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

Highlighted publications

UN-Habitat Innovation: Current projects, initiatives and partnerships
People-focused 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
Regional Report
The Future of Asian & Pacific Cities Report 2019
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.

Related Sustainable Development Goals

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SDG 9 logo
SDG 11 logo

Leaving no one and no place behind

Hover over or click the icons to learn about UN-Habitat's work on social inclusion here.

As we consider the digital divide, the importance of big data, artificial intelligence and nationalized systems, we need to think how marginalized groups and communities will benefit. In many cities, COVID-19 meant that significant numbers of people experienced limited or no access to essential services and economic opportunities due to lockdowns – underscoring ongoing inequalities and the urgency for proactive solutions.

UN-Habitat continues to work with partners and stakeholders in cities to ask questions, gather data and propose discussions and frameworks to think through the pros and cons of innovation to ensure no one is left behind. This means ensuring that human rights and the impacts that some individuals and groups experience because of their gender, age, race or sexuality is vital.

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UN-Habitat uses innovation to ensure that our projects and programmes can engage all stakeholders and improve their lives. We use digital technologies in our participatory approaches to engage women and girls. We introduce more horizontal engagement processes to improve the participation of women and girls in places where processes and consultation tends to be hierarchical. We develop online learning platforms that are not only gender-responsive and enable women and girls to participate but are directed at understanding their unique experiences of urban living.

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Initiatives such as the One Stop Youth Centre in Mogadishu and other cities across East Africa are often the only space where young people can legitimately gather to learn more about urbanization, gain skills and have a say in urban planning processes.

Many cities, especially in the developing world, have the majority of their urban populations under 35. In addition, young people are often at the cutting edge and drivers of innovative ideas. How UN-Habitat engages with young people is therefore critical in terms of helping to promote innovation in cities.

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Innovation is core to changing how cities are designed and built for everyone, especially people with disabilities. Our work has real world impacts, featuring real-world demonstration projects for disabled citizens and residents of the city, and advocacy for local and national government policies that defend the rights of the disabled population. Cities must be inclusive for all. We focus on key challenges such as urban movement to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in all our programmes.

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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.

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