Reflections on the UNDP Accelerator Labs Explorers Global Summit 2020

By Benjamin Ong, Head of Exploration, UNDP Accelerator Lab Malaysia

Credit: Soroush Karimi/Unsplash

In a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (commonly known as VUCA) world, the three ways of working that have shaped our global lab network — Heads of Solutions Mapping, Exploration, and Experimentation — have proven to be highly valuable but, I have to admit it, they may still be esoteric for many.

For Exploration in particular, the ambiguity of the Head of Exploration’s (a.k.a. Explorer’s) job description provides an opportunity to implement activities in innovative ways (read: shine a light on emerging trends, use data science to identify patterns and make a case for change) to experiment and iterate until workable solutions are found. In short, break the mold or, perhaps more accurately, invent a new mold using data to do so. But the ambiguity also makes the Explorer’s role challenging to fit within the bureaucracy of UNDP, i.e., a system that generally does not reward disruption. I wasn’t surprised when my former manager, said about this role, “I don’t envy your terms of reference.”

As the first cohort of 60 UNDP Accelerator Lab Explorers marked one year on the job, and was ready to welcome the second cohort of 31 new Explorers, we asked ourselves: “Who are we?”. We discovered that feelings of existential crises were not unique or isolated, and at least a few Explorers from every corner of the world have struggled to fit in and find their groove.

In the spirit of community solidarity and Collective Intelligence we decided to come together, across the globe, during a three-week-long summit to reflect on the past year and to figure out our future together.

What we achieved

The Explorers Global Summit 2020 was the first of its kind, organized by and primarily for 60 Explorers but reaching more than 300 colleagues across UNDP. Spanning three weeks in December 2020, the Summit featured 12 core sessions and five region-specific social events — for Africa, Asia and the Pacific, the Arab States, Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, and Latin America and the Caribbean. The Summit took up a cumulative 27 hours on Zoom, bringing together colleagues across 27 time zones — quite a feat given our fully booked agendas, immersion in COVID-19 response, and the fact that this event was not part of any of our official tasks!!

Explorers Global Summit 2020 at a glance

As Explorers, we did some skills training in geographic information system (GIS) and data storytelling; sensemaking of the stakeholders we serve; reflections on our experiences and the tools and language we use; revisiting the Network’s principles and action planning; and looking ahead through futures thinking and signal scanning. For more on these, see the session recordings and resources that have been archived on the Summit website — we even have an Explorers playlist! Early feedback suggests that many participants and Explorers found that they learned new topics, methods, skills — not only from guest speakers such as Sydney Neeley and Majur Achiew (GIS), Joe Wheeler (data partnerships), and Arndt Husar (foresight) but also from peer Explorers.

“[I loved] the speaker sessions, especially the futures thinking one. It was great! The process of doing the persona of partners session in teams was super cool and the interview with the innovation officer was very insightful.”
Nadia Ben Ammar, Head of Exploration, UNDP Tunisia

What we learned

The embedded, unspoken value of the largest learning network on sustainable development resides in our ability to share and receive knowledge, skills and “ways of work” between countries, even continents, and localizing to fit our community needs. This network of explorers has proven to be of great importance to our local community, partners and UNDP in general. A committee of over twenty Explorers from all over the globe, organized into three working groups — Reflection, Data and Methodologies, and Partners and Stakeholders — worked hard over six months to make the Summit happen. Here are key takeaways from the three pillars of the Summit:

1. Reflection on skills and capabilities:

As Explorers, we learned that we have an opportunity to add value with new and unusual partnerships, systems thinking and evidence-based decision making to tackle complex issues. We also have the ability to surface issues under the radar while broadening horizons, scanning and connecting with the innovation ecosystem, and bringing technological expertise to UNDP. Explorers add value to the Accelerator Lab Network, our partners and the broader development ecosystem by introducing a strategic outlook that will allow us to rethink development in the 21st century.

2. Data and methodologies:

Explorers add value by providing a unique interplay of unusual sources of data and innovative methodologies that lead to actionable insights and learning like in UNDP Serbia and UNDP Uzbekistan. Second, our skills in ethnography combined with our ability to empathize with the local community help UNDP design community-centered development initiatives, such as this example by UNDP Iraq. On a larger scale, our network of 91 Labs acts as a “global signal scanning network” able to map trends and signals all around the globe near real-timestrengthening our work on futures thinking and the ecosystem we are building around it.

3. Partners and stakeholders:

Modelling personas of the people we serve opened interesting insights. The exercises revealed our biases and certain stereotypes toward some of our main stakeholders such as governmental partners, NGO partners, grassroots innovators etc. We found it to be very helpful in engaging them better if we understood their world. For example, we often assume that the typical government officials that we meet are wise old people with clear goals and visions of their work, who look for our help in applying new methodologies and approaches to reach their goals. Hence, it was enlightening when the guest interviewee of our session (a government official from a national innovation centre) said that his agency is too busy delivering short-term tasks and does not have time to set a long-term vision. We reflected on the “pains and wants” of public sector personnel and concluded that the Accelerator Lab engagement can offer them greater connection with society and build legitimacy for policies.

“The Summit showed the potential of the network for
decentralized communication and cooperation.”
— Muzaffar Tilavov, Head of Exploration, UNDP Uzbekistan

The design prowess of Explorers was on full display through various Mural boards created to facilitate collective sensemaking.

More importantly, the Summit served as a platform for cultivating a sense of connectedness, shared purpose, and trust — key elements that can drive further collaboration. The Summit helped to foster a feeling of community within and across cohorts, and incoming colleagues were able to benefit from the first cohort’s experiences. We also used the Summit to celebrate our achievements during a year like no other, for example, how we were able to adapt and innovate amid the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions (see examples from Uganda, Ecuador, and Bosnia and Herzegovina).

Accelerator Lab global recruitment campaign 2020 — same message but loads more learnings to share with the new cohort.

Through the Summit, we learned that we are all in the same boat. We all share similar fears, concerns, and questions, and we can lean on each other for support. These social aspects should not be underestimated when building a global learning network, which is why we also held a couple of “virtual social” gatherings to share our favorite drinks, stories, and reflections. One of the stories we were encouraged to share was about what led us to be Explorers or made us interested in exploration. There were anecdotes about people wanting to understand the reasons behind things since they were kids or being fascinated by discovering things in nature. Indeed, gravitating towards a job with an unusual recruitment campaign was a great starting point for building more meaningful connections among us!

Where do we go from here?

It was evident through the Summit that our strongest asset is our community, a network of then-60 (now 91) Explorers. The big question is, how do we continue to strengthen this community, and to what end?

A network extending to every corner of the planet — from the Masks & Metaphors virtual social.

So far, three promising paths forward have emerged:

  1. Rethinking our Explorers’ interface: Explorers have been keeping in touch through bi-weekly calls, ably coordinated by Leyla Seyidzade, our Explorer in UNDP Azerbaijan. Throughout 2020, these calls were treated as an open space where we could spontaneously share ideas, questions, concerns, and so on. Moving forward, we have restructured these calls into collective intelligence activities around themes of common interest such as citizen science (guest speaker session facilitated by Claudia Olmedo, UNDP El Salvador), connecting with the partnership ecosystem/SDG 17 (Mural board game facilitated by Ana M. Grijalva, UNDP Ecuador), and sharing among colleagues in Country Offices working on their new Country Programme Document (facilitated by Nadia Ben Ammar, UNDP Tunisia). Forthcoming sessions may include guest speakers, blog presentations, and structured debates.
  2. Improving management of Collective Intelligence: The process of producing and using knowledge requires appropriate tools to help us manage not only data but the plethora of toolkits, instruments, guides, and manuals out there. A team of Explorers led by Ievgen Kylymnyk, UNDP Ukraine, is developing a library of tools to facilitate this (currently in a very early prototype stage, but you can already take a peek). Some of these ‘tools’ used daily by the AccLabs are Kumu.io to map complex systems, Nesta’s Collective Intelligence Design Playbook to support the design of efficient crowd-wisdom projects, and Mural to facilitate nearly everything we do.
  3. Incepting collaborative learning-by-doing projects: We have reignited regional groups for more inter-country collaboration, as well as developing digestible knowledge products or research sprints across regions. An example of this collaboration is the report on The Changing Nature of Work produced by six Explorers of the UNDP Bureau of Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States.

These three paths will help the global Heads of Exploration grow as a community of practice: strengthening our skills and methods, and bringing about the better alignment of our assets and who we are as individuals and as a network. We want to see the growth of opportunities that have been seeded, to ensure continuity and sustainability.

If you have any ideas or would like to collaborate with us, please contact us at @UNDPAccLabs. Let’s explore the future of development together!

This blog was contributed by Benjamin Ong (Malaysia), coordinator of the Explorers Global Summit 2020, with input from Gabriela Ríos (Mexico), Safa Fadhil Al-Qoch (Iraq), Roselyne Mwila (Zambia), Deborah Naatujuna (Uganda), Sofía Paredes Chaux (Colombia), Judite Silva (Angola), Ievgen Kylymnyk (Ukraine) and Phan Hoang Lan (Viet Nam). The Explorers Global Summit committee would like to thank all colleagues who participated in the Summit, guest speakers and facilitators, and the Accelerator Lab Global Team for their support.

Recap of resources — we default to open, and hope you’ll find it useful:

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