Credits : ICRC. Photographer : Ricardo Monsalve Gaviria

Christian Lenz, the new Head of Innovation at the ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross), shares his insights on what innovation within the humanitarian sector looks like.

Christian Lenz, you are the new Head of Innovation at ICRC. What is your professional background? 

I hold a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from ETH Zurich (Switzerland) and an MBA with specialization in digital transformation from Politecnico di Milano (Italy). After graduation, I co-founded an engineering company specializing in providing novel solutions for complex acoustic challenges. We had substantial success in active noise cancellation in free sound field conditions for low frequencies, a specific technique that can tremendously improve typical passive room acoustic and noise control measures. 

I joined ICRC in 2016 as an engineer and worked in various field-based roles within the engineering unit in the Near and Middle East. In 2022 I joined the team in HQ, overseeing engineering activities across the same region. Over time, I have increasingly recognized the importance of combating the growing bureaucratic challenges by exploring innovative approaches to work. Joining the ICRC’s innovation team at the beginning of 2024 could not have come at a more opportune moment – combining my start-up and humanitarian experience and allowing me to apply my passion for finding fresh solutions to complex problems. 

What is your vision of innovation in the upcoming years within the humanitarian sector? 

The humanitarian sector urgently needs modernization. How can we truly localize and decolonize aid? How can we maintain a humanitarian space in an increasingly polarized environment? How can we find more cost-effective solutions facing increasingly dire humanitarian needs and situations worsened by climate change amidst a contracting funding environment? 

Innovation – the ability to create value through experimentation and implementation of novel approaches and solutions – has a pivotal role to play in showing up alternatives addressing these questions. It is critically important not to do this in isolation but that we co-create solutions with an open mindset with all relevant stakeholders. 

Starting from well-understood problems conflict-affected communities are exposed, the role of innovation is to enable development and responsible testing of novel approaches to address the problems, while consolidating learnings and removing structural barriers. 

And at ICRC more specifically? 

In the constantly evolving landscape within which the ICRC operates, we aim to adapt with intention and anticipation. We achieve this through interdisciplinary innovation, generating solutions that not only support organizational transformation but also yield tangible value, both directly and indirectly benefiting those we serve. 

The ICRC’s Innovation Facilitation Team (IFT) commissioned an evaluation of its activities between 2018 and 2023. What are the three main learnings of such evaluation? 

It is essential to obtain strategic clarity on where to focus innovation facilitation and support efforts for maximum impact and complementarity through building a strategic and well-balanced innovation portfolio, both strategically managed and organically born. We will be working with the innovation community and our leadership to reconcile priorities and align for complementary impact. 

Innovation happens ‘all the time’ and at all levels in our everyday activities, typically unknown to the rest of the organization. There is a need to find new ways to create visibility, communicate and collaborate, celebrate success, and consolidate learning. We double down on our efforts to build a thriving innovation community and provide a comprehensive collaboration and learning platform for the necessary links to be established. 

Scaling novel solutions remains one of the biggest challenges and can often not happen with dedicated (and limited) innovation funding. It is essential to clarify strategic intention when considering scaling and integration of novel solutions into wider programs and priorities. We will be empowering the innovation community to hold the relevant discussion and take the necessary decisions while supporting at strategic level as required. 

Regarding this evaluation, where did you make the biggest progress and where do you have to concentrate your efforts for the years to come? 

We have been successful in building connections between innovators and setting up interdisciplinary teams to collaborate on novel solutions. We provided tangible support (e.g., financial, political, expertise, moral) to 128 innovation initiatives, and created ‘safe spaces’ that allowed exploration of ideas. 

To bring innovation to the next level, and allow for open innovation, I would like to truly empower our innovation community to self-manage, ensuring they have the confidence to do so effectively and without hesitation. For true and comprehensive transformation, the organizational design and culture are key enabling factors; there needs to be a real willingness to adapt. I would like to reassert our role of innovation facilitation comprehensively: creating an enabling environment, building a well-rounded innovation community, improving a platform for exchange, visibility, and learning, and providing expertise when necessary. 

Would you like to share one successful innovative program developed by ICRC and which is a good illustration of the objectives you are aiming to reach? 

Our “Prisoner of Climate Change” Program in Asia is a notable example. The Philippines has one of the most overcrowded penitentiary systems in the world. It is also one of the countries most exposed to extreme weather events, natural disasters, and the increasing impact of climate change. People deprived of liberty are a notably vulnerable category of affected people in humanitarian terms. Mapping found that about a quarter of detainees held in Philippine jails are in areas at elevated risk of one or more of the following: floods, drought, typhoons, landslides, heatwaves, earthquakes, and volcanoes. Remarkably similar issues are faced by people deprived of liberty across Asia and beyond. 

Based on the climate risk mapping and approach, risk reduction measures have been developed and implemented in partnership with relevant stakeholders in several pilot facilities, e.g., contingency plans, staff training, early warning systems, physical protection of essential services, or placing stocks, detainee records and personal belongings on higher grounds. 

Based on the attention and traction the initiative gained across the region, we are now refining the methodology and expanding it to include a more comprehensive range of expertise and also with the aim of further empowering local authorities to independently assess the specific situation in places of detention under their responsibility, secure dedicated funding, improve, track progress, and adapt. 

What is the mistake that the humanitarian sector should stop making in 2024? 

One of the crucial mistakes the humanitarian sector should aim to cease in 2024 is the tendency to prioritize short-term relief efforts over long-term sustainable solutions. While immediate aid is essential in crisis situations, it is equally important to address the root causes of humanitarian crises to prevent them from recurring. This requires a focus on sustainable development initiatives, building of resilient communities, and advocating for systemic changes. Leveraging systems thinking and foresight methodologies, the humanitarian sector can work towards creating lasting positive impacts, reducing the need for constant emergency response, and systematically reducing dependencies. Investing in true bottom-up approaches and standing ready in supporting such efforts centrally can make an enormous difference and unlock amazing novel approaches. 

Do you have a sentence/motto that drives your work and your vision? 

Delegate trust, but truly! 

The record of accomplishment of successful progressive organizations speaks for itself: improved outcomes, improved satisfaction of ‘customers’ and employees, lower staff turnover rates, lower levels of inert bureaucracy, and accelerated innovation and learning are key outcomes. Radical change is often not possible. It is everyone’s responsibility to start on a small scale, right now; to take a first step and try a new way of doing things, build quickly on what works, and learn together from what does not work.