Innovating Eurasia:

An introduction

(Photo: UNDP in Bosnia and Herzegovina)

The global development landscape is evolving rapidly as changing climate, growing inequality, armed conflict, and poverty affect countries around the world. In the face of these challenges, new solutions are emerging from developing countries, technologies in policymaking are empowering new actors, and market-oriented shifts are increasing diversified bilateral funding in development.

Against this backdrop, the three major global conferences in 2015 — The United Nations (UN) World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris, and the Financing for Development Summit in Addis Ababa — are a testament to the world’s expectations. The outcomes of these conferences will reinforce the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda with its 17 goals that aim to foster economic growth, ensure environmental protection, and end poverty by 2030.

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is well-equipped to support programme countries at the local, national, and regional levels to deliver integrated sustainable development solutions required to meet the SDGs. The new development agenda is both ambitious and transformational as it aims to address the five Ps of sustainable development: prosperity, people, planet, peace, and partnership.

Achieving these global goals will be the defining challenge of development work in the next 15 years and this is where an innovative approach can play a key role. Social innovators are highly networked citizens and small groups, empowered by new technologies and connected to one another. With minimal financial resources, limited or non-existent management, and by circumventing traditional processes, they are doing things that only large organizations could previously accomplish.

The nature of social innovation goes hand in hand with the way the 17 SDGs were conceived of and decided upon. Countries around the world facilitated post-2015 discussions among diverse citizen groups, venturing outside the capitals into the rural areas to filter out the most pressing concerns of citizens, and help turn those into the new set of goals. This has led to both more specificity and universality of the SDGs. They apply to all countries and balance social development with economic and environmental sustainability and social inclusion. At the same time, the post-2015 consultations, where UNDP played a major role worldwide, have raised expectations that the process of implementing the SDG agenda must be equally inclusive when it comes to engaging all these “networked citizens.”

These goals will necessitate not only figuring out new ways to work alongside citizens, but also figuring out how to go beyond traditional funding modalities. Equally important will be the capitalizing on the gains of the nascent data revolution to monitor in close to real time, the progress made towards achieving these goals. This implies investment in statistical institutions for more effective measuring tools, as well as using our ability to tap into various new sources of data. This will not only provide a current picture of the progress, but create a space for integration and coherence between various groups and sectors, while drawing expertise and skills from ‘silos’ for the benefit of the universal agenda.

Within this global context, the Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (ECIS) region is facing a unique set of challenges. Though most of its countries are now middle-income, many continue to undergo transitions from conflict to stable governance. Over the past two decades, the region as a whole has experienced an increase in income inequality and continues to feature high poverty levels. While there have been significant development gains, insecurity remains a reality for some countries — stemming in part from past and on-going conlicts, as well as vulnerability to seismic, climatic, meteorological, and natural resource related risks.

In 2012, UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth of Indpendent States (RBEC) set up a knowledge and innovation unit to design a new generation of development services that would support increasingly sophisticated national governments and help tackle these complex, intertwined challenges. The innovation unit thus designed and tested different approaches and tools ranging from behavioural insights, data science and user-centred design, to alternative methods of policymaking processes, and service delivery. Using the ‘learning-by-doing’ principle, the unit created a lab-like, experimental space where public servants, citizens, and external resources could come together to reframe issues and test novel approaches to pressing social issues.

In 2013, UNDP RBEC organized and hosted an inaugural Global Innovation meeting in Budva, Montenegro. This brought together leading thinkers in social innovation and citizen-led public service reform and innovation champions from UNDP country offices in ECIS. The meeting resulted in the Budva Declaration, a set of 20 commitments that outlined UNDP’s approach to innovation.

UNDP has developed an innovation framework in the region after four years of trial, error, and practice. It provides hands-on, practical support to public servants and citizens to:

· Reframe policy issues by identifying key insights into the needs of service users using methods such as ethnographic research, human-centred design, behavioural science and social innovation camps;

· Connect with leading thinkers, citizens, think tanks, and organizations on the cutting edge of progress and development in key policy issues using horizon scanning, crowdsourcing, online collaboration and challenge prizes;

· De-risk investment in — and enhance deliverability of — policies by running rapid, parallel field tests and experiments.

From this approach, UNDP RBEC has seen its innovation approaches gradually grow in both size and impact. Innovation now consists of an entirely new set of services that UNDP offers to national and other partners. This approach continues to evolve through the practical application in the field and currently includes:

1. Delivery of new policy solutions that use novel ways to tackle old problems

In implementing a broad range of policy and service design projects, UNDP demonstrated the value of new techniques such as:

· Design of innovation teams within governments as agile interfaces with the citizens for collaborative and open policymaking in Georgia;

· Application of social network analysis for increasing small and medium-sized enterprises’ (SME) competitiveness and identifying policy solutions from the margins of the society in Montenegro and Armenia;

· Behavioural insights to improve drug adherence among tuberculosis (TB) patients and to address informal settlements in Moldova;

· Gaming for reconciliation, youth unemployment, tourism, and pollution control in Cyprus and Kyrgyzstan;

· New sources of data (big/open data) for transparency, disaster risk reduction, and the informal economy in Kosovo and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia;

· Crowdfunding and challenge prizes for energy and climate change in Croatia.

2. Build-up of new skills by experimenting with new approaches and methods

Using hands-on courses, learning sessions, development trainings, challenge prizes, social innovation camps and hackathons, UNDP introduced over 5,000 civil servants and citizens to skills such as open policymaking and data use, rapid prototype design, real-time monitoring and human-centred design for service delivery.

3. Identification of cutting-edge thinking via research and development

Through continuous horizon scanning, online collaboration, blogging and research and development, UNDP connects our clients to cutting edge actors in key policy sectors and provides them with hands-on support to conduct rapid experiments to test out their new approaches. This emerging network of contacts includes the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), Waag Society, Institute for the Future, Edgeryders, FutureGov, the Governance Lab at New York University, MindLab, Nesta, Cognitive Edge and Indiegogo, among others.

Most notably, four governments in the region (Armenia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Georgia, and Moldova) tapped into the RBEC innovation work to jointly set up social innovation labs to engage citizens in policy and service design and delivery. This is an entirely novel way for governments and citizens to collaborate, one where UNDP plays a major role in the full policy-making cycle.

Innovation labs have filled a niche by evolving into neutral spaces that give participants a ‘license to act differently,’ to work together and test out entirely new approaches to policymaking in a collaborative and experimental way. Not surprisingly, rising numbers of traditional partners (e. g. donor countries, think thanks) and less traditional ones (e. g. individual citizens, informal groups, corporations) now invest in UNDP innovation efforts that have successfully brokered new sustainable development alliances in the ECIS region.

How effective has this approach been in supporting governments in countries throughout Europe and CIS to tackle emerging and protracted development and policy issues in a user-oriented way?

In 2014, UNDP RBEC commissioned an independent evaluation conducted by MindLab, the Danish Government’s innovation lab. The evaluation found that early adopter countries of UNDP’s innovation agenda in the ECIS region benefited from new partnerships and access to a new generation of development services, programme and policy resources, and skills. FutureGov, a design studio from London, had similar conclusions in its evaluation of UNDP’s innovation work in Armenia.

MindLab also found that innovative approaches helped change UNDP’s organizational culture. These changes included a design of the first corporate innovation curricula for UNDP staff; integration of innovation as a tool for better risk management in the new UNDP Strategic plan; amending the corporate rules of procurement to enable use of challenge prizes as a standard business procedure; and a corporate endorsement of the innovation framework that emerged from the ECIS region’s experiences.

These success stories showcase the experience of countries and territories in the region and aim to demonstrate the impact of UNDP’s innovation work in Europe and the CIS. The paper examines where and how innovation played a strategic role and concludes by looking forward to analyse common elements that have built programmatic success, brought about positive results, and transformed the way UNDP RBEC works.

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