the UN. It assists with the implementation of $1 billion worth of aid and development projects each year, with the mission to help people build better lives and countries achieve peace and development. Described as working with ‘innovation, boldness, speed and efficiency’, UNOPS conveys a contrasting image to the stereotype of a bureaucratic and methodical UN machine. So why is innovation so important?

 ‘The challenges that humanity is facing at the moment are great: climate change, population growth, access to water and resources’ Jonas says. ‘The systems change that is needed will not be possible in the short space of time we have to address these problems, so the only other way forward is innovation.’

‘But a problem with innovation today is that it is entrepreneur-centric’, Jonas continues. ‘We are judging the idea not by the idea value, but based on the person who comes with the idea’. The image of the successful entrepreneur – usually a 20 to 35-year-old with a flair for public speaking and aggressive marketing tactics – overshadows the actual quality and sustainability of the idea itself. Instead, we need to look for ‘innovation height’. ‘If something has great innovation height, it means it has not been done before’. An idea with innovation height is not just copy-pasted and then launched in a new place, Jonas explains; instead you are coming up with a completely new way of addressing a problem. ‘Incubators for start-ups exist everywhere. A good first step is to educate the people who select start-ups for these incubators and develop processes for them that support innovation height’.

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To further its mission, UNOPS has recently started creating a global system of innovation centres, where start-ups that contribute to a sustainable society will be supported in developing their ideas. Its most recent centre is located in Lund, Sweden, less than an hour on the train from Copenhagen. The centre’s focus will be cutting-edge technology based on engineering, mathematics, medicine, physics and science.

‘We have identified four areas in which we need to provide start-ups with tools’, Jonas explains. ‘The first is education, to build the knowledge and skills of someone like you or other students with a great idea so that they can take it forward. Secondly, we need to provide investment. We have to give the support you need to be able to live while developing your idea. Thirdly, we provide a physical space, so you can go there every day and have structure in your life. Fourth, we train the regulators and we tie into local infrastructure such as academia, mentoring teachers and professors so that they can provide expertise.’

The solutions that the UNOPS innovation centre in Lund is looking to support may very well be in the field of global health. In mid-September there will be a challenge at the centre to find teams to populate the incubator. Although not officially launched yet, the challenge will be open to anyone living anywhere in the world with a great idea for a solution to a problem. The best solutions will get a space at the centre in Lund for 12 months, plus gain access to the range of tools provided and mentoring from the UNOPS procurement team.

Jonas emphasises that the innovators that come to the challenge at the centre in Lund can be sure that it is based on a real-world problem: ‘the UN is very good at describing problems and designing challenges, as we face these problems in the field every day. That does not mean that we are the best at solving those challenges’. In addition to the UN, private sector companies are also involved to ensure that the solutions are more widely applicable. ‘The theme for the challenge in Lund is ‘deep technology’, meaning we want ideas that are complex and take more than a year to develop. It is realistic for us to support a start-up for many years. It is all about milestones – as long as a team behind an innovation is hitting milestones, we will not pull the plug. We will continue to support start-ups with the overall vision of pushing the world away from entrepreneur-centric, towards innovation height and solving real problems’.

When I ask Jonas if he has a final piece of advice for the readers of this blog, he simply says: ‘Never be afraid’. He continues: ‘We are lucky to be living in a very protective society in Scandinavia and yet only 2% of people start a company. Of those 2%, only 10% are women. But even if you fail, you are unlikely to sleep on the streets or be unable to eat tomorrow. Just look at me – I failed and lost everything three times and I’m still here. What is really the worst that can happen? So never be afraid’.


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