Two red eyes later and here I sit at the legendary UNICEF Innovations Lab in Kosovo. Legendary, you say? Why yes, you haven’t heard? Though only months into their official launch, the concept behind the Innovations Lab Kosovo has tremendous potential for conflict strewn regions to provide a platform and voice for social change amongst the communities that have the most ability to see and drive the future of it – youth.
Kosovo is the poorest country in Europe and also has the highest number of youth at over 50% of the population of 2 million and with 73% of those aged 18-25, unemployed. With the war only 11 years old this provides a huge challenge to a society that has been ripped apart with ethnic conflict and societal upheaval.
The UNICEF Innovations Lab is not a novel idea – there is Global Pulse, there is Instedd Labs, there is the HUB. However it is a new approach for UNICEF given its role in upstream policy work and experience in working with government around the imperatives of children’s rights. First launched here in Kosovo, the UNICEF Innovations Lab strives to create opportunity for change by connecting academia, government, the private sector, NGO’s and students. The problems – plentiful and urgent – are introduced through UNICEF’s relationship with the government and addressed collaboratively by design through the Lab and its participants.
In Kosovo, 10% of children go unregistered at birth. This creates a slew of lifetime problems limiting the quality of their life from the second they are born. Lack of access to social services, employment opportunities and risk of exploitation through child trafficking, prostitution and other life altering threats are a result of non-registration and ethnic minorities are the most at risk.
Solutions created through technology have tremendous opportunity to meet a variety of criteria. The mobile platform in particular provides a means to collect, send and track data in real time, creating transparency and also immediately actionable items. And concepts like the Innovations Labs create really interesting opportunities for resource mobilization with technology companies. Which is really the reason I’m here – to learn more about the opportunity and how it can track to corporate support, and to hopefully contribute a little in the process.
So, back to Day 1.
This morning started out with a tour of the 40 staff Kosovo field office. Of course everyone was so welcoming and the tour of the office up and around and around the staircase ended in a beautiful little office with a balcony overlooking one of the main roads through town, Luciano’s office, my host and the Deputy Director of Kosovo.
A few paces out the front door and up an alley to the left our tour led us to the Innovations Lab. A really bright space outfitted with an inviting sitting area, 12 work stations and a requisite bean bag throwdown brainstorm space – the Lab was everything I imagined it to be and even more pleasant in the afternoon sun with the open door blowing in the slight breeze. See here for loads of pics
And, the on-site Innovateers are awesome. There’s Arbnor who runs the Design Center. Afertidie who leads capacity building with the BYFY students, helping them build and track to budgets and project reporting. Etnik, a summer intern working on the web site and IT issues. He’s an original Kosovar but new to living in Pristina after moving to New York when he was 7 . Ron manages the BYFY projects and I’ve yet to meet a few of the others who were out today.
After our morning meetings of getting to know each other, planning my short weeks here and discussing the challenges that the team faces, we left for a group lunch to Café Mexicana. Mexican food in Pristina! Be still my heart.
The focal point of the afternoon though was a visit to the University of Pristina where we met with the Dean of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department and a Professor of Computer Science to discuss student participation in the Labs. Right now there are 4 students working with the Design Center to receive course credit for 6 weeks of work on projects including birth registration, youth service mapping and vaccine management. The meeting was set up because we need many more students and for longer duration. Our goal is to bring corporate mentorship to Kosovo as part of a larger resource package, bringing technology, funding, mentorship and internship opportunities and we need more students to fulfill our part of the value equation. The variables in this work are endless but there is real heart for the outcomes and the UNICEF experience card is a heavyweight when it comes to making these crazy ideas a possibility.
However, the highlight of the day might have been my very short introduction into the realities that most Kosovars live with. On our way back from lunch, my conversation with Affie turned suddenly serious as we started talking about what might make Kosovo different than what I had anticipated. What you don’t see hidden between the fresh new buildings, she explained, is the reality of a citizen base that either fled or spent months hidden in basements, avoiding the eye of the invading Serbs. Affie spent 9 months with 30 other family members tucked away out of sight, something she didn’t want to elaborate on and which she said no words could describe the feeling of. I deeply respect that sentiment though of course I am curious to know more as it’s this kind of humanity that many of us in the western world can’t fathom but need to understand exists.