Humanitarian Innovation Needs Systems Thinking — Parts 1 & 2 | by UNHCR Innovation Service | The Arc | Aug, 2020 | Medium

Humanitarian Innovation Needs Systems Thinking — Part 1

UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR Innovation ServiceFollowingAug 5 · 11 min read

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Illustration by Hans Park

Innovation to improve the work of protecting and serving refugees requires problem solving methods that uncover structural and human barriers, and tools for thinking through, testing and experimenting with possible solutions.

Innovation and organizations scholars Dave Francis and John Bessant (2005) have identified four types of innovation within an organization: changes to products and services, changes in the way those products and services are created and delivered, changes in how products and services are communicated, and changes in what the organization actually does.

To drive these innovations, innovators need to understand the systems they are working within, whether those are internal systems created by human resources or local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) crucial for delivering emergency aid. They need to understand the motivations of the various stakeholders, the norms and values shaping the organization’s culture, and policies and procedures that create formalized standards within the organization.

To identify the right problem to solve, innovators use systems thinking. Systems thinking is a methodology for identifying the root causes of complex problems and identifying interventions for systems change. This holistic approach to problem solving is critical for humanitarian innovation that works to create change within the sector by both introducing new ways of doing work or improving current practices (Warner, 2017).

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Humanitarian Innovation Needs Systems Thinking — Part 1 | by UNHCR Innovation Service | The Arc | Aug, 2020 | Medium

Part two:

When and How Do You Use Systems Thinking? — Part 2

UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR Innovation ServiceFollowingAug 14 · 9 min read

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Illustration by Hans Park

In his insightful article, Human-Centered, Systems-Minded DesignThomas Both, Director of the Designing for Social Systems Program at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, tells the story of Jill Vialet (Both, 2018).

Vialet is the founder and CEO of PlayWorks, an organization that helps schools help their kids do their best by improving how they play during class breaks. School leaders often told Vialet they faced a shortage of substitute teachers. When a teacher called in sick, they did not have a reliable pool of substitute teachers to cover the classes. This created a challenge for the schools, as they would have to move teachers around or rush to find a replacement. As a result, teacher absences had adverse effects on the classroom and on the students’ learning outcomes.

Vialet wanted to take this challenge on. Most people working to solve this problem would assume the school simply needed to hire more substitute teachers. But as Both reports, when Vialet studied the substitute teacher system, she found that the problem wasn’t that there weren’t enough substitute teachers. In fact, there was a large pool of people already in the system, but few taught on a regular basis.

Vialet spent time with substitute teachers to identify the root cause of the problem and how to change the system. She found that, “Substitutes felt they weren’t respected or valued by schools, and felt they didn’t have a community of support in schools or among their fellow subs,” writes Both. Schools had to change how they interacted with and supported substitute teachers. This is quite a different intervention than simply recruiting more people. As a result of this work, Vialet founded Substantial Classrooms to help schools improve how they train and support substitute teachers.

Vialet was able to solve this complex problem because she employed both human-centered design and systems thinking. As Both writes,

“For both human- and systems-level challenges, we need to identify the problems worth addressing if we are to create meaningful change. Understanding the right problem, we can better create effective solutions. A very simple characterization of a design approach is that we move from working to understand a challenge, to working on creating solutions in response to the challenge.”

Systems thinking is a methodology for understanding complex problems. It helps us understand the motivations and beliefs of people involved, as well as structural dynamics at play. Knowing the dynamics of the systems we are trying to innovate will help us know where to act.

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When and How Do You Use Systems Thinking? — Part 2 | by UNHCR Innovation Service | The Arc | Aug, 2020 | Medium