Inside the United Nations’ Innovation Overhaul

A project called “Global Pulse” is quietly building and taking hold inside one of the world’s largest bureaucracies.


The United Nations is one of the world’s largest organizations–managing agencies like the World Food Programme, UNICEF, and the High Commissioner for Refugees–but a new and innovative project has been quietly building in the last few months. The “Global Pulse Project” was initiated at the G20 Summit in New York last year, but only recently has the initiative begun to take shape. Having gone largely unnoticed, the shift actually indicates a monumental change, signaling a more participatory and grassroots approach to technology for social change.

Christopher Fabian
works for UNICEF in New York. He has been advising the UN Global Pulse for the last six months. The global Pulse is led by Director Robert Kirkpatrick and includes staff from several UN agencies. 

“The GP comes at the request of the G20 leaders to the Secretary General and involves a huge web of partners both inside and outside of the UN system,” Fabian tells Fast Company. What the GP is, essentially, is a new programmatic approach that seeks to utilize the streamlining tools of technology and the private sector to help the UN do its job better. There is a strong focus on efficiency, innovation, gathering “real time” data, and rapid response to emergencies–in other words an overhaul of old, lagging, outdated, paper-based methods to do the work of saving lives, improving health, and restoring communities.

The UN’s history of real-time initiatives spans a number of projects, most notably a few recent ones developed in partnership with students at NYU. At the University’s “Design for UNICEF” class–a class spawned and inspired by a single conversation between Clay Shirky and UN staff–mobile phone tools such as RapidFTR have been developed, where aid workers can immediately help families find each other by clicking a photo, uploading onto a database, and connecting missing people. (Previously, this process would take days or months using paper reports.)

Outside of student-led innovations, the UN has a total of 39 early warning systems that aim to gather information quickly, Fabian says. And speed is vital, especially when dealing with displaced children struggling to find their parents after major natural disasters.


As part of the GP, Global Pulse Labs are to be installed in participating countries and next year Uganda will be the first. Modeled in part after Ushahidi’s iHub in Nairobi, the GP Labs will be open-source incubators for designers and entrepreneurs to come together. And all resulting technologies born in the Labs are products of the public domain.

And in just a couple weeks, UN staff from all over the world will gather in New York City for one of the first innovation sessions–“Pulse Camp 1.0”–for local staff who are on the ground in developing countries to come together to brainstorm, “focus on a set of problems, highlight areas of need, and build something tangible,” says Fabian. Thoughtworks and Random Hacks of Kindness are also participating and Fabian says the UN Global Pulse Project wants to adopt a more agile methodology to its initiatives.

The future of the Global Pulse is thus wide open and far-reaching and includes a network of innovation “pulse” labs. Fabian says the Pulse team wants the labs to be self-sustainable and that another 12 more labs will be set up in the next three years. Financial models will be key and there must be a financial incentive for those running them and that is precisely where models from the private sector come in, since the notion of being motivated by money may not come easily to those used to working in charities and non-profits.

You can be sure we’ll be keeping an eye on Global Pulse, as the adoption of streamlining tools such as mobile phones, human sensing systems, and satellite imaging–combined with private sector-influenced management tools to increase efficiency–may just turn out to be one of the largest bureaucratic shifts in modern-day history.


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About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.