Bottom-up, top-down and outside-in: Cultivating innovation at UNDP

By Benjamin Kumpf, Innovation Policy Specialist

UNDP’s new Strategic Plan puts a significant emphasis on innovation. Photo: Aude Rossignol/UNDP DRC

“Our business — development overall — is to manage risk, not to avoid it.” In a recent call with development innovators, UNDP’s Administrator Achim Steiner emphasized that it is high time we shift from risk aversion to risk expectation. There is no alternative giving the scope of the 2030 Agenda and the existential threats humanity is facing. The Center for Global Development recently found that the SDGs are unlikely to be met by 2030 without rapid, ubiquitous innovation.

Since March 2018, Achim Steiner convenes monthly one-hour conversations with intrapreneurs from UNDP Country Offices. These virtual discussions aim at inspiring new ways of working across offices and cultivating innovation in the organization. In the complex process of transforming organizations, this signal from the top bears more significance than the first impression might suggest.

Designing #NextGenUNDP

UNDP’s new Strategic Plan puts a significant emphasis on innovation and Achim Steiner sends clear signals to the organization and its partners: UNDP is changing.

This dedicated push from the top is necessary. Over the past years, the UNDP Innovation Facility invested in a largely bottom-up and inside-out driven approach to instil innovation in the organization. This has taken us a long way, but not fully resulted in the desires outcomes. Here is some background:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.” Margaret Mead’s famous quote underpins the bottom-up approach of the UNDP Innovation Facility. Since 2014, the IF has pursued two main objectives: support better development results on the country-level and change management to help transform UNDP. A major catalyst of the work has been targeted seed funding to support country-level innovations with strong potential to scale, improve our impact, attract new partnerships, and catalyze new funding for development. Through the generous support of the Government of Denmark, UNDP offices were able to test and scale innovations that, for example, helped increase the effectiveness of the global response to the Ebola crisis through mobile payments for relief workers, scaled a shared-value solution for electronic waste in China, supported governments with launching public policy labs which have successfully influenced policymaking, re-designed public services and supported governments to interact with citizens more openly. The investments in more than 140 proof-of-concepts in countries have:

Technological progress is happening at a pace that is unprecedented in human history. In Honduras, UNDP and FabLab are designing 3D-printed prosthetics with users. Photo: UNDP Honduras
  1. Cultivated new skills in UNDP Country Offices and enhanced support to countries’ implementation of the 2030 Agenda. This has led to a portfolio of emerging service lines that helped partners improve the design, implementation, and monitoring of policy and programmes through alternative finance (with the support of the Government of the Slovak Republic for innovative financing in Eastern Europe and Central Asia); data innovation; behavioural design and public sector innovation.
  2. Harnessed the unique expertise and contributions of new partners: initiatives that received funding from the Innovation Facility have 50% more partnerships with the private sector and 40% more with International Financial Institutions than the average UNDP initiative.
  3. Facilitated new partnerships, from collaborations with small startups and nodes in innovation ecosystems like Impact Hub to joint work with disruptors such as Edgeryders and Dark Matters. Partners include thought-leaders such as Nesta, FutureGov, Danish Design Council, Stanford ChangeLabs, Innovations in Poverty Action, the Behavioural Insights Team IBM, Microsoft, Baidu, Alibaba and many, many more — proving innovation helps to broker more meaningful partnerships.
  4. Unlocked new sources of financing for development: every dollar invested by the Innovation Facility mobilized more than twice this amount from partners.
  5. Scaled new ways of working. More than 60% of Innovation Facility-supported initiatives have attracted further investments by government and private sector partners — a first proxy for scale. Initiatives that received funding are also 30% more likely to design with users, reflecting an embrace of inclusive development processes, another important success indicator.
  6. Helped change the organization. To make sure internal processes are fit for purpose to support partners in this work, the Innovation Facility supports the design of new UNDP policies. , for example, on Challenge Prizes and new financial instruments. It also, strengthens distributed innovation capacities and supports global skills-building programmes,, for example in collaboration with the UNDP Talent Development Unit to instill innovation in corporate leadership programmes. Experiences from country innovations informed the reform of UNDP’s corporate programme and project management guidelines.
UNDP has tested and scaled innovations that, for example, addressed e-waste in China and boosted the effectiveness of the global response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

While seed funding and technical support from the Innovation Facility expanded opportunities for UNDP to develop the business case for doing development differently over the last years, its ultimate purpose was to mainstream new ways of working across the organization. Our work also aimed at breaking down barriers between the inside and outside, partnering with an emerging class of partners and bringing in inspirations and disruptions from external actors and competitors.

Our work entailed scouting for innovative initiatives across the organization to provide visibility, support and facilitate peer-learning as innovation cannot — and should not — be owned by a single team. Many intrapreneurs in UNDP who have harnessed new approaches to solve complex challenges have done so without the direct support of the Innovation Facility.

Despite a real momentum among many Country Offices, innovation remained largely at the margins of UNDP’s core operations until recently. Confirming one of the key lessons from the past four years: bottom-up approaches do not suffice to drive transformations within large organizations.

Inspiring innovation from the top

The monthly calls are a dedicated push from the most senior level to address institutional and cultural roadblocks that impede deep organizational change. Achim Steiner engages monthly directly with UNDP innovators across the world to discuss successes and struggles. These calls offer a seemingly small step to trigger big changes in the organizational culture. After all, transformations start with the ability to envision radically different futures. About a century ago, Emma Goldman stated that “every daring attempt to make a great change in existing conditions, every lofty vision of new possibilities for the human race, has been labelled utopian.” Since then, humanity has achieved literal moonshots, yet our collective ability to dare imagining a future beyond current economic paradigms seems to have further diminished.

The one-hour direct discussions between Achim Steiner and intrapreneurs from UNDP Country Offices provide a platform for the doers from the front lines to engage in frank exchanges as opposed to mere show-and-tell sessions. The first call, for example, featured a conversation about large-scale, structural transformations that are required amidst intractable national and global challenges. What started as a pilot project by UNDP China to introduce fuel cell buses into the transportation system became a 15 year journey to revolutionize the entire transportation and energy sectors in support of environmental sustainability. Additionally, UNDP Serbia shared their experiences with setting up a delivery unit through which it simplified and hacked bureaucratic procedures for the benefit of citizens, from developing cheaper e-registration for entrepreneurs through an online platform to bringing new players into the government’s globally-recognized open data movement that has emerged through these efforts. UNDP’s support to experimentation in policy processes has more critically opened the door to new partnerships and thought frameworks capable of long-term systems-level transformation; one example is the ongoing research to test the feasibility of Universal Basic Income in Serbia, a potent model to reframe national welfare for greater inclusiveness.

In his monthly calls with with intrapreneurs from UNDP Country Offices, Administrator Achim Steiner aims to cultivate innovation in the organization.

In the following monthly call, UNDP Sudan shared experiences with an experimental approach to understanding and responding to the problem of violent extremism, leveraging behavioural insights. This work has formed the basis for the launch of the One Man Can campaign and production of “IMAN,” a feature film that has reached international audiences. These multi-media efforts have helped to catalyze community-based responses to engage, de-radicalize, and reintegrate at-risk youth and women into society. Sequentially, UNDP Malawi offered perspective into new ways of engaging the private sector to unlock financing for social impact. Through the establishment of the Malawi Innovation Challenge Fund (MICF), a US$14 million competitive grant matching mechanism for innovative projects in agriculture, manufacturing, and logistics sectors, UNDP Malawi has helped empower the private sector to push the boundaries of pro-poor business.

The monthly conversations unfold deliberately between UNDP’s Administrator and innovators from the working-level. Senior managers from Country Offices are invited to open the call and to then listen. Achim Steiner emphasizes crucial points to ensure that innovation in UNDP remains to be understood as going beyond gadgets and gizmos:

1. Go beyond incrementalism: In 2015, UN Member States endorsed the 2030 Agenda. This set of goals is predicated on systems-thinking and transformative concepts. Yet, despite the Sustainable Development Goals providing a mandate and goal posts for pursuing moonshots, most of our thinking and doing remains in perpetual incrementalism.

2. Deconstruct the boundaries between the inside and outside: To move beyond this incrementalism, organizations such as UNDP need to pivot their identity from a solution provider to a solution enabler. The boundaries between inside and outside an organization or a government has locked the development and public sectors in configurations and mindsets that hinder their potential effectiveness. Tapping the potential of collective intelligence, of participatory and strategic foresight processes and of the fourth industrial revolution requires the design of new institutional arrangements.

3. Test new business models: In light of the massive funding gap for the SDGs, the fast-changing environments and the emergence of a new class of actors, will the current business models of development organizations lead to their irrelevance? The sheer scope of the SDGs and existential threats to our ecosystems require us to invest in disrupting old ways of working, to imagine, design and test new forms of infrastructures and platforms. Can UNDP learn from players such as Michelin that transformed its business model from product-driven into services and solutions?

Transformation starts with the ability to envision radically different futures. Photos: Vladimer Valishvili/UNDP Georgia

4. Shift from risk management to risk expectation: The ambition of the SDGs leave no choice but to be bold. Imagine senior officials and workers in development and public-sector institutions who have their performance not only evaluated based on traditional management metrics — which are usually safe bets, but also against ambitious goals that are formulated as a ‘if, then’ hypothesis? Every manager needs to formulate a bold experiment and report back what she learned and what others can learn from this.

5. Design for growth and scale: Scaling entails growth strategies to reach millions; but we also need scale-down strategies to ensure no one is left behind and adaptation strategies to transfer solutions from one context to another. Most contexts require a financial sustainability vision and an initial vision for a pathway to scale. These elements need to be incorporated from the beginning of every intervention, project and policy design. This means also investing in understanding the political settlements and power dynamics and identifying the actors that can help change the status quo.

6. Prove the comparative advantage of innovation: The hype cycle of innovation has peaked in most industries. Initiatives that are designed for outputs, rather than outcomes are still dominating innovation news updates from a number of organizations. But overall the sector is maturing and with it, the ambition and metrics to measure the impact of innovation. In the context of human development and social change, innovation must not happen for innovation’s sake but rather to find more effective ways of working. Innovation means foremost testing hypothesis with solid monitoring frameworks and a focus on inclusivity.

7. Embed horizon scanning functions in all offices and verticals: Ray Kurzweil from the Singularity University anticipates “we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century, it will be more like 20,000 years of progress.” Technological progress happens at an unprecedented pace in human history. Currently, there are no dedicated horizon scanning and foresight functions in most UNDP Country Offices and thematic teams. But this model is no longer viable — for any development organization or governments.

The monthly calls bring together about 1,500–2,000 UNDP colleagues. It provides political support and cover for those who break from traditional practice, and challenges all innovators on the scalability of their concepts, the rigor by which they test their initial hypothesis, the maturity of their process, the degree to which they assess unintended consequences, and the impact of their innovations on the most vulnerable. Each of these pieces are crucial for the larger change-management puzzle and the ability to not only imagine radically new futures, but to bring them into being.

Stay tuned for updates, and reach out if you would like to work with us.

About the author:
Benjamin Kumpf
is an innovation policy specialist with UNDP. Follow him on Twitter: @bkumpf