The planet is burning…so why are we learning?

UNDP Accelerator Labs
6 min readApr 29, 2020

By Gina Lucarelli, Accelerator Labs Team Leader and Bas Leurs, Lead Learning Designer

We’re using learning questions as an open-ended way of reflecting during the action.

Tough times for optimists these days, eh? Before we had the Coronavirus pandemic turning lives upside down, the writing was on the wall. The wildfires in the Amazon and Australia. Antarctica reaching its highest temperatures on record. The poorest women and men facing consequences of decisions and actions taken thousands of miles away. On top of it all, people’s waning faith in governments and the media undermines their ability to protect and inform. It is safe to say that even before these #postnormaltimes, many of us optimists had creeping doubts about our prospects as a planet.

Tweet of John A. Sweeney
A Twitter account we highly recommend to follow.

Speed up to act…

For a global organization like the United Nations Development Programme, we care about action. To address COVID-19, UNDP is helping countries protect people from the pandemic and recover from the economic and social ripple effects in the months to come. We’re seeing the labs, innovation and digital teams throughout UNDP’s global network jump in, and pivot their work to adapt to this new context and what many are calling new normals. Agile appears to be having a moment!

  • UNDP in Argentina, through its Accelerator Lab, has teamed up with UN Women and UNVolunteers to launch the “Pay in Advance” initiative in order to secure income for self-employed people and small entrepreneurs in countries under lockdown.
  • In Tanzania, Pakistan, The Gambia, and several other countries, UNDP is working with partner labs to use 3D printers to make personal protective equipment.
  • The UNDP India lab is gamifying social distancing. They are also partnering with UN Volunteers’ V-Force on a social media campaign “GrandMaPa” to promote caring for the elderly that has spread across social media platforms like TikTok & Instagram.
  • Ethiopia’s UNDP lab team is using futures thinking to scope out economic impacts on the country’s industrial parks.

….Slow down to reflect

Within the action, we are also trying to make space for reflection and learning. Last year, UNDP set up a large global network of labs. When we did, we put out a daunting promise: to become the world’s fastest learning network on sustainable development challenges.

In these urgent times, is a global network of public sector labs who are trying to “learn” akin to fiddling while Rome burns? In other words: why invest in learning in a time of planetary crisis?

You know what they say about best-laid plans…

We’re trying to build more learning into traditional development planning cycles. Often in development, we invest in getting government, civil society, and private sector partners to agree on multi-year plans. These are important exercises as they help diverse perspectives create a common understanding of problems and, ideally, commitment to joint action.

The problem with multi-year planning cycles is meanwhile that pesky world around us just keeps changing. By the time the strategic plan is ready, the operating environment is a completely different story. And while reflection and learning moments are built into this cycle, they tend to be conducted often on an annual rhythm, which can be out of sync when the pace of change doesn’t wait for annual reviews.

With the UNDP Accelerator labs, we’re operating in shorter cycles. After trying to understand unmet needs and grassroots solutions, the lab network moves towards action. We try to build in the reflection throughout the action.

This is why we blog and why we’re testing out data science as one way to follow the emergent rather than relying on top-down taxonomies to keep track of what we care about. In some moments it feels like a reinvention of knowledge management, monitoring and evaluation combined. (Delusions of grandeur anyone?) Nonetheless, the task of balancing the agile with the strategic is one learning zone we’ll be operating in for a while.

Postnormal times ask us to move beyond best practices

As we look at the speed of change around us, and the way many stubborn social and environmental problems morph into new (and usually more entangled) challenges, we’re driven by the question — are there best practices for the challenges that we are now facing? We could be in the complex or chaotic quadrants of Dave Snowden’s Cynefin sense-making framework: the places where best practices don’t exist.

Take the response and recovery for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where are the best practices here? In a space where copy-paste is not an option, we’re using learning questions as an open-ended way of reflecting during the action.

Here is where UNDP is exploring questions like:

We don’t devote large R&D budgets to these questions, instead we build them into our fast action-oriented approach. We’re using learning questions as a way to explore and experiment to find ways of contributing to creating more sustainable and resilient world. We’re hoping that learning questions, as part of shorter cycles of action, will help our labs and their partners add to the body of knowledge on what works and what doesn’t.

Building in time for learning when the world is on fire

Constantly shifting terrains like the ones we see around us these days demand we expand our toolbox. This is not news to those who’ve drunk the Kool-aid on sense-making, systems thinking, and other ways of dealing with bottom-up emergence. And yet, something about the COVID-19 days has dialed up demand for these kinds of approaches across many new domains.

As Paul Collier wrote recently:

We have no experience of the material and economic repercussions from shutdowns of this nature and their aftermath in a modern economy, and no meaningful way of assigning probabilities; nor of how people’s behaviour will evolve.

Best practices have their place, but consensus is gaining that in this uncertain accelerated world, best practices can’t always be applied across countries and from one public policy problem to another. We’re dealing with challenges that emerge and morph. In order to be agile, we have to learn and that’s what we’re trying to do.

Of course, none of this is easy. Finding patterns in bottom-up emergence and then acting upon what we learn is the goalpost, but making tacit knowledge explicit is not easy. And applying learning to influence decisions is often a whole other kettle of fish.

To see how we are learning, our website will soon pool all the 60 UNDP Accelerator labs blogs into one space. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter, check out the Innovation Dividend podcast, and consider joining in resilience journaling.



UNDP Accelerator Labs

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