Eight Accelerator Labs — Five Regions — Countless Behavioural Insights

UNDP Accelerator Labs
4 min readNov 7, 2019


By Jennifer Colville and Roxani Roushas

Have you ever rushed to buy a plane ticket because that airline stated there were “only two seats left”? Do you find yourself eating less when using a smaller plate? Are you more likely to take care of your yard because your neighbours do? If you’re human, the answer is probably yes. But have you ever wondered why? Research has repeatedly shown that we are more irrational than we’d like to believe, and that we rely on “mental shortcuts”. A lot of the time, these thought processes are what help us create certain patterns and routines, to learn and to make decisions more effectively.

But when these influences, or “cognitive biases”, start to have negative effects, like harming our collective environment, infringing on others’ rights, or even going against our own self-interest, there may be room for behavioural science. Behavioural science is not just about raising awareness; it is about understanding the way our brains work and “nudging” our behaviour to be more in line with our goals. Awareness-raising is telling colleagues about the negative environmental effects of single-sided printing; a behavioural intervention is about setting the printer default to double-sided printing.


Behavioural Insights (BI) combine behavioural economics, psychology and neuroscience to better understand and explain human behaviour and decision-making. Applying BI in the development context can support the design of more effective public policies, processes and services; it can improve public sector performance; and it can encourage, or “nudge,” citizens towards more positive behaviours. BI has been used in various scenarios, like increasing sign-ups for government services, encouraging university enrollment, and motivating people to conserve energy in their homes.

BI made its breakthrough as a public policy tool only about a decade ago, and from early on UNDP has been involved in its application to development policy. In the Arab States, for example, we have begun exploring how it can disrupt the process of radicalization and gender-based violence.


A major benefit of using BI is that it can achieve fast results by bringing a new angle to issues that traditional interventions have failed to resolve. “Nudging” is also all about iteration — trying out something, seeing how it works, learning from failure, adjusting assumptions, and trying again! This makes it an ideal tool for the UNDP Accelerator Labs, for which fast learning is the name of the game and experimentation is a core protocol.

Last week, the UNDP Regional Innovation team in the Arab States, UNDP Tunisia, and UNDP Sudan brought together eight Accelerator Labs from all five regions to explore the use of BI in their “100-Day Plans.” The plans explore behavioural barriers in various sustainable development problems and include behavioural interventions to test for solutions.

Heads of Experimentation from UNDP Accelerator Labs in Ghana, Lebanon, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Tunisia and Turkey worked on issues including solid waste management, youth employment and women’s entrepreneurship, to improve public services and decision-making processes. A few of the questions the countries are seeking to answer:

  • How do we nudge people to use fewer plastic bags and unrecyclable paper coffee cups in supermarkets and cafés?
  • What would best motivate disenchanted young people to seek out employment opportunities?
  • Can we boost the learning culture and performance-orientation of government ministries through behaviourally-informed internal messaging and training?

Led by experts from the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), the Clinic introduced participants to the fundamental concepts of BI and helped them design their behavioural interventions by mapping processes and behaviours of key stakeholders; identifying behavioural barriers (what prevents people from behaving in a desired way); finding data sources; brainstorming solutions using BIT’s EAST framework; and learning to iterate and evaluate.


The AccLab teams are running their first experiments by the end of 2019, with the goal of learning what works and what doesn’t and sharing these learnings across the network. Three main learning points from the design stage:

Behaviour, Behaviour everywhere: There are behavioural dimensions to just about every development challenge we face, for example reducing consumption of single use plastics, increasing access to public legal services, or improving effectiveness of entrepreneurship learning. It is important to pinpoint specific behavioural obstacles so that interventions can be designed to target the right barriers.

Not every problem has a behavioural solution: While a sustainable development challenge will likely have behavioural dimensions, there may also be structural and/or policy barriers that need to be addressed in parallel, or possibly even before behavioural barriers can be tackled. It can be counter-productive to encourage behaviours that will be hard to implement, have limited impact, or might even have negative consequences.

It takes the whole lab: BI is most closely tied to the role of Head of Experimentation within the Accelerator Labs, but to design a successful intervention, it is essential that all three protocols (Experimentation — Exploration — Solutions Mapping) work together. For example, Heads of Solutions Mapping must actively identify positive behaviours that could be encouraged more broadly, and Heads of Exploration must dive into the data to unearth the behavioural barriers that need to be tackled.

We can’t wait to see these experiments get off the ground and are already working on another Fast Action BI Clinic for early 2020! The Accelerator Labs are always looking for eager partners to participate in these workshops and assist with testing, if you’re interested in learning more or getting involved, please get in touch at UNDP Accelerator Labs.

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Jennifer Colville is Regional Innovation Team Leader at UNDP Regional Bureau of the Arab States. You can follow her on Twitter.

Roxani Roushas is Innovation Analyst at UNDP Amman Regional Hub. You can follow her on Twitter.



UNDP Accelerator Labs

Building the world’s largest learning network around development challenges. 91 Labs in 115 countries. http://acceleratorlabs.undp.org/