UNTIL World Innovation Day Interview: A UN Veteran Surveys 25 Years of Tech Changes Within the Organizatin
New York, USA -- Over the last few years the UN headquarters in New York, long known as the epicenter of world diplomacy, has also emerged as a hub of technological innovations. The organization has spawned its own innovation ecosystem creating amazing solutions to overlooked global problems.
Catalyzing these innovations are public sector entrepreneurs working within the organization’s different offices. Their approaches vary but they share the same goal of supporting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
To mark World Creativity and Innovation Day we spoke to Salem Avan, the Director of Strategy at UNTIL and one of the leaders of technological change within the UN. In the interview below Avan offers an engaging journey through the recent history of technological change.
Avan argues that technological change has been sharply beneficial for the UN, making the organization better able to understand the rapidly changing contexts where it operates and make informed decisions. Avan also cites the UN’s many diversities and far-reaching mandates as objective reasons why the UN is well suited to foster technological innovations geared at solving shared human problems.
UNTIL: You’ve been with the United Nations for 25 years. What have been the biggest technological innovations in the organization during this period.
Avan: When I started with the UN we had some very established stable communications. We had HF radio, VHF radio, the telephone network etc. and those are still there. But information technology was just starting. The UN was just starting to implement email. Word processors were very basic. And in that time the internet fundamentally changed everything and what I found is the internet was a catalyst for the kind of convergence we didn’t expect. The integration between systems that came from the internet, the way in which data was moving just fundamentally resulted in a paradigm shift. I think the biggest innovation that isn’t perhaps apparent is that whereas previously we had an old-fashioned nearly entirely telecommunications-based way of working, that now has changed to the point that even the old telecommunications is really just based on information technology and the internet so everything now is data driven.
A more recent change is the use of mobile devices and the mindset of people who have an expectation that everything is available all the time, from any place, with equal level of quality. And when you think about the UN – where it works, what it does, its mandates, the diversity of its geographic locations, the diversity of its workforce, languages, cultures – that’s an extremely difficult thing to achieve.
So the two biggest paradigm shifts I’ve seen have been the introduction of the internet and then the convergence of all the technology towards single interface through mobile devices and the expectations that come from it.
UNTIL: You’ve spent a lot of your career in peacekeeping and in the field. You’ve served in nine field missions. How has technological innovations improved peacekeeping operations?
Avan: Peacekeeping itself has fundamentally evolved. Back when I started peacekeeping was a much simpler affair. It was about classical peacekeeping, military observation and civilian police activities. And then in the mid 1990s there was a change; the complexity of missions changed significantly. Technology at that time was basic, but effective. That technology was calibrated to the particular needs of peacekeeping. Peacekeeping now is an entirely different affair. One of the things that has been really important is the use of data and information to understand what’s happening in the field so we can have the kind of insight we didn’t have before, so we can have real-time information so we can correlate that information more effectively. I think now with the introduction of artificial intelligence and machine learning now we are able to derive meaning and insight from those massive amounts of information, those seemingly unrelated activities. The elements that have an impact on the peace and security environment and to understand them in a way that we were never able to achieve before. I think we still struggle to connect all those elements together and turn it into meaningful insight but we are starting along that path.
UNTIL: Why is this a good time for the United Nations Technology Innovation Labs?
Avan: One of the things that has happened in the organization is that as technology has grown within the organization, and naturally those with mandates across the different parts of the UN started to use technology. That technology was an add-on to their core mandate. So human rights would build technology for work that supports their efforts. The peace and security pillar worked on technology that supported their efforts, and so on. Now what we find ourselves in an environment where we have the opportunity to use innovation to connect all of those different activities together. To use data that we were never able to use before. Of course, what’s also really important is we are about 4 years into the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDG’s are extremely challenging and extremely expansive. Therefore the UN Technology Innovation Labs are a means to create nuclei where we can attract partnerships, efforts, solutions, and data and together we can start using those technology innovation labs to bring coherent solutions that cover all of the work of the organization which at the moment is embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals.
UNTIL: You believe that the UNTIL Labs are key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?
Avan: One of the things that happened when the SDG’s were being formulated is that the SDG’s are a follow-on to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s). The Millennium Development Goals were not universally successful. When the SDG’s were formulated there was a very clear understanding that technology and data had an important part to play and there was some thought, I understand that there could have been an SDG really dedicated to technology, data, and innovation. However, the principle was that technology, innovation and data underpins all the SDG’s – is required for the SDG’s – just as much as partnership and collaboration is required and coherent action is required. So, I believe without technology and innovation we are not going to achieve the SDG’s. In fact, we; humanity, are in a race to solve the problems that we have fast enough that we can avert challenges and in some cases slow onset crises that are affecting every part of the UN’s work, be it human rights, peace and security, humanitarian affairs, international law or development. And I think technology is a catalyst for that. I think one of the important things that isn’t recognized is that technology and data provides a unifying language, not only in terms of allowing different people from around the world to tackle problems in a coherent consistent way. But it’s also something that is so ubiquitous that young people, as young as 3, or 4 or 5 and older kids, have an understanding of and reliance on technology. So one of the opportunities it presents is create a way for everybody, especially the youth, to engage whereas previously that wasn’t possible.
UNTIL: Do you think that the UN is cognizant of that and is devoting enough resources to innovation and data innovation within the organization?
Avan: The UN is now more aware of this than it’s ever been. It’s more engaged on technology, innovation and data than it’s ever been. It’s also good to see there’s an emphasis on youth and young people and the Secretary General has talked a lot about frontier technologies and the need to use technology. There’s an awareness that’s been catalyzed by the Secretary General which is staring to pervade the whole organization. Today we have a much more receptive, forward-looking organization that is interested in technological innovation and data and that’s one of the reasons why when we talk to senior leadership or staff about the technology innovation labs they are quite engaged and interested because that’s something the organization needs and it’s something concrete they can actually connect their work to.
UNTIL: It also engages partnerships. What kind of model do you think the UN should engage in to work with the private sector, innovators and partners.
Avan: We need to work with the private sector and the Secretary General has talked about the importance of partnerships. The public sector, Member States, I think we need to work with individuals in the public domain and of course with academia. With the private sector in particular one of the things we need to establish is first and foremost is the concept of shared values. Second we need to allow and support an understanding of what we are trying to do; at a very human level that explains to people what fundamental change we can achieve, together through their support , their engagement, their partnership, and through technology, data, and innovation. If we are able to do that, I think we can bring private sector partners along on trying to solve these problems. I’ve always felt since I joined the UN that the UN is really the embodiment of a responsibility that we all have as humanity. It’s not simply an organization that has a particular mandate and set of responsibilities. If we can convey that the responsibilities of the UN has are actually the responsibility of everyone in the world, then I think we can be more successful than we are at the moment in trying to solve these challenges, just because the challenges are that complex and that large in scale.
UNTIL: Since this is your 25th anniversary of being at the UN, including multiple peacekeeping operations, leadership roles at headquarters, where do you see the UN heading 25 years from now?
Avan: The organization has to take into account that the geo-political landscape is changing, and the organization is effective at doing that. But societally the world has changed and continues to change. Information is being democratized, people are dealing much more on a peer-to-peer basis. The kind of institutions we had before are not the kinds of institutions that we will have in the future and the ability to solve problems will fundamentally change. Add to that artificial intelligence, I think that’s the single most important issue on the horizon. AI has been compared to electricity and I think that’s a good analogy. Twenty-five years from now AI will be so pervasive and such an enabler for everything we do that it will fundamentally change not only the way we do live and work but will fundamentally change what we are able to do. Even now there are function being undertaken through AI that are not humanly possible and were not possible through the previous computing paradigm; I think the organization has to adapt to these changes to remain effective, current, relevant and most importantly central to the core purpose for which it was created..
UNTIL: Do you remember your first day at the UN?
Avan: I’m not sure I do. I think I remember the first month. But I remember the day before my first day. I was petrified because I thought the UN is going to be full of the best and brightest in the world and I thought “how on earth does a young person fit in and make a contribution and support the work and be relevant?” But you realize the organization is a welcoming place and the people are supportive. So I’m not sure I remember my very first day but I remember the run-up and I remember integrating into the UN and getting embedded in the organization. I also remember the first week, meeting someone from the Congo and I was super excited because I’d never met anyone from Congo before. As you get older that becomes the norm. But when you think about it you realize you are lucky you work in an organization that has the most amazing diversity that you wouldn’t find anywhere else, whether it be language, culture, gender, nationality, role responsibility, mandate, where people are working, what they are doing, what their background is. That’s what I remember most about my first days at the UN. And being where I am now, I can appreciate why the guy from Congo looked at me like I was a little strange, perhaps because he forgot and had come to take the UN for granted.