Armenia: A lab to experiment in

Kolba Lab in action (Photos: Kolba Lab)

UNDP in Armenia pioneered the use of social innovation for sustainable development more than four years ago.

The Country Office has dedicated a space to experiment and rapidly prototype based on an outside-in approach driven by citizens’ perspectives and needs. In a short time, this approach helped the Office and its partners engage citizens more effectively in governance, stimulated public sector innovation, boosted the local social start-up sector, and developed a ‘shortcut around the bureaucracy’ capable of generating fresh ideas and new solutions to old challenges.

This innovation work has brought together citizens, government, development practitioners, and private sector partners and created a network of Armenian change- makers. Regularly held public events like TEDx and in-house Kolba Cafés generate new ideas and engage people to trial solutions for Armenia’s developmental challenges.

Using 21st century expertise and tools, as well as user insights, UNDP in Armenia engages non-traditional actors in social innovation projects that shake up traditional development design.

Innovation recipe for success in Armenia

UNDP’s social innovations in Armenia have had a big impact, namely:

  • Kolba Lab, a social start-up incubator that, since its start in 2013, has received 533 ideas and incubated 11 start-ups;
  • Robust social media exposure and strategic communication that includes signature public events, regular Kolba Cafés and customized TEDx events that highlight UNDP’s expertise and values.

UNDP in Armenia’s teams crowdsource and use social innovation camp methodologies to draw on new channels of information and partner with international innovation resources, including Nesta’s Do-It Yourself (DIY) Toolkit, Institute of Design at Stanford University, and customized public sector innovation consultations with FutureGov.

As part of its mainstreaming innovation efforts, UNDP’s Women in Local Democracy (WILD) project has introduced an easy-to-use Short Messaging Service (SMS) polling application that has facilitated nine SMS polls in five communities since it kicked off in December 2013. The Government of Armenia now plans to expand this to ten more communities.

From a prototype to a successful business

A skills-based knowledge economy holds much of Armenia’s economic and entrepreneurial potential. However, perceived top-down governance, low levels of civic engagement, and negative attitudes to business failure have hindered the development of an innovation culture, and the public initiatives and ventures that could transform Armenia’s economy.

To overcome this, UNDP in Armenia first held a series of social innovation camps. These brought together ideas, people and digital tools to build web-based solutions to social problems. The camps’ ability to filter new ideas and citizen solutions inspired UNDP to establish Kolba Lab.

Kolba Lab is a social innovation and start-up incubator, which works with citizens to identify Armenia’s most-pressing social challenges and test ideas to solve them. Its network of mentors then develops a home-grown, sustainable public service reform and development ventures.

Kolba Lab begins each venture by first precisely defining a social problem. It then crowdsources, issuing a public challenge for citizen solutions to tackle that problem. This ensures that services and projects are designed by those with the biggest stake in them. It also draws creative people, fights apathy, and fosters an entrepreneurial spirit.

Kolba Lab staff together with a professional jury panel select the best ideas and invite anyone interested to join a kick-start camp — a training workshop that teams up participants and trains them in the technical, business, and marketing skills necessary to launch a viable, self-sustaining social enterprise.

Kolba’s successful start-ups (in most cases spin-offs of US $3,000-$10,000 prototypes) include Seeing Hands, Flexi-care for working mothers, a solar-powered street lighting, fruit-drying social enterprise in a small community in the Armenian mountains, a local governance e-management system introduced in Yerevan called Smart city, a hyperlocal news platform called Taghinfo, and an app that crowdsources monitoring of public vehicles.

Kolba’s next step? Bringing the government into crowdsourcing with a public sector innovation challenge so front-line public servants can offer public sector reform ideas with executive power to circumvent the traditional bureaucracy.

Kolba Lab also ran a call for ideas for local governance, early warning systems for climate change, and human rights. Each of these is based on the principles of running multiple experiments and failing fast/failing cheap, with price tags for the Kolba-run competitions from US $3,000–$10,000.

Feedback democracy: Giving Armenian communities a voice via SMS polling

Participation in local decision-making has historically been low in Armenia. Following a 2013 law requiring local government to ensure citizen engagement in community decisions, UNDP in Armenia tapped into Armenia’s high rates of mobile use, turning it into a direct democracy opportunity at the local level.

UNDP pioneered the creation of an easy-to-use micro-referendum tool: the SMS polling application. Designed to increase participation and civic engagement in local decision- making and make it more transparent, the polling app gives participants a safe and open forum to express their opinions on matters of interest to their community. It offers community leaders quick and affordable ways to engage a broad range of people in decision-making, making it appealing to those who don’t have internet access or the ability to engage through offline channels.

Since its launch in December 2013, nine SMS polls have been held in five communities, with an average participation rate of 23 percent, giving it potential to build a broad constituency for local-level decision-making.

A social innovation lab in action in Yerevan (Photo: Kolba Lab)

Thanks to a positive response by citizens and local officials, the Government of Armenia’s Open Government Partnership National Action Plan 2014–2016 envisages bringing the tool to ten more communities. This success is a testament to rapid prototyping and continued iteration, building on feedback from national partners like Armenia’s Ministry of Territorial Administration, local and regional authorities, and the International Centre for Human Development. It also builds upon a solid partnership with the private sector — from tech company Mobbis, which offered training to local government representatives on how to run SMS polls, to mobile operators Orange, Biline, and VivaCell MTS, who provided mobile connectivity.

Local government representatives will now be able to use this SMS mobile polling technology to make inquiries or run constituent micro-referendums and use the feedback and data — collected and aggregated by gender and age — to make better, more informed decisions for the community. The team plans to amend the app so citizens can also directly propose questions to the community.

In 2014, the project was one of the winning ideas in public participation and engagement in the Ashoka Changemakers and Feedback Labs competition.

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