Armenian Diaries, or

How I fell in Love with Kolba Lab as a Model of In-house Innovation Eco-system in UNDP

Ibis Hotel lobby wall, Yerevan, January 2017

The latest discourse around change in UNDP states that itoften starts with a few dedicated, passionate individuals who are driven to have greater impact” though their activities are predominantly confined to the domain of a weekend sport (something that project managers [are] doing in their spare time and in spite of the system)”. While top down interventions abound to drive innovation and empower change makers, what if we shifted the focus from individuals to ecosystem that supports them on the ground as a natural next step towards maintaining the fragile successes they achieve? Luckily, I did not have to go too far to observe what such a system could look like at a UNDP Country Office level.

It is January 2017 and I am driving to Yerevan with the Georgian Government ServiceLab lead Mariam Tabatadze

to join colleagues and their Government counterparts from Armenia, Macedonia and Moldova at a Public Sector Innovation Week 2017. My colleagues are fellow innovators in UNDP Country Offices, their Government counterparts working with them on public service innovation through government innovation labs that UNDP has been supporting in these four countries for the past couple of years. I am telling Mariam how I learned about Kolba Lab nearly three years ago from its founder George Hodge, currently with Pulse Lab Jakarta, and a remarkable set of events the Lab has put together for #PSIWeek ahead. Surprisingly, I realize that my knowledge of Kolba pretty much ends there, except the fact that I had briefly met all its staff earlier at various events. I am looking forward to four days of Creative Game as a rare opportunity for our virtual trouble-maker team to come together again.

Yerevan meets us with the minus temperatures well below zero at nights reaching — 17C. The city is wrapped in milky haze, locals complaining of seeing no glimpse of the sun for weeks. Mountain resort Aghveran is a welcome change where we spend 4 days of Creative Game together with over 50 other participants from governmental and non-governmental sectors of Armenia, facilitated by local experts based on the methodology of abstraction, collective thinking and analysis, which is the most extraordinary 9 am to 11 pm 4-day marathon that I ever witnessed.

Our group of innovators is puzzled, forced to go beyond our comfort zones and come up with visualizations we would otherwise never ventured to accomplish. We are abstracting about government, citizens, interrelations and other topics translating them into visual forms, colors and figures, which we both perform and fervently resist. I very much look forward to the final report giving analysis of our contributions which is yet to come, but for now I am at the Creative Game witnessing our collaboration, not virtual, but in person, our reactions, withdrawals, dedication, aha-moments, togetherness and frustrations. And amid this mayhem Kolba team behaves like a well trained squad — calm, composed, working as one — I never notice anxiety or disruptions around administrative issues, all is done with professional precision without much talk, with full attention to the content side of the event — not its externalities. Despite full team engagement in the workshop process their social media presence is uninterrupted and flawless.

We return to Yerevan in the evening of the day 4 to enjoy local cuisine (whenever in Yerevan visiting Tapastan and Dolmama is a must) and see everybody off while I stay back for a day to join another #PSIWeek event PechaKucha on innovating and hacking the governance. PechaKucha is a gathering where speakers are given 6 minutes to go through 20 slides, allowing for maximum exchange of information on a given topic by as many speakers as possible. There are 7 of us in Yerevan including bloggers, entrepreneurs, development workers and governance innovators. I am thrilled to hear my favorite 3 words from the speakers preceding me — ‘user’, ‘giving voice to people’, and ‘citizenry’ and 6 minutes ahead on Georgia design experiments no longer scare me. But what is remarkable is how Kolba team works on the scene again — Hasmik patiently figuring out banner placement dilemma with space constraints, Max welcoming the arriving audience and there when he is needed, and Marina giving interviews to people with cameras and microphones as casually as talking to me about the weather a minute earlier. Again, all is done simply, quietly, elegantly.

The event takes place after working hours, yet both Resident Representative and newly joined Deputy Resident Representative are both there, the latter has given his first PechaKucha talk on the latest in development innovation. Presence and engagement of these men of leadership adds validity to the work innovators do in the country office and speaks of the Lab credibility to external partners both in government and beyond.

The next day I am catching an afternoon flight, but not until I drop to UN House to have a chat with fellow trouble-makers at Kolba Lab. And now I see a better picture of what could be a supportive ecosystem for innovators in country offices on the example of the organisation Kolba Lab operates with:

  • A team consisting of a minimum skillset of:

(i) a lead innovator responsible for partnerships with Governmental and non-governmental actors at policy level;(ii) a resource mobilizer and content developer, (iii) the voice of the lab — managing online presence and media, and (iv) regular administrative support — all of them acquiring additional skills through learning by doing approach, like user ethnography, design thinking, etc,

  • Linear structure : despite defined TORs, the team organisation is linear, all kind of work is shared as required,
  • Physical space: space to house the team in UN house in the actual proximity of other colleagues,
  • Continuous flow of experimentation: the Lab has a clear advantage over individual innovator in the office because it provides stream of experimentation to which other colleagues can tune in whenever their schedule allows,
  • Financial resources and decision-making: there is independent budget and delegated decision-making authority granted by the organisation’s leadership, and
  • Direct reporting lines with the management for strategic alignment to corporate and national priorities.

The way Kolba works very much reminds me of Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach focusing on:

  • Local solutions — solving locally nominated and defined problems
  • Experimentation — decision-making that encourages ‘positive deviance’
  • Experiential learning — tight feedback loops that facilitate rapid experiential learning
  • Partnerships — actively engaging broad sets of agents to ensure that the changes are viable, legitimate, relevant and supportable

We wrap up the conversation with the ideas for joint Caucasian trouble-making and I walk back to hotel thinking that while far from being ideal, the future is already there in Kolba Lab — the space which has already gained legitimacy to experiment beyond traditional constraints of project implementation, push the boundaries and imagining the most unlikely scenarios for development field of work. It never comes without initial freedom granted unconditionally by top decision-makers to investigate and explore, the degree of which varies vastly across country offices.

And yet, the weather — you can’t escape it — walking on the neatly cleared sidewalks along the ice-coated glass trees Yerevan looks like a Snow Queen from the childhood fairy tale of Gerda and Kai wanting me to return again and immerse myself in Kolba magic.

It was a fairy tale end of the trip from which I returned exhausted, chilled and an easy prey to flu which immediately ensued, but the inspiration still goes on — plenty of opportunities for cross- country experimentation together with UNDP and other UN agencies in Armenia and Georgia around the future of education and youth, to say the least, and without disclosing all the details, if interested — you are most welcome to join!