Innovation at UNDP: changing ourselves, asking different types of questions

The shifting ground around us, a different type of demand from our counterparts and the availability of new organisational assets has gradually shifted the needle for UNDP, creating a new awareness of the potential of innovation for development but also generating important questions as to how those assets can be leveraged in a more systematic, transformational way.

Seriously… “strategic” innovation?

So yes, the rumor is true: UNDP recently set up a Strategic Innovation Unit. And yes, we know what you are thinking…

We explained part of the rationale behind this new chapter in our innovation journey in a previous post. The emergence of the need for a renewed focus on strategy at this particular juncture is perhaps better understood (with another nod to Yuen Yuen Ang!) as a result of co-evolution. In the last couple of years, UNDP launched a number of bold initiatives in the innovation space, such as the Accelerator Labs (which recently grew to 90 globally) and the Digital Strategy, aimed at “splicing digital into UNDP’s corporate DNA”. And this on top of a number of ongoing activities at the corporate and the regional level: from digital finance to NextGenGov Asia, from the “deep demonstrations” to Boost (just to name a few).

More importantly, the external context has also changed significantly. The COVID crisis has deepened pre-existing structural inequalities, bringing skeptics to question whether the SDGs framework is still relevant or indeed achievable. Against this backdrop, being able to demonstrate that a different mode of innovation is possible — a mode that is transformational, can dramatically change trajectories and embraces uncertainty — has acquired a new sense of urgency.

The shifting ground around us, a different type of demand from our counterparts and the availability of new organisational assets has gradually shifted the needle for UNDP, creating a new awareness of the potential of innovation for development but also generating important questions as to how those assets can be leveraged in a more systematic, transformational way. After all, as Rowan Conway reminded us, fast is not a direction.

Perhaps one way of visualizing the current organizational zeitgeist is through the Steinberg’s funnel (see below): the flurry of tactical innovation activities on the right end of the funnel (from hackathons to solutions festivals, from challenges to “nudges”) has generated the need for a new conversation focused on decisions that are taken on the left end of the funnel, which are more big picture and foundational: why are we doing this in the first place; are we perpetuating existing power imbalances; are our interventions coherent with the nature of the complex challenges we are facing (from depopulation to plastic pollution); can we orient our efforts toward system transformation.

Working out loud, colleagues surfaced questions like how do we go beyond the let a thousand flowers bloom and accelerate the effects of development portfolioswhat does success really look like; how do we promote alternative innovation narratives to the predominant Silicon Valley paradigm; and, how do we shift from funding projects to funding system transformations.

These questions shift the focus away from tools and methods (design thinking, blockchain, etc.) to mindsets and organisational culture (e.g. embracing uncertainty, working with emergence, taking a long term view). They direct our attention to program/policy formulation as the entry point for a strategic conversation on innovation rather than individual projects or experiments. Whole of office conversations rather than a few isolated champions. What is at stake increasingly is programmatic coherence: quick fixes and single point solutions will not lead us to tackle issues such as COVID recovery or decarbonisation effectively.

As aspiring change agents, we need to acknowledge that change starts with us: revisiting our identity, going beyond the “rebel” DNA of the early days (want change? ‘be the calmest and most helpful person in the room” advised us Pia Andrews) and embracing a role of orchestrator of talent and facilitator of movements. How can we infuse system perspectives and portfolio logics into the dark matter that drives our work, deep into the heart of the mothership. To do so, we need to develop new capabilities to “see” systems (starting from our own) and their arrangements (e.g. why is this waste or employment system “stuck” in its current state?) to induce transformational effects and create appetite and institutional capacity for renewal (there are currently 20 UNDP teams around the world developing & applying the new capabilities in a range of policy spaces).

What kind of questions can we explore together?

In any bureaucracy, new units are in danger of being tempted by the “tabula rasa” mindset. From the above, it is obvious that the mandate we were given points to the exact opposite: we know that there is lots of innovation already happening at all levels across our system, but we need to get better at answering the question of what does this all add up to.

Another danger is the “black or white” syndrome. Putting a greater emphasis on strategy does not mean diminishing the role of more tactical interventions: this is not an “either/or” scenario and if anything the COVID emergency has reminded us of the importance of quickly deploying solutions to those in need.

The dreaded “strategic” in our unit name then signals the intent at this point in our organisational journey to look at the many, existing innovation assets across the organisation (and our partners) and interrogate them from a new perspective, directing their use to meet that sense of urgency for deeper transformations needed to achieve the SDGs.

In practice, we are interested in exploring with our country offices and our partners this initial set of questions (expecting that these will evolve over time):

1. How do we orient our efforts more purposefully from small experiments and single point solutions to system transformation?

  • How do we position innovation strategically in our country programs, ensuring that assets such as labs, deep demonstrations, etc. are leveraged towards system transformation, while still delivering tactical wins?

  • How do we shape demand away from single point solutions and “quick fixes” so that we direct it towards more systemic effects? How do you engage, for example, a city planner who wants a “smart city” solution right here, right now in a conversation about its long term effects on equity and sustainability (and possible negative consequences?)

  • How do we ensure that our program’s logic is coherent with the complexity of the challenges faced by our government counterparts and the communities we serve?

  • How do we move beyond a projectised view of the world to develop portfolios of development options? This ultimately implies taking a long term view, rethinking our implementing and financing modalities and challenging our identity as “solution providers”

2. How do we generate actionable intelligence from our portfolios and build institutional capacity for adaptation?

  • How do we create robust mechanisms for collective learning and reflection from our portfolios with our partners (alongside mechanisms for accountability and reporting)?

  • How do we build institutional will, political space and capacity for adaptation based on the insights from our portfolio — as we expect to face increasing levels of uncertainty?

  • How do we make the most of existing assets in our portfolio and leverage them to greater effects? How do we become more aware of our blindspots?

3. A number of donors and governments are also exploring portfolio approaches and system perspectives to get better results from their investments. How can we engage with them?

  • How do we engage with donors and governments who are exploring system and portfolio approaches (from food systems to health) in a joint journey of discovery of what comes after logframes and projectised interventions?

  • What new financial mechanism do we need to develop if we want to fund system transformations rather than individual projects?

  • What are the “deep demonstrations” that are needed to prove that we can organise ourselves differently and explore new intervention logics to deliver better results?

4. How can we develop new capabilities for system transformation and become better orchestrators of talent?

  • How do we develop new capabilities for system transformation for ourselves and our partners? What do we need to change in ourselves?

  • How do we become better at working with emergence (rather than planning), dealing with uncertainty and recognising unbalances in power dynamics?

  • How do we become better at leveraging competencies that are already existing within the organisation and within our partners and create opportunities that aggregate their impact over time?

The journey has just begun, and we certainly have more questions than answers at this point. If these issues resonate with you and you are interested in exploring these questions, we’d love to hear from you.

Source: UNDP Innovation

Seriously… “strategic” innovation?

So yes, the rumor is true: UNDP recently set up a Strategic Innovation Unit. And yes, we know what you are thinking…

We explained part of the rationale behind this new chapter in our innovation journey in a previous post. The emergence of the need for a renewed focus on strategy at this particular juncture is perhaps better understood (with another nod to Yuen Yuen Ang!) as a result of co-evolution. In the last couple of years, UNDP launched a number of bold initiatives in the innovation space, such as the Accelerator Labs (which recently grew to 90 globally) and the Digital Strategy, aimed at “splicing digital into UNDP’s corporate DNA”. And this on top of a number of ongoing activities at the corporate and the regional level: from digital finance to NextGenGov Asia, from the “deep demonstrations” to Boost (just to name a few).

More importantly, the external context has also changed significantly. The COVID crisis has deepened pre-existing structural inequalities, bringing skeptics to question whether the SDGs framework is still relevant or indeed achievable. Against this backdrop, being able to demonstrate that a different mode of innovation is possible — a mode that is transformational, can dramatically change trajectories and embraces uncertainty — has acquired a new sense of urgency.

The shifting ground around us, a different type of demand from our counterparts and the availability of new organisational assets has gradually shifted the needle for UNDP, creating a new awareness of the potential of innovation for development but also generating important questions as to how those assets can be leveraged in a more systematic, transformational way. After all, as Rowan Conway reminded us, fast is not a direction.

Perhaps one way of visualizing the current organizational zeitgeist is through the Steinberg’s funnel (see below): the flurry of tactical innovation activities on the right end of the funnel (from hackathons to solutions festivals, from challenges to “nudges”) has generated the need for a new conversation focused on decisions that are taken on the left end of the funnel, which are more big picture and foundational: why are we doing this in the first place; are we perpetuating existing power imbalances; are our interventions coherent with the nature of the complex challenges we are facing (from depopulation to plastic pollution); can we orient our efforts toward system transformation.

Working out loud, colleagues surfaced questions like how do we go beyond the let a thousand flowers bloom and accelerate the effects of development portfolioswhat does success really look like; how do we promote alternative innovation narratives to the predominant Silicon Valley paradigm; and, how do we shift from funding projects to funding system transformations.

These questions shift the focus away from tools and methods (design thinking, blockchain, etc.) to mindsets and organisational culture (e.g. embracing uncertainty, working with emergence, taking a long term view). They direct our attention to program/policy formulation as the entry point for a strategic conversation on innovation rather than individual projects or experiments. Whole of office conversations rather than a few isolated champions. What is at stake increasingly is programmatic coherence: quick fixes and single point solutions will not lead us to tackle issues such as COVID recovery or decarbonisation effectively.

As aspiring change agents, we need to acknowledge that change starts with us: revisiting our identity, going beyond the “rebel” DNA of the early days (want change? ‘be the calmest and most helpful person in the room” advised us Pia Andrews) and embracing a role of orchestrator of talent and facilitator of movements. How can we infuse system perspectives and portfolio logics into the dark matter that drives our work, deep into the heart of the mothership. To do so, we need to develop new capabilities to “see” systems (starting from our own) and their arrangements (e.g. why is this waste or employment system “stuck” in its current state?) to induce transformational effects and create appetite and institutional capacity for renewal (there are currently 20 UNDP teams around the world developing & applying the new capabilities in a range of policy spaces).

What kind of questions can we explore together?

In any bureaucracy, new units are in danger of being tempted by the “tabula rasa” mindset. From the above, it is obvious that the mandate we were given points to the exact opposite: we know that there is lots of innovation already happening at all levels across our system, but we need to get better at answering the question of what does this all add up to.

Another danger is the “black or white” syndrome. Putting a greater emphasis on strategy does not mean diminishing the role of more tactical interventions: this is not an “either/or” scenario and if anything the COVID emergency has reminded us of the importance of quickly deploying solutions to those in need.

The dreaded “strategic” in our unit name then signals the intent at this point in our organisational journey to look at the many, existing innovation assets across the organisation (and our partners) and interrogate them from a new perspective, directing their use to meet that sense of urgency for deeper transformations needed to achieve the SDGs.

In practice, we are interested in exploring with our country offices and our partners this initial set of questions (expecting that these will evolve over time):

1. How do we orient our efforts more purposefully from small experiments and single point solutions to system transformation?

  • How do we position innovation strategically in our country programs, ensuring that assets such as labs, deep demonstrations, etc. are leveraged towards system transformation, while still delivering tactical wins?

  • How do we shape demand away from single point solutions and “quick fixes” so that we direct it towards more systemic effects? How do you engage, for example, a city planner who wants a “smart city” solution right here, right now in a conversation about its long term effects on equity and sustainability (and possible negative consequences?)

  • How do we ensure that our program’s logic is coherent with the complexity of the challenges faced by our government counterparts and the communities we serve?

  • How do we move beyond a projectised view of the world to develop portfolios of development options? This ultimately implies taking a long term view, rethinking our implementing and financing modalities and challenging our identity as “solution providers”

2. How do we generate actionable intelligence from our portfolios and build institutional capacity for adaptation?

  • How do we create robust mechanisms for collective learning and reflection from our portfolios with our partners (alongside mechanisms for accountability and reporting)?

  • How do we build institutional will, political space and capacity for adaptation based on the insights from our portfolio — as we expect to face increasing levels of uncertainty?

  • How do we make the most of existing assets in our portfolio and leverage them to greater effects? How do we become more aware of our blindspots?

3. A number of donors and governments are also exploring portfolio approaches and system perspectives to get better results from their investments. How can we engage with them?

  • How do we engage with donors and governments who are exploring system and portfolio approaches (from food systems to health) in a joint journey of discovery of what comes after logframes and projectised interventions?

  • What new financial mechanism do we need to develop if we want to fund system transformations rather than individual projects?

  • What are the “deep demonstrations” that are needed to prove that we can organise ourselves differently and explore new intervention logics to deliver better results?

4. How can we develop new capabilities for system transformation and become better orchestrators of talent?

  • How do we develop new capabilities for system transformation for ourselves and our partners? What do we need to change in ourselves?

  • How do we become better at working with emergence (rather than planning), dealing with uncertainty and recognising unbalances in power dynamics?

  • How do we become better at leveraging competencies that are already existing within the organisation and within our partners and create opportunities that aggregate their impact over time?

The journey has just begun, and we certainly have more questions than answers at this point. If these issues resonate with you and you are interested in exploring these questions, we’d love to hear from you.

Source: UNDP Innovation

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