UNDP’s Strategic Innovation Pivot

UNDP Strategic Innovation
6 min readDec 9, 2020

by Martin Bille Herman, the Permanent Representative of Denmark to the UN, and Haoliang Xu, Director of UNDP’s Bureau for Program and Policy Support

Photo: UN / Marie Frechon

When UNDP and the Danish government set up the Innovation Facility in 2014 — UNDP’s internal fund to support innovation — we started on a journey that took us to places we hardly imagined. Building on what we collectively have learned since the Facility was set up, UNDP has embarked on a new and more expansive innovation journey focusing on transforming socio-economic systems — and set up a new Strategic Innovation Unit to help steward. Here we share some of what we have learned from our collaboration through Innovation Facility and an invitation to join us in this pivot.

Seeking out new and more effective ways of supporting governments and doing development is a cornerstone of UNDP’s work and the Danish Government has supported this through, among others, the investment in the Innovation Facility. The Facility has helped transform how UNDP does this. Six years ago, it helped fund the first person at UNDP whose role was supporting innovation. Today, the organization features a dedicated innovation function with a dozen team members and hundreds more colleagues in a global network of Accelerator Labs based in over 100 countries.

Fig. 1.0: UNDP’s journey to system transformation

The last six years of the Innovation Facility focused on supporting governments to adopt new methods in the design of policies and programs. This included ways of rapidly testing and adapting new kinds of services, applying behavioral insights to encourage more healthy behavior or prevent extremism, and exploring the application of new technologies.

There are so many different ways this work has created impact for UNDP’s partners in the field. To name a few: enabling payments to 12,000 Ebola health workers, creating and strengthening 650 social enterprises in Asia, and UNDP’s first innovation labs within governments. An initial $12m invested over 6 years into the Facility by the Danish government led to over $70m in follow-on investments from governments, the private sector, and donors backing innovative development projects. Those innovation labs laid out the vision for UNDP’s global network of Accelerator Labs, the world’s largest learning network for development challenges.

Rapidly testing and scaling up individual solutions, while useful, is not enough. The pivot in our collaboration over the innovation agenda is towards transforming socio-economic systems. It is a pivot from working at a tactical level — advancing specific solutions or methods like blockchain or design thinking — to working at a strategic level — developing portfolios of initiatives that learn from each other and combined, seek to facilitate transformation of systems.

This agenda is not only considerably more ambitious, it is necessary. Plotting a green recovery by decarbonizing our economies, safeguarding livelihoods in an era of automation, and reimagining social protection and good governance mechanisms that leave no one behind will all require altering how different people and organizations relate to each other. In fact, it is hard to imagine how we might attain the 2030 agenda without renewing our socio-economic systems.

UNDP and its partners will need to build the capability to beget systems transformation. While taking on systemic challenges is not new to the organization, much has yet to be understood about how to transform socio-economic systems. That is why UNDP and the Government of Denmark are inviting more partners to join us on this new journey to learn with and alongside us.

A review of learnings from the last six years of the Innovation Facility has laid out three pathways we are building to effectively transition to this new way of working:

1. The ability to harness the “diagonal” effects of innovation by shifting the focusing from projects to portfolios.

Innovations infrequently created impact by going from experiment to scale-up. Instead, the impact of innovations tended to scale “diagonally” across UNDP. A team might try a new approach on one project and, while that project might not scale up, the team might apply that approach in other initiatives.

Shifting to strategic innovation work requires UNDP to be more intentional in finding those diagonal connections and building coherence between different assets, capabilities, and relationships in its portfolios. This then could help the organization design portfolios of interventions coherent with the type of challenges they are meant to address and fully leverage what it and its partners have in the direction of the change it wants to see.

UNDP has already started rolling out an approach that helps country offices more effectively leverage entire portfolios (rather than individual projects) to create systemic impact. Dozens of country offices have begun applying this approach, such as UNDP Malawi in the area of good governance.

UNDP Angola

2. The ability to make long-term commitments and pursue strategic challenges by articulating and funding missions with broad societal relevance.

The short-termism of projects, budgets, and annual reviews makes acting strategically to address systemic challenges an uphill battle.

Strengthening the ability to make long-term commitments requires new collaborations with partners committed to strategic innovation, transformation and missions that have a broad value to society despite uncertainty about how to achieve them — such as the work in UNDP Mongolia that is helping shift the country’s cashmere industry to high value and high sustainability.

It also requires that UNDP’s incentive systems be rebalanced to encourage strategic investments in portfolios (in addition to project delivery) and new investment modalities that can support flexible, multi-year initiatives.

Thanks to support from the Danish Government and the Innovation Facility, UNDP is already testing out a mission-driven approach to innovation with nine different country offices in what we call Deep Demonstrations that can practically showcase what new capabilities for system transformation look like on the ground. Countries such as Malawi and Mongolia are applying these approaches to transforming good governance and managing climate-driven development transitions. We are rolling out some of the new tools of system transformation with 30 new Accelerator Labs starting this year.

Figure 2.0: UNDP’s recent work in building a system transformation capability

3. The ability to continuously renew the organization through collaboration and partnerships.

System transformation is not a solution but a means to greater prosperity and a sustainable world. UNDP does not have all the answers for how to do this. It will need to develop an entirely new set of skills and capabilities and offer that capability to its offices and partners around the world.

This requires investing in change at the country level and building “capability pipelines” that identify and build new capacities into UNDP to facilitate transformation with and for its partners.

There are already signals of collaborative learning with other partners on how to facilitate systemic change and make use of platforms such as Istanbul Innovation Days to identify partners with whom we can collectively learn and develop new capabilities.

Unsplash: Nandhu Kumar

Enabling thriving societies and warding off environmental destruction can’t be done without transforming socio-economic systems. The past six years of investing in innovation have not just produced development results — they have helped UNDP create a roadmap for a more expansive and strategic view of what innovation can do for today’s development challenges.

To this effect, UNDP is dedicating a global team, making investments to complement systems change efforts across the organization, and building new capability for system transformation ‘by doing’ with government partners and donors. Changing the systems we live in for the better will require unprecedented collaboration. This is our joint invitation to partners to join us in investing and learning to build this essential capability.

You can download the full report here.



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