Photo: Henrik Trygg
Photo: Henrik Trygg

UNICEF joins Stockholm’s world-renowned innovation ecosystem

Children today face unprecedented challenges exacerbated by two years of a global pandemic. Traditional approaches must be overhauled to generate the impact needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

There's no time to waste, stresses UNICEF's global innovation director Thomas Davin. "Pre-pandemic, we were already late in terms of how fast we were progressing towards our global ambition for children. COVID has made that radically worse. How do we move the needle fast enough to catch up?"

UNICEF's Global Office for Innovation in Stockholm will help to answer that question. The geographical co-location allows UNICEF to connect with impact makers within Sweden's public and private sectors to discover innovative ways to realise children's rights and wellbeing.

Few cities are so uniquely suited to the challenge. In addition to being named the second most innovative region in Europe, Stockholm is recognised as having one of the three best startup ecosystems globally. It's a tech and creative hotspot and the birthplace of more billion-dollar startups than anywhere outside Silicon Valley. In recent years, it's also become home to a cluster of impact hubs that find and invest in companies that can positively affect the lives of at least one billion people.

The ecosystem is incredible, says Davin, and was central in UNICEF's decision to relocate its Global Office for Innovation to Stockholm. The city is brimming with successful startups and commercial entities from music giant Spotify to telecoms veteran Ericsson. And, he notes, "Sweden has always been committed to global social impact and is one of the only countries in the world to devote a significant part of its GDP for this purpose."

Companies in Sweden don't just talk the talk when it comes to doing good, Davin adds. "They're all saying, 'We're very proud of how our business is moving, but how can we lend that knowledge, expertise and experience to UNICEF so that children in the world benefit?' That desire to impact the world is phenomenal."

The Impact Capital

Impact is the beating heart of UNICEF's Global Office for Innovation. Future partnerships will be motivated by the need to find solutions that address one or more of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, such as Quality Education, Good Health and Wellbeing, and Reduced Inequalities.

There are several clear targets, says Davin. For instance, that all children worldwide should benefit from access to primary and secondary schooling by 2030. Tens of millions of children are currently out of school, while 48 per cent who have completed five years of primary school still struggle with literacy.

A global learning crisis caused by inadequate curriculums and poor connectivity in schools compounds the problem. Added to this are issues from limited healthcare access to what Davin describes as a "tsunami" of mental health issues aggravated by the pandemic. The stigma still surrounding mental health further impedes public conversation and consequent action.

It's still early days, but Davin hints at a multiplicity of partners UNICEF looks forward to collaborating with from its Stockholm office. Designing and using technology to address these issues will be fundamental and Stockholm, with its world-leading tech scene, is well equipped for the challenge. Work is already underway with Ericsson, which is using satellite imagery to identify school buildings worldwide so that countries can increase their connectivity.

"We're looking for that element of innovation to help us figure out if we can accelerate solutions we've already identified," says Davin. "Can we digitize some of the solutions? Or, indeed, can we radically shift the viewpoint and look at it from an entirely new angle. That is where we will hopefully come together."

It's a mindset shared by Stockholm's ecosystem. Solution-focused thinking and collaboration are cornerstones of Swedish business culture. It's arguably key to the city's flair for innovation and talent for finding answers to pressing problems. Keen to cement its status as a leader in this space, Stockholm last year set its sights on becoming the global impact capital. With an impact-first mindset that is innate to the city's startup ecosystem, Mayor of Stockholm Anna König Jerlmyr is confident it will reach that goal.

"We're quite a small city with a culture of knowledge sharing, so we can perhaps move faster than bigger cities. We hope to address these problems at speed and then share these cutting-edge solutions with the rest of the world. Combined, UNICEF and Stockholm have what it takes to become a force for global change."

Engaging youth in problem-solving

It's children and young people who will face the challenges of tomorrow and who suffer most from the effects of conflict or poverty. Their insights and opinions are a fundamental piece of the puzzle.

Sweden has long laid the foundations for this approach to problem-solving. Education is free and subsidized programmes, from music tuition to creative courses, help young people create purpose in their lives. Moreover, Swedish schools are encouraged to build a collaborative environment and foster an entrepreneurial mindset.

"We need to engage children more so that they can contribute with fresh insights into how problems can be solved," says König Jerlmyr. "Creative thinking is often seen as separate from the main academic subjects, but it's one of the most essential qualities and one we will all need in the future."

Children in Sweden have a forum to express themselves and an agency that children in the rest of the world might not have, suggests Davin. "The voice and actions that young people in Sweden have is incredible, and we hope to benefit from it for global solutions. And how can we use this local ecosystem of young agents for change to connect to global ecosystems of youth for bigger, bolder global impact?"

UNICEF will work with world-leading medical research university Karolinska Institutet (KI) to co-design and validate solutions. Together, UNICEF and KI will identify digital solutions that don't just sound exciting but create genuine equitable and sustainable impact. Innovation in healthcare, including mental health, and the climate crisis are top of the agenda.

"Those are the kind of big problems we'll focus our energies on. The solutions will be world-changing if we get our responses right," says Davin.

It's natural to deepen the relationship between KI and UNICEF, says Ole Petter Ottersen, President of Karolinska Institutet. Both are actors in the same field, focusing on global health issues and evidence-based projects. The partnership also presents a unique opportunity to identify and test innovation needs in the 193 countries where UNICEF is present.

Ottersen is confident that connecting brilliant minds around the perspectives of children and the conditions they face will foster creative thinking and innovation as well as appropriate solutions towards children’s wellbeing. "It's really exciting that we will have access to UNICEF's knowledge and expertise nearby. Hopefully, UNICEF will feel the same when they have one of the world's leading medical universities as a neighbor.”

The issues on hand can only be solved by cooperation and innovation, says Stefan Swartling Peterson, professor of Global Transformations for Health at Karolinska Institutet. Peterson believes that global impact is possible and with the establishment of UNICEF’s Global Office for Innovation in Stockholm, it feels more achievable than ever.

"These are very exciting times with the whole innovation ecosystem in Stockholm, leading universities, engaged youth, and now also UNICEF connecting the world's innovation needs – and markets – to Stockholm. I smell success for the future of the world's children."