Cities need an integrated, dynamic and nuanced understanding of innovation in order to inspire organizations and communities to develop imaginative, effective solutions to the biggest challenges. When applied in the right context, innovation can act as a catalyst for change, deliver impacts at scale, put people at the centre and build a better future for all. For UN-Habitat, innovation means embracing new ideas, up-to-date means and fresh approaches to our work. It incorporates both digital and non-digital technologies as both work in tandem together. It can take shape as an approach, a process, a practical tool or an application. It is based on horizontal and collaborative working practices that consider a diverse range of views and considers the context in which the innovation is taking place.

UN-Habitat has a long history of innovation. To consolidate on its work and strengthen its innovation agenda, an Innovation Unit was created as part of the 2019-2020 restructuring to strengthen innovative thinking, practice and solutions both within the organization and externally for the benefit of our partners and the beneficiaries we serve. The Innovation Unit: Promotes an innovation culture for improved sustainable urbanization outcomes. Acts as an enabler and broker for new ideas and partnerships for inclusive and at scale impacts. Develops knowledge and tools to strengthen innovation. Promotes innovation in project and programme design and implementation by providing advice on tools, methodologies, technologies and partnerships.

The challenge

Many cities around the world, both in developed and developing contexts, continue to face key challenges related to housing, livelihood generation, climate vulnerabilities, basic service provision and the delivery of essential community infrastructure.

Harnessing and accelerating the opportunities that knowledge, science and technology and human capital provide across all dimensions of the urban sphere is now more important than ever. Both SDG 11 and the NUA cannot be achieved without deep, transformative societal commitments and resources necessary to deliver Agenda 2030.

Innovation doesn’t happen by magic. Rather, it requires leadership to develop a culture of open mindedness and creativity as well inclusive partnerships and resources to translate ideas into action. All stakeholders need to be encouraged to think and engage with innovative ideas to achieve sustainable urbanization. This especially the case as new challenges, like the COVID-19 pandemic, impact on cities and people around the world. Innovation will lie at the heart of so many solutions to achieve sustainable and safe urban environments. UN-Habitat intends to continue playing a key role in developing the dynamic partnerships and solutions required to make this happen.

News and Stories

Innovation Impact Stories Competition Guide

UN-Habitat’s guide for Innovation Impact Stories Competition guide is designed to outline the innovation impact stories competition process and highlight innovative approaches and activities that contribute to efficiencies, inclusiveness and the maximization of impacts in different urban contexts. The goal of the innovation story competition will be to identify examples of innovative, impactful and scalable approaches and solutions while fostering a culture of innovation and inspiring new innovative ideas and interventions. The guide provides step by step guidance to design and execute innovation impact stories competition and includes guidance to decide on objectives, thematic areas and other design parameters as well as templates to capture and assess submissions. It also has a section on how to write innovation impact stories outlining what goes to into an innovation impact story, things to remember, and links to additional resources.

Urban October events on city innovations

This event calendar is a compilation of stimulating discussions accessible to all around the world, taking place during Urban October, which this year focuses on the climate crisis, although many are related to a broader range of sustainable urbanization topics. Find out more how innovation can drive sustainable urbanization through these dynamic events UN-Habitat is running with a range of partners.

Highlighted publications

Blockchain for Urban Development – Guidance for Urban Managers
UN-Habitat Innovation: Current projects, initiatives and partnerships
People-Centered Smart Cities
Tools and Guidelines
Mixed reality for public participation in urban and public space design - Towards a new way of crowdsourcing more inclusive smart cities
Country Report
Future Cities Advisory Outlook 2020: Urban Technologies in China
Tools and Guidelines
Innovation and digital technology to re-imagine Participatory Budgeting as a tool for building social resilience
Cross-cutting themes

Safety: UN-Habitat’s Safer Cities Programme uses a range of innovative digital technologies to promote safer urban contexts. Often the processes of getting diverse stakeholders together is innovative in and of itself. In addition, more stakeholders, particularly local authorities are using technologies to map safety hot spots.

Resilience: Urban resilience is at the forefront of the UN-Habitat’s work, featuring in the Strategic Plan 2020-2023 as one of the Domains of Change. For example, the CityRAP tool has been adapted and modified to help national and local governments innovate in data-scarce contexts to get first time data on resilience and develop multi-stakeholder action plans.

Donors and partners

UN-Habitat is already working with a diverse range of partners to explore the role and capacity of innovation to sustainable urbanization. We are working with private sector partners such as Microsoft, national innovation development agencies such as Vinnova in Sweden and UN innovation entities such as the UN Innovation Network.


Our Experts

Melissa Permezel
Unit Coordinator
Innovation Unit
United Nations Offices Nairobi, Kenya

Brainstorm on capitalizing Virtual Reality

The UN-Habitat Youth in Informal Settlements Brainstorming Session brought together a diverse group of; designers, VR specialists, programmers, community representatives, and UN-Habitat staff. The group aimed to discuss and develop innovative solutions for issues faced by individuals living in Informal settlements worldwide

Using mixed reality and Minecraft for urban design in Johannesburg

Working hand in hand with partners, UN-Habitat is working on improving public spaces. The importance of utilizing digital technologies like Minecraft, rests on its ability to engage community members, especially youth from both genders, in a highly visual and intuitive manner that allows the expression of their needs and opinions. Minecraft is a critical tool for democratizing public space and broader spatial planning processes in a cost-effective and highly interactive manner.

Smart Cities Egypt Workshop

Some shots of the smart cities workshop and conference that UN-Habitat organized in Egypt on 24-25 Mar 2019, together with Egypt Housing and Building National Research Center under the Egypt Ministry of Housing.

An Introduction to Block by Block

An introduction to the Block by Block programme using Minecraft. Wonderful things are happening around the world

Commission for the Status of Women (CSW65) Side Event: Innovation and digital technology to enhance the participation of women and girls in cities

The virtual event showcased a series of impactful initiatives that have used innovation and technology to change the lives of women and girls in cities. The event focused on how innovation or technology has improved participatory processes in planning, access to land and basic services and decision making. Participants learnt more about practical and transformative innovations and digital technologies that are helping to deliver gender responsive cities.

Concept Note