Beyond social innovation: A conversation with Milica Begovic

Millie Begovic R. is an innovation specialist based in UNDP’s Istanbul Regional Hub. The interview below was originally published by French innovation magazine Horizons Publics.

Public innovation is struggling to evolve. Why go further? Why is it necessary to have a more systemic vision?

Because of their complexity, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are challenging the capabilities of current governments and markets to fulfill that agenda. The goals require new types of collective action. First, because of sheer scale. It’s been calculated, for instance, that reaching the SDGs by 2030 would require 80,000 poor neighbourhoods to upgrade their infrastructure and services every year, at a cost of half a trillion dollars. Second, because the goals encapsulate complex and deeply interrelated social, environmental and economic dimensions. That’s why the SDGs need to be treated as much more than a checklist.

How can social innovation help?

We can’t continue to marginally correct market failures and tinker with old ways of governing. Focusing on the big picture is essential in that regard. Mariana Mazzucato, a researcher at University College London (UCL), uses the expression “mission-oriented growth” to describe actions that solve broad societal problems rather than focusing on a single sector. This, she says, is achieved through innovation, public sector investments and nurturing future economic growth.

In that perspective, social innovation provides a good sense of direction, but it hasn’t actually provided the solutions we’re seeking out. Many policy innovation labs, for instance, have failed to reach scale, as my friend Indy Johar recently wrote. In some cases, labs have missed an opportunity to translate early success into funding or political traction. In other cases, the loudest advocates of running governments differently are the quickest to blame the public service when innovation attempts go wrong. This shrinks the space for experimenting on important issues, like reforming welfare or addressing migration.

You talked about launching a new movement?

Yes. I would argue that we need an entirely new class of institutions — new networks, platforms, and movements — to mobilize intelligence around the SDGs. That’s the very nature of the post-industrial age. Because no single actor has the entire solution to any given problem, we need to engage new thinking from the “frontier”. As Geoff Mulgan put it in his book ‘Big Mind’, the issue is not lack of knowledge but finding “good ways to line that intelligence up to larger collective outcomes.”

So, what’s UNDP’s offer?

UNDP, with its local and global presence, is in a unique position to mobilize a broad spectrum of partners in that post-industrial, networked age I just mentioned. This requires working as a platform. UNDP has been setting up national, local and thematic policy innovation labs across the world. We’re constantly reflecting on our own performance, as exemplified by our collaboration with FutureGov, a UK-based organisation that uses design, technology and change to make public services more human. Over time, we’ve discovered the next stage of our work involves more than just building skills and capacity within the same approach. The key question now is how to build “bureaucracies for networked age”, to coin Simone Cicero’s phrase. That’s an entirely different way of looking at it.

What is your long-term approach?

We need to grow a network of country-based SDG platforms. These are being designed as “intelligence puzzles” that can: leverage new and ‘old’ data sources, collecting insights that will allow for better decision-making by governments and people; build capacity to understand interdependent parts within the SDG agenda, maximise people’s contributions to shape policies, and attract new forms of financing that span generations, address future risks and blend diverse funding sources with each other towards a common goal.

We will be working with top notch partners like Danish Design Center, but also Nesta’s new Center for Collective Intelligence and many others.

Editor’s Note: UNDP has helped set up Georgia’s Public Service Innovation Lab, Moldova’s MiLab, Armenia’s SDG Lab, the Social Innovation Regional Hub in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Sri Lanka’s Lab on foresight, Bangladesh Government’s Innovation Lab (a2i) and Egypt’s lab on impact investment, local labs for the city of Rustavi and Skopje, and organizational labs, such as the Alternative Finance lab.