Deep demonstrations: the journey begins

UNDP Strategic Innovation
6 min readOct 22, 2020


by Millie Begovic, Søren Vester Haldrup

Source: Unsplash

A couple of months back, we wrote about principles that underpin the pivot we’re making in our strategic innovation efforts — away from single point solutions and embracing portfolio logics to tackle complex systemic challenges. In this post we give an update on what we’ve been up to and what we have learned over the last three months — we also have a new team, check out the totality of what we’re up to here.

We believe that if we want to work with our government counterparts to tackle systemic issues we need to create opportunities to extend our time horizons and ambition beyond the confines and lifecycle of projects (with a nod to the Danish Government for taking a leap of faith with us on this journey).

While our intent to shift gears emerged before the pandemic, two things happened in this COVID world to reinforce it. First, it cemented the notion that short-termism is an existential threat to humanity — both in considering the virus’ origin (in an extractive relationship with nature and biodiversity), and in exposing the limits of our current systems to deal with the pandemic — systems that are premised on immediate efficiency, rapid capital accumulation and election cycles. Second, it surfaced cases where investment in critical societal infrastructure (health, education, digital infrastructure, social protection) led to far more policy options to deal with the pandemic (think of Kerala and Senegal for example).

In this context, the need for “demonstrations” projects that showcase an alternative logic of development and new ways of cooperating with partners and communities has become even more pressing.

Our working hypothesis is that playing that long game of system transformation implies the ability to:

● Resist the temptation to reach for silver bullets and magic unicorns and be able to hold the political space to explore and tackle underlying causes

● See ourselves as a part of the system, rather than as an outside planner (‘you are not stuck in the traffic: you are traffic’) and engage with partners (both existing and new) accordingly

● Reset and adjust mental models to make sense of a reality that changes in unpredictable ways, combining robust qualitative decision making with quantitative insights (I’m still interpreting what I know as what I don’t know)

● Design portfolios of multiple options as vessels that accommodate ambiguity and uncertainty, generate learning and allow insights to emerge often from unexpected places

● Create institutional capacity for renewal through collective reflection and sense-making

We are doing this through co-called ‘deep demonstrations’ — with a nod to Climate KIC for inspiration (see their work in Slovenia as an example). In these demonstrations we invest in developing new capabilities ‘by doing’ and to work ‘deep’ in a few places (as opposed to going broad in many). The idea behind this is to use the demonstrations to show real progress on the ground when it comes to system transformation, and to leverage this for a wider shift in how UNDP tackles complex challenges.

The 7 UNDP Country Office teams who have embarked on this journey are in the early phase of building their muscle to “see” systems, make sense of rapidly changing realities, combining existing data with a range of qualitative insights to better understand underlying issues and system dynamics. They are also exploring different strategies for engaging with colleagues in their offices both to leverage a wider team of colleagues as a sense-making network and identify entry points across the existing portfolios for the issues they are working on.

Bolivia is focusing on transforming urban governance systems, taking, for example, a fresh look at informality in urban economies and its relationship with policy making and service delivery. Tunisia is broadening the concept of citizen engagement as a function of citizen-to-institution relationships as a way to unpack the determinants of trust that drive community action in experimenting with local development models, while Burundi is working to understand commonalities and difference of underlying drivers affecting lives of border communities in order to design portfolios to accelerate their economic and social security.

The pandemic surfaced latent dynamics in Ghana — cut off from major international trading partners, it has begun to see local creativity and invention that signal a different possibility for decoupling economic recovery from resource extraction, and in Serbia, where (a temporary?) reversing of depopulation trends might have created new pathways for investing in home grown talent and economic diversification. Patterns from across different economic sectors (from agriculture to forestry) in Palestine (Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People) and Viet Nam point to a need for more transformative interventions aimed at shifting system dynamics around resource use (circular, regenerative vs. extractive) and inclusion with SMEs at the center.

In addition to Deep Demonstrations, other teams are exploring different facets of portfolio approaches to tackle systems challenges:

City work (done in collaboration with the Chora Foundation). Zimbabwe is working on rethinking approaches to food security and in Angola colleagues are exploring how to improve working conditions for informal markets (as a part of the NextGenCities Africa program, in collaboration w/the Dark Matter Labs & African Center for the Cities). The strategic innovation team at the Istanbul Regional Hub is designing a regional portfolio of development options aimed at city transformation that will be rolled out across several countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and colleagues in the Philippines team are applying portfolio approaches to rethink urban development.

● In Malawi, the team is rethinking governance systems in contexts of severe effects of climate change (with the Chora Foundation), the Aggire Lehendakaria Center is working with colleagues in Pakistan on designing systemic responses to COVID at the local level and in Thailand teams are rethinking food supply chains (the Indonesia team will be starting soon). Our Mongolia team is leveraging portfolio approaches to come up with new development paths for the country post COVID.

● In Latin America and the Caribbean in collaboration with the Chora Foundation, the team is working on portfolio approaches to rethink tourism development in the COVID world (Dominican Republic), improving living conditions of citizens across 3 large regions (Colombia), and developing a portfolio of interventions in the bio-economy sector (Bolivia).

These efforts constitute our strategic innovation portfolio. We’ve summarized it in the visual below.

While it is still early days in our journey, what stands out to us is just how hard-baked ‘capacities and incentives that advance short term thinking and decision making’ are in our societal DNA. As we wrote earlier with Indy Johar, the ease with which we discount the future has led to a perverse relationship with nature, technology, and ourselves that in turn generates system level risks. With this work, we take responsibility for extending our temporal time frames in order to create conditions for a different type and scale of strategic interventions aimed at structural transformation.

In many ways, this is also recognizing the fact that the system is not a ‘thing’ to be conquered but a ‘pattern of relationships and interaction’ to engage with and learn from. As we deepen our own craft on portfolio design and system transformation, we’ll continue sharing what we learn on ways of ‘seeing’ and engaging with systems and accommodating uncertainty. If you’re interested in finding out more, please get in touch!

*Regionally based colleagues that work with these UNDP Country Office on developing new capabilities for system transformation are: Francesca Nardini (RBLAC), Kawtar Zerouali (RBAS), Lejla Sadiku, Elina Jarvela, and Yaera Chung (RBEC), Praateksha Singh, Courtney Lawrence, and Alex Oprunceno (RBAP), and Lucy Gregersen (on loan from the Accelerator Lab program for supporting Burundi, RBA). The NGC work (Angola & Zimbabwe) features additional support from the Governance team (Amita Gill, Zoe Pelter, Minerva Novero), and the platform work with the Aggire Center, Patrick Duong (Regional Center Bangkok).

*The external partners we collaborate on Deep Demonstrations include the Chora Foundation, Snowcone & Haystack, and Deloitte.



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