To merely meet the basic needs of the 8.5 billion people who are projected to live on this planet by 2030 we need “moon shots and puddle jumps”, as Jason Prapas of MIT’s Tata Center for Technology and Design puts it. Moon shots refer to the bold, visionary inventions and technological breakthroughs and puddle jumps to the mundane, incremental advances needed to sustain basic needs of the growing global population.
Yet, sustainable human development goes well beyond basic needs. We need to collectively define what freedom and agency mean in this century, how societies can transition to sustainable economies and how we deal with complex problems that span across national borders. Governments, international organizations and businesses will need to radically redefine the very essence of their business models.
The 2018 World Economic Forum’s theme — ‘Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World’ — hints at the limitations of the dominant economic paradigm. Development challenges are increasingly interdependent, affecting the global North and South simultaneously while evolving at an ever-increasing pace. Governments across the globe struggle to adequately respond to climate change and growing economic inequalities or to cope with the implications of megatrends such as artificial intelligence or the electrification of mobility. Worldwide, chauvinist and extremist movements are gaining ground and pose serious challenges to social cohesion, freedom and peaceful societies.
It is a VUCA world — volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are the new normal. Governments as well as aid organizations increasingly witness the erosion of citizen’s trust in their legitimacy in the face of unmet social needs. Technological progress itself is by no means a promise for a sustainable future, particularly not for those who are already marginalized.
What then is the future of governance? How do we design systems that empower individuals and communities to drive sustainable development, regain agency and enable creative problem-solving and innovation towards a shared future?
Investments in applied research and development (R&D) and distributed innovation capacity have helped UNDP to prototype initiatives that seek to answer these questions. Here are a few of the constantly-evolving principles that guide UNDP’s investments in collaborative problem-solving:
1. Combine systems-thinking with ethical experimentation
A basic premise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is the inter-connectedness of development challenges, as reflected by the indivisibility of the Sustainable Development Goals. For example, to improve employment opportunities for young people, it is necessary not only to strengthen the formal education system but also to simultaneously address infrastructure, public health and gender equality challenges, among others.
In 2017, UNDP partnered with Stanford Change Labs to work with actors from government, development organizations, civil society and communities on mapping complex systems related to education and early childhood development in Kenya and Zambia. To better understand the dynamic patterns and feedback loops in the systems related to the challenges, UNDP and partners invested in qualitative research upfront and invited partners to collectively identify actors and relationships. Jointly mapping the system enables actors to find a common language and to identify opportune entry points for systems change — levers that can accelerate the achievement of several SDGs.
Another approach to embrace complexity is to plan for uncertain futures. UNDP works with an increasing number of government partners on different forms of foresight, developing scenarios with decision-makers, communities or civility society to inform planning processes: from identifying different futures for urbanization trends in Rwanda or climate change impact in Small Islands Developing States, to crowdsourcing multiple future scenarios among citizens in Armenia. Collectively developing scenarios and regularly revisiting the trajectory can help governments and civil society organizations to better navigate uncertainty, prepare for the unexpected and course correct as necessary.
We are witnessing disruptions in multiple systems, often facilitated by technological progress. For instance, the current discourse on the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics on the future of work raises questions of whether newly created jobs will outnumber the ones that become obsolete for humans and how this will affect existing inequalities.
Given the unstoppable exponential growth in technological progress, we need to bring fundamental social and economic questions to the discussion, including: how can we challenge the underlying paradigm underlining how societies measure progress? “If measurements change, it fundamentally allows us to reframe welfare as an investment as opposed to cost. Democracy demands freedom of agency; so its preservation requires us to massively grow distributed wealth, knowledge, care and voice. We mark progress by these indicators,” writes UNDP Innovation Facility Advisory Board member Indy Johar.
One practical contribution to exploring such shifts is our work with government partners in China and in Serbia. Together we are seeking evidence-based answers to whether a Universal Basic Income will benefit people and productivity to drive human development.
Systems-level analysis needs to be accompanied by ethically designed experiments. Experiments aim at generating context-specific evidence and insights on the scalability of interventions — an approach pursued by a growing number of governments, from Finland and France to the UK and Canada. In UNDP, the establishment of a special innovation fund, generously supported by the Government of Denmark, enabled Country Offices to design such experiments with partners. In Moldova, UNDP and partners tested alternative ways to support tuberculosis patients with following through on medical treatment using video calls. The tests were successful, as patients were twice as likely to follow through with treatment. This insight went on to inform policy.
2. Shape policy based on applied R&D
There are no silver bullets, no ‘best practice’ blueprints for complex development challenges. Neither investments in innovative startups nor the strategy to replicate institutional arrangements can solve wicked problems. This can bypass important struggles and often results in isomorphic mimicry.
“One of the embarrassing truths of modern innovation and entrepreneurship policy is that surprisingly little policy is backed by hard evidence. Ideas and options tend to be deduced from theory and anecdotes rather than tested empirically,” writes Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta. As the available evidence does not provide global ‘best practices’ to drive economic growth, Mulgan argues for experimental approaches to find best-fit solutions.
UNDP invests in applied R&D to find out what works in a given context, to understand the practical implications of leveraging opportunities provided by, for example, blockchain or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in developing countries.
With government partners in the Maldives, UNDP tested the added value of UAVs to improve responses to natural disasters and climate change. Proof-of-concept trials resulted in positive outcomes and, moving forward, UNDP is supporting public authorities and local communities with technical skills-building and regulation.
In Croatia, a small experiment to test whether crowdfunding could help transition local institutions to renewable energy sources enabled UNDP to provide government partners with policy advice and support for crowdfunding from a large number of internal and external clients, resulting in millions raised for sustainable development. This contributed to the establishment of UNDP’s Alternative Finance Lab, a new vehicle to advise partners on alternative forms of development financing.
To prepare the organization to provide advice on regulation for blockchain technologies, UNDP works with partners on leveraging blockchain to reduce the costs of remittances to Serbia and Tajikistan and to better assist refugees and migrants in transit.
Forward-looking governments and international organizations are increasing their investments in systems analysis, foresight abilities and R&D while increasing cross-border collaborations and learning exchanges.
3. Facilitate co-design and collaboration
A key principle of innovation for development is to acknowledge the agency of people affected by development challenges — to work with them as users of services and generators of solutions rather than passive beneficiaries. To develop solutions with users, we facilitated approaches for co-designing new solutions and are now working to test models for participatory social exchange platforms. UNDP’s new Strategic Plan formulates the vision to design country-support platforms that enable cross-sectoral collaboration between the government, established organizations and emerging development actors, with particular focus on bringing to the table women and men whose voices have yet to influence decision-making.
These platforms aim to foster new partnerships for action by enabling collaborative problem-solving that also connects people and organizations to resources for advancement. Governments and international organizations draw inspiration for platform-based business models from the private sector. Players such as Airbnb or Uber demonstrate the success of getting the three core components of a platform business model right: Participants, plus Value Unit, plus Filter equals Core Interaction. The non-profit sector explores opportunities to leverage related new business models, such as the Collaborative Cash Delivery Platform or the RuralHub in Italy, which pursues the mission of incubating rural innovations and researching human connections between food, resilience and agriculture. The Government of Spain explores this approach in its current development policy by building ‘Virtuous Circles’ — alliances of diverse partners to tackle complex SDG challenges through innovation.
Pursuing a platform strategy to facilitate meaningful new collaborations for accelerating the achievement of the SDGs goes beyond building elements that can be recombined or creating centrally provided services — all too often the approach of governments when designing virtual public services. Simone Cicero describes the main function of platforms as “creating context where interactions and relationships can flourish; and combine interactions with the services you provide” in the essay ‘Design for Ecosystems: Continuous Co-Creation’.
Public Policy Labs can be a vehicle to facilitate new partnerships to drive innovation and to prototype related new business models. UNDP is supporting government partners in Armenia, Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Georgia, Moldova, Sri Lanka and Thailand with public sector innovation efforts through dedicated Labs. These labs are hosted within prime ministers’ offices or ministries and often have had the dual effect of disrupting internal modes of doing business while becoming drivers of wider governmental stability. Our recently published “Growing Government Innovation Lab: An Insider’s Guide” shares insights from a developing country perspective, reflecting the opportunities and limitations of government labs.
Unlike many Labs in countries such as the UK and the US, many of the UNDP-supported Labs in Eastern Europe focused on creating new services to meet user needs, often leapfrogging over established legacy systems. In Moldova for example, MiLab has designed a method for using monthly energy consumption data as a proxy for depopulation rates in the rural areas at a fraction of the cost of a regular census exercise.
In Egypt, UNDP is working with people with disabilities, with fishing communities and with women and men affected by sexual harassment and violence on context-specific solutions. Our focus is on identifying methods that work best for the specific context and communities, acknowledging existing power dynamics. In Honduras, UNDP works with people with disabilities on designing suitable new products by leveraging 3D-printing, while in Myanmar, UNDP supported a co-design process for a peer-support mechanism for rural women.
In our support for testing new, platform-enabled business models and scaling solutions that we co-design with users, we embrace a ‘power and politics’ perspective. “Despite innovation efforts and optimism across the development sector, few innovations lead to actual sustainable, systemic change,” as the Overseas Development Institute noted in “Innovating for pro-poor services: why politics matter.” Innovation is inherently political, as it aims to change the status quo. If innovation is to serve the most marginalized, it needs to be based on political economy analysis and navigating power dynamics in communities.
The premise to ‘leave no one behind’ at the heart of the 2030 Agenda guides our work on innovation. Essentially, leaving no one behind is about moving from a fractured world towards a shared future. This requires puddle jumps and investments in and pro-poor policies and solving last-mile challenges. Innovation also means we must continuously scan the horizon for community-based solutions and scale solutions coming from local innovators. In Pakistan, UNDP works with partners on identifying successful strategies of how women in rural tribal areas broke through gender barriers to scale these up.
On the other side of the coin are moon shots. International organizations and governments are not the actors developing breakthrough technologies. Yet they need to embrace emerging technologies quickly, test and drive regulation. Without their concerted efforts to constantly examine the potential of innovative technologies for sustainable development — through investments in R&D and developing regulatory frameworks that focus on driving equitable growth — development actors will not be able to cope with the pace of external challenges and opportunities.
In 2018, we will work with government partners on leveraging artificial intelligence to improve forecast abilities and service delivery with a focus on algorithmic transparency, ethics and governance. Technological progress and related new forms of collective problem-solving and collaboration have the potential to equip people with the agency and opportunities for jointly establishing an equitable and sustainable future for all. We invite you to join us in seeking answers to the critical social questions that shape our present and future.
Join the conversation: Connect with us at @UNDP_Innovation
About the author
Benjamin Kumpf is working on social innovation for UNDP, exploring data for development, human-centered design, behavioural insights and other extraordinary topics to change business as usual. Follow him on Twitter: @bkumpf