Developing a hands-on strategy around scaling social innovation for development

UNDP Accelerator Labs
6 min readApr 21, 2020

By Akshara Baru, Alexandra de Sá Moreira Treat, David Lonnberg, Eva Hoermann, Fares Taher, Mihret Moges, Zixin Yang, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs

In 2019, UNDP set out to build the world’s largest and fastest learning network to accelerate progress towards addressing sustainable development challenges. As part of this journey, our international seven-member team from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) is working in close collaboration with the 60 Labs on developing a hands-on strategy around scaling social innovation for development that works across different regional and SDG contexts. Our team put together a comprehensive methodology that is both inclusive and rigorous, and provides the network with a robust evidence-based scaling framework with recommendations as well as practical tools.

What are we working on?

Our work kicked-off in November 2019 by conducting background research on scaling social innovation. Building on regular meetings with the UNDP Accelerator Labs, we developed and disseminated a survey for the Labs to collect preliminary primary data from all regions and SDGs covered by the networks. We are also undertaking in-depth phone interviews with 17 Accelerator Lab teams worldwide, as well as stakeholders and experts who work with the country labs. Through an iterative process, incorporating the expertise of the actors at the heart of scaling social innovation, our insights from the survey will inform our research assumptions around scaling.

What is social innovation and how can it be scaled?

When we set out on this journey, we knew that we first needed to understand what the potential of social innovation can be. Facing a range of contextual, structural, sectoral, and systemic issues, development agencies, including UNDP, have been required to step forward with fresh ideas on how to integrate new technologies and systems thinking when looking for more effective and immediate answers.

As we build our work on the knowledge and research that is existing in various communities around the globe, a definition of the social innovation process that we rely on identifies the process as layered and complex. Specifically, it includes the “introduction of new products, processes or programs” that have a significant impact on “the basic routines, resource and authority flows, or beliefs of the social system in which the innovation occurs” to ensure that it is “durable and has a broad impact.”

Creating a framework to scale social innovation is challenging: the process is nonlinear, involving diverse stakeholders and depends on social, economic, and political contexts.

That said, creating a strategy for scaling is crucial to systematize the bottom-up approach to development, where the process of identifying concerns and developing solutions through innovation stems from the community and/or the wider innovation network.

We acknowledge that scaling social innovation goes beyond replication of tested grassroots innovations. It also requires fostering a “social-ecological system” that is “agile, and responsive to emergent challenges.” This system can then enable social innovation, its implementation, and growth. Additionally, processes such as instituting an innovation-friendly environment, reducing barriers and incentivizing participation, onboarding and leveraging stakeholders, and promoting awareness and adoption are all relevant aspects when trying to scale social innovation.

Thus, scaling social innovation for development aims at shifting the focus from the output of innovation onto the impact of innovation. While output refers to more immediate effects, impact involves long-term and lasting effects on people’s lives, thereby, making the effects of social innovation systemic and sustainable. We see the UNDP Accelerator Labs at the heart of this, bringing different stakeholders to the table, growing a network of partners, improving access to the social innovation ecosystem in-country, contributing to the enabling environment, and facilitating skills-building on social innovation within UNDP and beyond.

There are many examples of scalable innovative solutions that have been identified through the work of the Labs. These include a portfolio of renewable energy products the Uganda Lab has identified to address the issue of deforestation, and the hydroponic food production the South Africa Labs is working on as one solution for water conservation. Another example comes from the Serbia Lab which is looking into innovative methods to leverage data through its Data Challenge to address the issue of depopulation. In order to address the challenge of depopulation, this multidisciplinary approach uses alternative data sources, coupled with human-centered approaches to attract digital nomads and diaspora communities to Serbia. Similar to these Labs, each Accelerator Lab is identifying and testing a variety of innovative solutions to tackle different SDGs at scale.

What are the Accelerator labs saying about scaling?

When starting our work, it was key for us to listen to the Labs about their progress as well as getting to know their thoughts around scaling.

We designed the survey to address research questions focusing on current achievements and challenges of the Labs, and understand their thinking around scaling the insights, processes and products that come from their work. To analyze the responses we used a qualitative content analysis with a codebook to structure the analysis — especially of the open-ended questions — and then sorting the answers into categories to make them comparable.

Worldwide distribution of Accelerator Labs which responded to the survey

It was encouraging for us to see that many of the Labs already thought a lot about scaling their efforts. Out of the 40 Labs who responded, 27 indicated they will be ready to start scaling their work during the first half of 2020. Among those who believe they are likely or very likely to start this phase of their process, we saw that a majority of them are working on addressing issues relating to SDG 12 (Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns) and SDG 8 (Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all). When asked about the work that the Accelerator Labs have conducted so far, it became evident that partnerships are central to most of them. The ability to build meaningful and well-functioning partnerships was seen as both a key challenge and success factor in their work of exploring and testing solutions.

“We have become, in a short time, something like advisors to both the Presidential Delivery Unit and some offices of the Technical Planning Secretariat. Our challenge is to now catalyze this influence to launch interventions.”

Accelerator Lab Paraguay

Scaling through unusual partners

Speaking of partners, what was interesting to us was to see the spectrum of actors that the Labs have been engaging with so far. While partnerships with the government stand out, we learned that the Labs are collaborating with more unusual partners such as artists, community leaders, innovation associations, and citizens themselves.

“The lab organised a Sense Making Workshop on the challenge of Deforestation…and we engaged unusual people like timber loggers, charcoal sellers who are normally regarded as culprits since these businesses are viewed as almost “illegal.”

Accelerator Lab Uganda

Besides the partnership aspect of the work, knowledge sharing is something that was recognized as a factor for success when it comes to scaling. As the Accelerator Labs are a network, it was not surprising to see that the Labs are valuing the sharing of information, insights and experiences within the network and beyond.

One key component of working on innovation is the adaptability to change. This is something we experienced first hand when confronted with the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on our research. While we had originally planned to do in-person field research in Uganda, Serbia and South Africa, with the rapid spread of COVID-19 around the world, we quickly had to adapt and shift to virtual interviews with UNDP and its stakeholders instead. We would have loved to visit the Accelerator Labs in person. Still, we have been impressed by the amazing adaptability on the part of the Accelerator Labs to support our work remotely which only added to our learning experience.

As we continue to collaborate closely with the Accelerator Labs to support the scaling of social innovation for development through our research, stay tuned as we will get back to you with more details about our work on the scaling strategy.



UNDP Accelerator Labs

Building the world’s largest learning network around development challenges. 91 Labs in 115 countries.