Social innovation and experimentation to demonstrate alternatives of development

UNDP Strategic Innovation
4 min readApr 1, 2022

By Álvaro Pena, Paula Mosera, Francisco Pons (UNDP Uruguay)

Photo: Aguirre Lehendakari Center

The pandemic has accentuated the need to do things differently, set common goals and accelerate the necessary transformations in the face of social, economic, and environmental challenges. In this way, the new Strategic Plan 2022–2025 of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) seeks to optimize the impact of development through strategic innovation, supporting governments and communities to build a better future.

In this context, demonstration processes that show an alternative logic of development are necessary to expand possible and desirable futures. For these reasons, we have started a “Deep Demonstration” process in Uruguay within the UNDP “Innovation Facility 2.0” framework managed by the Strategic Innovation Unit and supported by the Government of Denmark. The objective is to promote innovation and experimentation processes in departmental governments to address complex challenges of the territories.

These actions will be carried out in partnership with the Agirre Lehendakaria Center (ALC) Social Innovation Laboratory of the Basque Country. ALC has extensive experience in change processes in different cities, integrating citizens with social innovation platforms that complement (and do not replace) traditional participation channels through community listening, collective interpretation, and co-creation processes. The processes enable a set of interconnected actions to be activated, incorporating a complex system perspective into management, which respond in real-time to existing perceptions in the community.

In this regard, as the UNDP Accelerator Lab, we also have a lot to learn and understand about the influence of culture in innovation processes and how an approach that integrates deep listening, that contemplates the narratives, perceptions, and values of each community can be engines of change for systemic transformation.

The process will begin in the two Departments with the highest population concentration in our country, Montevideo and Canelones, where the highly complex challenges of developing sustainable cities gain particular visibility.

On the one hand, in Montevideo, socio-territorial segregation is presented as an initial challenge, where not only the distribution and access to housing must be understood, but also its link with education, employment, the environment, inequality, etc. We wonder how to redesign a more inclusive and people-centered urban development & planning, to improve social mobility and increase the spectrum of opportunities available to an individual.

On the other hand, in Canelones, the authorities are looking into two questions:

  • Could creative industries unleash a more resilient & inclusive value-based economic system?
  • How might we rethink a food system premised on a shorter supply chain, lower carbon footprint, representative of local history & heritage, and supporting authentic tourism & gastronomy sectors of Uruguay?

During a week-long conversation with partners from Canelones & Montevideo what surfaced is an understanding that the depth of transformation is not only vertical but also horizontal, seeking a sustained change over time in how we operate when intervening in complex development challenges. At the same time, this depth is stressed by the urgency and the need to demonstrate new development possibilities tangibly in the short term while at the same time being cognizant of political realities on the ground.

Social innovation comprises the successful implementation of an idea, or different arrangements of ideas, that generate shared (public) value. This concept invites us to ask ourselves what a successful process in a deep demonstration would be. We understand that it would integrate, at least: 1) demonstrate in practice that a systemic approach of advanced experimentation in public policies is possible to address complex challenges; 2) that the UNDP can be a great ally of public policy when developing experimentation processes for territorial transformation; 3) learn and unlearn enough to share the experience in all its dimensions; 4) that different areas of UNDP can be involved in the process in all stages; 5) that we can develop this experience in other territories in the future.

New ways of working based on collaboration, creation, and collective intelligence are required to achieve this. For this reason, UNDP is promoting methodologies that allow deep immersion in the communities — in their values and behaviors — to achieve better and more effective solutions, designing collaboratively, based on the intelligence of each territory, to generate new transformative narratives and based on the common good. UNDP’s differential value lies in being a reliable actor for counterparts and its links with citizens, the national government, and other organizations, safeguarding the process to achieve advanced experimentation.

Photo: UNDP Uruguay



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