Three times a year, digitalswitzerland is organizing so-called Inspirational Sessions for its members: To learn from each other’s experiences, get to know best practices and especially as source of inspiration. On Thursday, 3 May 2018, the Inspirational Session took place at the ICRC in Geneva. Here is a short summary.

The connection between data, trust and confidence

The Inspirational Session was opened by Peter Maurer ICRC President and digitalswitzerland Steering Committee Member. He started the session by acknowledging the changing realities, which affect the humanitarian field too: People have other needs than 20 years ago, besides basic needs such as water or nutrition, such as the need for connectivity. And the ways of interaction have changed fundamentally, too. As a frontline organisation, the ICRC has had to adapt to current changes to best serve its beneficiaries. Maurer: «We have to recognize the potential negative impact of technology and also to embrace the opportunities it offers.» More specifically, the question of data is a crucial one: The ICRC holds sensitive data on individuals, for example, linked to searches related to cases of missing people and for reunification of families, or in cases, where ICRC staff are visiting persons detained in prisons. The ICRC has to ensure that such data is managed to high standards, as confidence and trust is  key as they are striving to bring protection and assistance to persons in highly insecure and complex environments.

For the ICRC, it was a strategic choice to participate in the efforts and debate of how to build a digital Switzerland and to be able to bring influence from the perspective of an humanitarian organization with an international mandate and be part of this digital revolution. In the humanitarian field, the ICRC aims to position the organisation as a thought leader and to further improve the organisation’s capacity with the help of technology.

What does digitalisation mean for a frontline organisation like the ICRC?

Charlotte Lindsey, ICRC Communication and Information Management Director and future ICRC Chief Data and Digital Officer, talked about how digital transformation is affecting the humanitarian field. First, the operating environment, including with regards to data, is changing. More and more people are potentially at risk because of their digital activity: Who you follow, what opinions you promote, your digital presence could all be seen as a potential risk for an individual in insecure environments, recognizing and being able to respond to this from an humanitarian perspective are important for the ICRC. Second, in general, trust in all institutions including NGOs and international organisations is decreasing, according to research such as Edelman. It is important to recognize the role that digital and data may play in relation to trust in an organization, for this reason the ICRC has been researching in to the aspects that drive trust in the ICRC for its stakeholders.

In view of the challenges to enable digital transformation, the  strategy of the ICRC  takes into account  changes in the ICRC’s operating environment and behaviours of individuals, including through use of technology and connectivity, and to address how the organization can best leverage technology  to bring protection and assistance for humanitarian response in situations of armed conflict and violence. To this end, ICRC is adapting its  internal ecosystem  as well as building an  external ecosystem to support delivery of its stratgy: there are many players to learn from and with which to work in order to adapt the organisation to a faster-changing, more technology-driven world.

Learning digital skills is like learning how to drive a car

In the first presentation, Laura Downhower, Executive Director of the EPFL Extension School, talked about critical digital skills and the EPFL Extension School’s mission: Enabling everyone to learn the skills necessary to benefit from the opportunities of the digital age. She pointed out that not only a few experts should master digital skills, but everyone should become ready to communicate in the same “language”: You, your mother, your neighbour or the cashier in your supermarket next door. Laura Downhower also made clear that this takes more than just having a modern device at home: «Just because you have an iPhone, it doesn’t mean you know the digital skills necessary for today’s world.» We asked Laura, where one should start in the jungle of digitalisation, she recommended the programme «50 things you need to know about the internet.» Learning how to build a website from scratch opens up many possibilities on both personal and professional sides.

Tackling the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the help of the crowd

The next talk was given by Rosy Mondardini, Director of the Zurich Citizen Science Center, about how with the help of technology, open data and crowdsourcing, citizens can become directly involved in the development of innovative and implementable projects to tackle the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. With the Open Seventeen Challenge, participants (students, citizens, NGOs etc.) can submit their ideas and visions. The most promising will be supported to transform these ideas in viable projects. With virtual coaching and peer feedbacks from participants, experts and mentors, the ideas become more concrete and actionable; the aim is to find potential corporations and NGOs, who are interested in implementing these ideas.

The Open Seventeen Challenges bears some similarities with our very own digitalswitzerland open challenge platform: We are also looking for inputs and visions from the crowd – colossal and crazy ideas with high societal and economic value that have the potential to transform Switzerland and the world in a sustainable way. The 17 UN sustainable goal could be a great starting point! If you think that you have an idea that revolutionary, register NOW.

We hope this blogpost inspired you as much as we were inspired by our fabulous speakers. To receive a bi-weekly update on our activities, please sign up to our newsletter.


Author Niniane Paeffgen, Swiss Digital Initiative

Director Swiss Digital Initiative

More posts by Niniane Paeffgen, Swiss Digital Initiative