From projects to systems: early findings from our work on Social Innovation Platforms in Asia

UNDP Strategic Innovation
7 min readDec 4, 2020


by Itziar Moreno and Gorka Espiau, the Agirre Lehendakaria Center

*This post is a part of the collaborative learning that the UNDP’s Strategic Innovation Unit has embarked on with various units within the organization and a range of external partners who are interested in strategic innovation approaches that seek to transform systems.

Fish trays in Patani

International Institutions, public authorities (national and regional governments, local authorities, municipalities), corporates and civil society organizations are looking for systemic responses to complexity. They increasingly agree that complex issues cannot be tackled by applying single point solutions, but as we all know, this is easier said than done. In this context, UNDP also aims at better understanding and incorporating the necessary capabilities to support systems thinking at all organizational levels: global, regional, national and even subnational. This article reflects on how these practices are landing in the form of Social Innovation Platforms in Thailand, Pakistan and Indonesia as a collaboration between the UNDP Local Governance team in the Bangkok Regional Hub ( BRH) and the Agirre Lehendakaria Center for Social and Political Studies (ALC).

Early finding 1: “A systems approach to sustainable human development is deeply conditioned by the quantity and quality of the data (qualitative and quantitative) that are feeding our interventions”

Our experience in Southern Asia confirms the impression that key stakeholders such as governments, city administrations, companies, academia, civil society organizations and development agencies lack tools to better understand the system they’re trying to tackle. Legacy tools (such as infrequent surveys) and organizational silos create a legibility issue: the instruments used to “see” the world are not coherent with its complex nature. For example, the information required to inform a potential portfolio of interconnected actions should address structural challenges but also local citizens’ perceptions. Just like its partners, UNDP lacks the tools and sensemaking capabilities to connect the existing data with co-creation processes in real time, and the journey we embarked on is meant do develop these listening and sensemaking capabilities over time.

For instance, ALC and UNDP have been working on the conceptualization of a social innovation platform for Southern Thailand since last year. This platform focused on the potential of redesigning food systems as a driver for systemic change. From the ethnographic and digital listening of Southern Thai communities and with the assessment of the Basque Food Innovation Lab Imago (formed by Michelin starred chefs with decades of experience in food systems and innovation), the platform has produced a draft portfolio of interconnected initiatives to be tested.

These initiatives, apart from addressing the variety of needs and opportunities identified by the communities as well as the above mentioned five levels of impact, are interconnected both conceptually (with each other to the same logic, as the 10 initial experiments will all tackle the amazing fermentation techniques that local people seem to have mastered and digitalization within the market) and physically (from the concept of markets as safe spaces for different religious communities, identified during the listening process, and the necessities identified during the digital listening process too, the platform will take food markets as experimental spaces for a post-Covid scenario. In the following weeks, ALC along with the UNDP Thailand Office and the Regional Hub will move from experimental to implementation by testing the first set of experiments, which will also require a very different logic for evaluating change in systems.

Mission in Southern Thailand: ethnographic interviews, pictures, observation

Early finding 2 “We are not co-creating at scale”

Based on the evidence generated by Social Innovation Platforms, the quality and quantity of final outcomes will be directly conditioned by the quality and quantity of the collaboration opportunities generated by the intervention. Despite this fact, co-creation opportunities are still very punctual and sporadic under the current project management logic lacking the necessary systematization to operate at scale.

Based on ALC experience in similar processes (including the socio-economic transformation experienced by Basque society in recent decades or the collaboration with La Caixa in Peru, India and Mozambique), co-creation processes must combine various levels of intervention to have a systemic impact: community actions, small scale initiatives with a business model, large scale initiatives and public-private collaborations, public services redesign and regulation as well as consideration of power dynamics and political economy. It is also very helpful to differentiate between projects (initiatives designed to achieve a certain expected result based on previous experiences), pilots (initiatives that have worked in other contexts that are brought to be adapted) and prototypes (new ideas designed for rapid testing and learning).

We have also documented the potential of these initiatives (projects, pilots and prototypes) to operate at multiple levels. It is probably more useful to have 25 prototypes that are addressing 2 to 5 of the above-mentioned levels of intervention (while addressing the needs and opportunities identified by and made sense of by communities*) than a portfolio with one hundred actions that only address one level each.

Another key learning so far is that all the multi-level, co-created and narrative-connected actions, need to be interconnected. Investing in interconnection points, more than portfolios, allows us to lower the risk of these investments.

Early finding 3 — A portfolio approach does not necessarily equal a systemic approach

Portfolios are an essential component of any systemic approach, but how the portfolio is built makes all the difference. We can have a list of properly designed and interconnected interventions but if they are not responding to the existing perceptions and structural needs (identified by the systems mapping and deep listening process) and they haven’t gone through a multilevel co-creation process, it is very unlikely that they will generate a systemic impact.

What seems complex is in reality a not so new process that achieves small wins and generates new insights over time and reinvents the purposes and meanings of very down to earth elements: mapping, listening, collective sensemaking, co-creation, portfolio experimentation, evaluation, communication, funding, digitalization and ultimately, sustainable human development. These are the ten elements that ALC has conceptualized as key to social innovation platforms.

Investing our work, time and resources in properly listening to these dynamics in a sustained way will not only allow us to truly incorporate the cultural dimension of each context to the social innovation process (same approach applied in different territories has sometimes opposite results), but also inform our portfolio of actions in a way that responds directly to them. Otherwise, we’ll be leaving these lever actions as a useful tool for experts to design initiatives that will ultimately affect the citizens that have nothing to do with these actions.

This common basis requires us to rethink many elements of our daily work: from the essence of our collaborations and alliances, which influences the way we design the projects, to creating different KPIs for evaluation, and most importantly, understanding the complexity of the system we’re operating in. How can we better understand and interconnect the key agents and the ongoing key initiatives in a certain territory? What are the social dynamics happening there? How do people express them? What are their real priorities? Even if these narratives and perceptions don’t correspond directly with reality or are easily debunkable, they are ultimately conditioning the success (or failure) of our set of initiatives, so we should really be focusing on them.

Even if portfolios are connected to community perceptions on needs and opportunities, and ideally even co-created with the holders of these perceptions, they also need to tackle a diversity of action levels to have a real impact in the system. If we only work on public service redesign, community actions or small-scale level startups, our change is never going to be systemic.

Along with this challenge comes a deep mindset transformation that goes beyond the surface discourse that most practitioners in the development and social innovation fields hold and even strongly believe in.

Working in complex systems transformation starts with admitting that (1) no one really knows how to successfully transform a territory, city or country with a single formula; and (2) no single actor can single handedly build (or even design) a systemic transformation — in the same way that single point solutions can’t tackle complexity.

*Community concept in this case includes civil society, public stakeholders, private stakeholders, academia and every kind of actor operating within a system



UNDP Strategic Innovation

We are pioneering new ways of doing development that build countries’ capacity to deliver change at scale.