Moon shots, missions and mainstreaming

4 lessons from 4 years of innovation investments at UNDP

By Benjamin Kumpf, Innovation Policy Specialist, UNDP

Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran/UNAMID

To protect this planet and create prosperity for all, we need moon shots and puddle jumps. The newly-released 2017–2018 Annual Review of the UNDP Innovation Facility under the same title calls for deliberate investments in different forms of innovation. Coined by Jason Prapas of MIT’s Tata Center for Technology and Design, moon shots refer to the transformative innovations and technological breakthroughs; and puddle jumps to important incremental improvements as well as efforts to address last-mile challenges. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are unlikely to be met without massive investments in different forms of innovation: incremental improvements, transformative innovations pursuing bold missions and bottom-up solutions.

However, a focus on unlocking innovation for the 2030 Agenda is not enough. Governments and development organizations need to invest in anticipatory innovation: addressing potential future risks and liabilities by designing experiments to explore them today. This is particularly relevant for frontier technologies and their impact on economies, on human freedom and our wellbeing. These are some of the key messages from the publication ‘Moon Shots and Puddle Jumps’.

In Honduras, the end users were integrally involved in designing their own 3D printed prosthetics. Photos: UNDP Honduras. Photos:

The UNDP Innovation Facility’s new report shares 25 case studies that outline how development can be done differently along with think pieces ranging from frontier technologies, systems transformations to scaling innovation. The case studies capture development innovation in action: from a collaboration with MakerSpace in Honduras that co-designs 3-D printed prostheses with and for persons with disabilities; a spatial data sandbox to globally improve biodiversity conservation together with UN Environment, MapX, NASA and UN Global Pulse; a joint experiment with Nudge Lebanon and national partners to prevent violent extremism in Sudan using behavioural science and ethnographic research; a trial to improve the land registration in India with the help of blockchain; and scaling public sector innovation processes in Armenia, Bangladesh, Georgia, Moldova, and Sri Lanka among others.

Since 2014, with support from Denmark, the UNDP Innovation Facility has invested in over 140 experiments in 87 countries to identify better ways of delivering impact while helping transform the organization. These investments mobilized twice the funding invested, created new partnerships and helped scale new ways of working. Over 40 per cent of Innovation Facility-supported initiatives are tri-partite partnerships between government and private sector partners that have attracted further investments — a first proxy for scale.

Using spatial data, the UN Biodiversity Lab initiative aims to improve biodiversity conservation. Photos: NASA/USGS

As UNDP moves forward from its first phase of global investments in innovation, the Innovation Facility takes stock and outlines a future direction in the report: proposing four pillars, drawn from lessons over the past four years.

Balance improvement-oriented and transformative innovation

For any organization committed to innovation and change, it is paramount to be deliberate about the kind of innovation to pursue. While the boundaries can be blurry, we learned that it is useful to distinguish between improvement-oriented innovation and transformative innovation. The majority of our investments so far have pursued improvements on how we operate, for example: how can we leverage behavioural insights to more effectively address gender-based violence? Or how can we create real-time insights on poverty to more effectively deliver cash transfers? The new report shares case studies from across the globe, outlining improvement-oriented innovation.

With transformative innovation we refer to work-streams that aim at radical changes. Some of the incremental innovations we support have the potential to contribute to systems-change, yet we cannot claim causality as one actor in a complex system. Deliberate efforts for transformations include the work of UNDP Serbia with the government on designing a trial for a basic universal income. Transformative innovation is overall a high-risk endeavour, it requires multi-year investments.

In Armenia, Moldova and many other countries, Innovation Facility projects work to scale up innovation in the public sector. Photos: Kolba Lab, UN Moldova

Four the past four years, the Innovation Facility identified investments to add to its portfolio through an annual call for proposals — inviting Country Offices to share bold, scalable solutions that create evidence through iterative testing.

As a result of this modus operandi and flexible funding for high risk-high impact solutions, many UNDP Country Offices were able to scale novel solutions as well as develop new skills and service lines. Independent evaluations found that this has led to a portfolio of emerging service lines that helped partners improve the design, implementation, and monitoring of policy and programmes through:

Cultivating innovation through such competitive processes has also developed new skills within UNDP — building distributed innovation capabilities and creating the needed dynamic to do development differently within the organization.

We learned that this modus operandi is suitable for creating a first cohort of proof-of-concept initiatives during the early years. Moving forward, innovation investments will be clustered and split between improvement-oriented innovations at the early and scaling stage, and investments in transformative processes. We know that there is no golden rule to split innovation portfolio investments along core, adjacent and transformational initiatives, and we will test different models to further pursue both objectives in parallel. To leave no one behind, we will target our investments in puddle jumps, in incremental improvements on solutions that benefit the most marginalized first.

Cluster investments around bold missions

In the first four years, the Innovation Facility fund had ‘a thousand flowers bloom’ approach. We invested in a very diverse set of initiatives across 87 countries and territories — supporting experienced intrapreneurs and newcomers to do development differently. This approach raised the level of awareness within the organization and helped to spread the risk. We learned, however, that political support can easily falter; staff turnover, or changes within partner government, at times can mean that budding innovations fail or lose momentum or, importantly remain isolated experiments. Senior political support and the ability to manoeuvre bureaucracies proved to be key components of success to move innovation from a single short-term experiment to a deep rooted iterative programme that delivers long term impact.

Overall, we found that Country Offices that received funding from the Innovation Facility kick-started double the number of new innovation initiatives compared to those that didn’t receive any seed funding. But these positive spill-over effects were very uneven.

In Pakistan, UNDP works with government and civil society partners, creating a systems-map to help improve water management. Photo: Satomi Kato/UNDP Pakistan

Moving forward, we are committed to adapting the concept of mission-driven innovation to address the shortcomings of incrementalism and short-lived political support for doing development differently. . Such missions need to be specific, time-bound, cross-sectoral and cross-disciplinary. They can enable different players to invest in a portfolio of parallel solutions, some of them pursuing incremental advancements, others requiring radical breakthroughs.

UNDP’s strength as a network facilitator can be leveraged to support partners from government, players from the private sector, civil society and emerging social change-agents formulate ambitious, yet measurable missions, derived from the SDGs. Such missions could be equal pay for women in all sectors by 2025 or carbon-neutral cities by 2030. In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, UNDP supports multi-sectoral players to rally investments and action around the mission to curb air-pollution: curating platforms and supporting partners with the design and executing of strategies and help to unlock further investments. In Pakistan, UNDP advises the government and civil society partners on water management: creating a systems-map of the blockers and accelerators to manage water, together with Stanford Change Labs and local partners. This can be a first step to understand complex systems and jointly formulate testable hypothesis. Involving players from the whole of society in formulating missions, derived from national SDG priorities, has the potential to create powerful drivers for innovation across different sectors, potentially beyond electoral cycles.

Invest in anticipatory innovation

Innovation efforts within governments or development organizations need to go beyond achieving the SDGs’ 169 targets. Questions high on the agenda of development innovators should include: the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on human wellbeing; effects of disproportionate sex-ratios on social and political stability; cybersecurity risks on electoral processes; or the effects of blockchain on government legitimacy. Over the past four years, the Innovation Facility has invested in building distributed innovation capabilities to equip UNDP to better address such questions. Moving forward, investments in anticipatory innovation will be more deliberate and focus on normative challenges.

A few decades ago, the pursuit of economic growth resulted in severe negative environmental consequences for a number of countries. For too long, economists and policy-makers treated ‘the environment’ and ‘the economy’ as separate issues and coined the notion of negative externalities. But there are no side-effects in a complex system, just effects — as Kate Rawford emphasizes in Doughnut Economics. One of today’s key challenges is not to treat ‘technological progress and digitization’ and ‘human freedom and fulfilment’ as separate issues. Today we must anticipate future risks in our use of data along with the protection of human rights, privacy and civic participation.

An SMS-based reporting system helps combat corruption in Papua New Guinea. Photo: UNDP PNG

Humans are generally bad at anticipating futures that do not benefit them. To help partners design the accountability infrastructure, frameworks and principles for the ethical use of frontier technologies, development organizations need to plan not only for uncertain but even for autocratic futures. What accountability and safety systems can we put in place to ensure that data produced today by citizens, migrants and refugees will not be used for discriminatory purposes in future decades? What do we need to do today to protect civic participation in 2030 in light of increasing algorithmic decision-making and existing data monopolies? One of UNDP’s anticipatory innovation work-tracks focuses on the future of governance: in 2018, UNDP will invite partners to the Istanbul Innovation Days to “scale the sites of experimentation globally, and share collaborative learning whilst building a new global politics for change and innovation”.

Scale processes, not just solutions

Since 2014, UNDP and partners incubated and scaled solutions to address wicked problems such as corruption, environmental degradation and building back better after disasters. With partners, we scaled an SMS-based reporting system to combat corruption in Papua New Guinea; an ingenious app for e-waste recycling in China; and a mobile payment mechanism for relief workers during and after the Ebola crisis. Bringing solutions to sustainable scale remains one of the key objectives of our work — but it isn’t enough. To make sure it sticks, we learned that scaling processes is fundamental to anchor new ways of working. This principle is key for our work on public sector innovation: UNDP supported governments to redesign public services with citizens, execute experimental policy design and improve public planning through foresight processes. In over ten countries UNDP helped design and launch dedicated public policy labs. The 2017 report ‘Growing Government Labs: An Insider’s Guide’, jointly developed by FutureGov and UNDP, emphasizes the importance of scaling the impact of a lab, not necessarily the lab itself.

During the West Africa Ebola outbreak, a mobile payment system made it possible for critical relief workers to get paid. Photo: Morgana Wingard/UNDP

At a global level, we put this lesson into practice by investing in a dedicated work-track that pursues cultivating innovation and maturing emerging service lines. Innovation efforts too often focus on novel work-tracks and solutions, while insufficiently addressing the innovation readiness of an organization. However, we do see emerging models of mainstreaming innovation in our Country Offices. In Rwanda for example, the UNDP office just made it mandatory for all new projects to allocate a portion of their budget to iterative design and qualitative inquiry. In HQ, we worked on embedding principles of innovation, especially experimentation, in our corporate rulebook for programme and project management. Moving forward, UNDP will scale its work on the country-level to help government and other partners accelerate SDG achievement efforts — through labs, country support platforms and other vehicles. A key element will be identifying and scaling bottom-up solutions. This will build on our work to unlock the collective intelligence of players at the country-level, identify and scale existing solutions — for example by embracing a positive deviance approach. The threads connecting these SDG acceleration efforts in different country contexts will be iterative, experimental processes that will surface the paradigm shifting solutions and processes envisioned in the 2018–2021 UNDP Strategic Plan.

Over the years the Innovation Facility’s dynamic portfolio has taught us deliberate efforts are required to unlock the potential of innovation for: incremental improvements, for transformative change, to curate and scale bottom-up solutions, to design anticipatory workstreams and to upgrade the innovation readiness of an organization. We learned that it requires deliberate investments in innovation that target previously unreached individuals and communities at the base of the pyramid, to leave no one behind.

No one player, nor sector alone can innovate alone. Get in touch if you are interested in co-conspiring to tackle the social, environmental, political and economic challenges of our time.

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

Photo: UNDP Sri Lanka