1.   Thriving in a complex world

The level of change unfolding in the world today is extraordinary. It is widely recognized that current humanitarian systems and processes are already stretched beyond capacity and will likely face additional stress in the years ahead. Complimenting this changing landscape, are the emergence of new forms and modalities of assistance as well as non-traditional actors who are in some cases are a lot agiler and effective than traditional aid organizations. Facing significant need with limited resources, new approaches, tools, methodologies, and major paradigm shifts must occur if we are to continue to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st-century head on

The scale and pace of current crises require renewed attention beyond the usual, investment in foresight, strategic change, agility and innovation will be critical. The pervasive spread of our infrastructure, institutional expertise and the size of our volunteer base are excellent foundations from which to tackle the future challenges, but they must continue to strengthen, adapt and grow. This will require courage, investment, new forms of organizing and collaborating, and profound commitment to change that goes beyond tinkering around the edges.

Recognising this, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) has taken a more focused and radical interrogation of the potential organizational change that will be needed to thrive in new environments through its investment in Innovation and Futures.

We believe in an approach to innovation that prioritizes ethical explorations of grassroots solutions, experimentation with emerging technology, alternate sources of financing and non-linear approaches, partnering with local innovators and entrepreneurs, applying strategic foresight to help navigate potential future uncertainties and driving a culture of change, curiosity and exploration throughout our network. Over the last 12 months, we have seen how innovation has moved from an expanded beyond just Geneva but pervaded through the network and the work of different National Societies. This is a testament to the power of transformative change that can significantly alter and drive cultural and organizational shifts when innovation is distributed and localized.

This narrative report explores these approaches through the practices not just of IFRC, but of our National Societies and partners that embarked on this journey with us, and of our collective learning and what we are excited about for the future.

02. IFRC Innovation 2017 – Our Learning Journey

Two Paths to Supporting Grassroots Innovation

IFRC in partnership with Palang Merah Indonesia, the Global Disaster Preparedness Centre, Zurich Insurance, the Humanitarian Leadership Academy and Pulse Lab Jakarta tested two distinct and different approaches to local innovation, that was trialled in Indonesia. The trial aimed to better identify and amplify local innovations on flood resilience in the country, that in 2016 alone was hit by 2,342 natural disasters.

The first approach utilized was running an Innovation Challenge on Flood Resilience. Running an Innovation Challenge process proved to succeed in raising the profile of the project and getting public buy-in. As a way to cast a wide net, this was valuable, however for any Innovation Challenge to be meaningful and effective, stronger nuancing and specificity around challenge questions is needed to ensure that proposals are appropriate to the topic.

The second was a rigorous research process – utilizing Lead User Methodology. This methodology uses a targeted research approach to identify local innovators that have already designed solutions to issues specific to their communities. The Hamburg University of Technology, a global leader in the field of Lead User research, partnered with IFRC to undertake this process in Indonesia. This approach unearthed a diverse range of local innovations on issues related to flood resilience that would not have been identified through normal research or the aforementioned innovation challenge.  Though the Lead User Methodology is an intensive process that requires high levels of analytical and research rigour, it proved valuable in being able to identify non-traditional and non-linear solutions to issues of flood resilience. 

Examples of projects identified through the Lead User approach included using black soldier flies as a sustainable waste management system; trading trash for health insurance; and Ecofunopoly, a board game to raise environmental care awareness among families.

The idea of crafting floating structures didn’t come up as a business model; we just wanted to help people we love.”, said Don Karmarga, co-developer of the first floating library in Indonesia, also identified through the process.

What we learnt from the two approaches

Challenges, by contrast, often request ideas and prototypes from people who are at a distance from its immediate need and context, without necessarily fully testing the practical application of the solution. Lead User innovations’, on the other hand, can prove to be more relevant — having the significant advantage of already being field-tested — and ready to scale. See here an article published by The Stanford Social Innovation Review on this approach and lessons learnt.

Catalyzing Sustainable Financing with Duty and Dignity

The UN estimates developing countries will need 2.5 Trillion USD a year to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and that the vast majority of these funds must come from non-government sources. There is an urgency for new financing sources that complement the ongoing financial strains.

 Of recent times, we are finding the emer­gence of a number of new financing models, growing both in terms of their market size, their operations and the way they serve those in developing countries, as a new alternative. These innovative finance instru­ments are projected to unlock private capital and help further leverage public funding to mobilize various new sources of investment for public policy, social ser­vices and development goals, while at the same time realigning interests of various partners and creating new investment opportunities.

Particularly, the role of Islamic Finance in economic development has already unlocked tremendous potential and in its social dimension offers a greater opportunity in bridging the financing gap in order to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. Every year between US$200 billion and $1 trillion are spent in “mandatory” alms and voluntary charities across the Muslim world. In 2015, Islamic Finance had an estimation of US$ 2 trillion; this figure could reach US$3.5 trillion by 2021. Further, advancements in financial technologies (fintech) offers data-driven insights to improve efficiencies at scale. Yet, despite the hype across the sector, we found that explorations so far seem to barely scratch the surface in how they understand the applicability, potential and most importantly the principles that underpin these financing methodologies.

What does this mean for the Red Cross and Red Crescent?

Last year the IFRC established together with British, Canada, Denmark and Kenya National Societies a Global Innovative Finance Team (GIFT).  with the aim of collaboratively structuring new financial mechanisms and adapting technologies to accelerate learning and meet humanitarian and development financing needs.

As a first-ever milestone, we co-designed an international Zakat financing instrument in support of Kenya’s Drought Assistance Programme. In response to the need, a Malaysian State Zakat Council (MAIPS) pledged CHF 1.17 million in zakat financing. The project implemented by Kenya Red Cross has already impacted more than 1.2 million lives, and with a mechanism for refund of CHF 500,000, additional communities stand to benefit. The model recently showcased at the Responsible Financing and Investment Summit in Zurich demonstrated the transformative impact of zakat and value of Islamic Social Financing for communities in need.

A second initiative comes from understanding the challenges of ineffective management and lack of transparency as it currently exists in ISF and extending more widely across social finance. We co-designed a blockchain application with AID Tech that helps address these challenges, providing traceability and transparency to individuals and organizations to track their donations on an easily accessible platform. In early 2018, the application won the global competition for fintech in ISF, organized by the Islamic Development Bank and IE Business School, recognizing its potential and helping gain credibility in the ISF space.

A third initiative is focused on encouraging Islamic Social Finance dialogues to showcase its immense potential across countries and sub-regions. Contemporary ISF is nascent and is yet to gain sufficient prominence at global dialogues for it to develop into structured and more sophisticated development instruments. We organized a first-ever global Islamic social.

The Future is Now

If we are truly to be fit for the future, it is not enough to merely look at internal organizational structures, processes and policies.  The question of being future fit is also about whether we are fit to serve communities of the future. Are we going to be able to deliver the types of programs and services that future societies will desire? We cannot solve the challenges of the future with the same systems and structures that created them.


Preparing for the crises of the future means not only analyzing the social, political and economic context that will shape our emerging future but also developing practical steps to turn this analysis into effective strategies, policies and programs. To achieve this aim, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent launched the Solferino Academy; a think tank and ‘do’ tank of humanitarian futures – that undertakes horizon scanning, trends analysis and futures exploration to help the Movement understand emerging futures and to develop strategies to drive agility, adaptability and innovation.

Solferino Academy Highlights

The Academy ran a massive multiplayer online game ‘WhatFutures’, created in collaboration with OpenLab at Newcastle University. The game was aimed at engaging RCRC youth volunteers in exploring the future and how the Red Cross and Red Crescent could change to remain relevant and anticipatory. The game ran over 10 days in September 2017 and more than 4,000 young people from 120 countries played this game, providing over 180,000 conversations with their views on the future of humanitarian need.

Read ‘The New World Times,’ a newspaper created with the game top stories and advertisements from the game.

In November 2017, the Solferino Academy launched the first experiential humanitarian exhibit in Antalya, Turkey. The co-creation design process involved futures design agencies and IFRC, in transforming the Academy’s futures research and analysis in 2017, into speculative design manifestations. The exhibit curated seventeen artifacts that took participants through visceral futures scenarios to better experience and understand what our emerging future might look like.

Experiential futures methodology is highly effective in change management processes. The artifacts help participants go through a visceral journey of complex emerging trends and issues, and helps engage a more intellectual and emotive experience. The experiential futures exhibit has since been brought to Riyadh, Tunisia and to the Netherlands in the second half of 2018.

Visit the digital exhibition.

Fostering a Network of Innovation

“We think helping people grow is important.”

We believe that to drive an innovation culture, it cannot remain in cultivated labs. A culture of experimentation, curiosity and innovation can only drive change if it is distributed throughout the network. In National Societies all around the world, we have talented individuals who are creative, entrepreneurial and who are experimenting with innovative approaches in their work. To amplify this talent, we brought together 27 energetic staff and volunteers from across the Red Cross and Red Crescent network. The IFRC Global Innovators Accelerator had two face-to-face studios with a mixture of theory and a practical application of innovation methodologies. Participants worked on projects and ideas which were grounded in the needs of communities they belong to or are working with. The accelerator helped them to land those ideas and run prototypes throughout the year.


The first studio introduced innovation tools to apply before moving into solution identification. Technical experts from Brighton University, Michelin, Airbus Foundation, and the Centre of Postnormal Times worked with participants through the week to deeply understand different approaches to innovation and how it may be incorporated in the day-to-day work. Post the accelerator program, the group continued to receive remote support from mentors and internal technical networks. The second studio focused on learning from experts at the forefront of development work. The training took place in Nairobi, where local startups from across the region presented their approaches and opportunities to scale them in different contexts.

Examples of accelerator participant innovation prototypes include:

The RCRC Network in Innovation

It’s becoming more common that the Red Cross and Red Crescent network worldwide invest in innovation and futures approaches. From hosting forums with experts to exploring grassroots innovations; pushing an experimentation agenda left a lot to talk about in 2017. The following sections  present a compilation of stories produced by staff and volunteers from around the network who are testing various innovation experiments

New forms of engagement

Self-organized Youth Editorial Gives Voice to Those Who Were Silent

Kenya Red Cross

A group of energetic young volunteers in central Kenya decided to take actions and self-organize to tell their stories uniquely while testing new approaches to tackle their day-to-day challenges.

Our story is their story

IFRC planning, monitoring, and evaluation

IFRC’s Monitoring and Evaluation team have applied participatory video techniques to promote efficient and inclusive monitoring mechanisms with the communities. In 2017, they took this approach to the next level.

The taste of change

Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center

The Taste of Change experience aims to provoke discussions and reflections on different ways to address food-security climate-related matters.

Unleashing the power of local change

From waste to work

The Netherlands Red Cross

This story is about how local entrepreneurship and a startup coalition are creating employment and resources out of that waste.

Design for change

Spanish Red Cross

A nationwide group of Spanish Red Cross staff, youth, and volunteers came together to learn design methodologies applicable to day-to-day work.

Game on!

Mastering Skills using Alien Technology?

Portuguese Red Cross

EuropAlien is an engaging feedback mechanism where youth (sometimes in hard-to-reach situations) can express their opinions in a relaxed and fun way.

Act to Adapt: A Game on Climate Issues

Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center

The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre in partnership with Plan International and Emerson College Engagement Lab created a unique tool with practical exercises to help communities adapt to climate-related issues

Experimenting with Emerging Technologies

Robotic Snakes Crawled for Survivals after Mexico City’s Deadly Earthquake

Mexican Red Cross

As part of the search and rescue operation, Carnegie Mellon University researchers, in collaboration with Mexican Red Cross, deployed a snake-like rescue robot for the first time in the aftermath of a disaster situation.

Can New Technologies Change Hospitalized Children’s Views of the World?

This time, Spanish Red Cross Youth,  wanted to discover if there is a way to enhance the life quality in the hospital through the use of new technologies.

Forecasts to watch out for this year

As 2018 advances quickly, the Red Cross Red Crescent Network has various experiments in line. The initiatives outlined below represent an ongoing effort to test new ways of tackling complex issues. Highlights include implementing innovative financing mechanisms, exploring new technologies, shifting the organizational data culture, and sharing knowledge through hands-on events. Throughout the year, progress updates on the different topics will be posted on this website, stay tuned!

Innovation Events Across the Red Cross Red Crescent Network

Australian Red Cross and French Red Cross

You may not have heard much about them yet, but you will see a lot of them this year. National Societies are investing more in bringing together staff, volunteers, and external experts in the innovation to explore new approaches to humanitarian work.

The Future Red Cross and Red Crescent

Solferino Academy, an initiative of the IFRC

Every ten years the Red Cross Red Crescent networks take a moment to stop, reflect and look forward. Developing Strategy 2030 is about giving everyone the ability to create, act upon and be part of the emerging future – so that no one is left behind.

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