By Gina Lucarelli, Team Leader, UNDP Accelerator Labs Network
UNDP’s Accelerator Lab Network is now at critical mass, creating value in 115 countries, earning media coverage, serving as a magnet for partnerships across the UN and beyond, and learning from the edge to accelerate learning on what it takes to reach the Sustainable Development Goals. The Lab Network was awarded Apolitical’s Public Service Team of the Year in 2019, covered in the MIT Sloan Review (summer 2020), analyzed as a Harvard Business School Case Study (fall 2022) and depicted in For Tomorrow, a documentary on grassroots innovation released on Amazon Prime a year ago which has gone on to win several awards, including at South by Southwest (SXSW) thanks to brilliant direction by An Tran and our partnership with Hyundai Motor Company.
Much of what we have achieved has stood on the back of many greats who have been trying to create space for questions and experimentation in global development. Not least our brave founding investors who believed in us before we had much to show for it. And so the traction we’ve seen over the past few years begs the question…what’s next?
Open, Global R&D: an origins story
Many thanks go to Jesper Christiansen for planting a sentence within the 2021 mid-term evaluation of the Accelerator Labs that stuck in my head and became an action point for us to consider how to move forward. He advised UNDP to “explore how to establish the Labs as a permanent Research & Development (R&D) function within UNDP’s Country Offices around the world to ensure continuous exploration and experimentation related to evolving sustainable development challenges.”
The more we looked into it, the more it made sense to think of establishing an R&D function as part of continuous renewal. All signs are that the Sustainable Development Goals are off track. With economic recessionary pressures, increased polarization and the escalating climate crises all interacting simultaneously, we need to unleash learning because no one has the panacea.
Since the 2021 evaluation, we’ve reflected and discussed the R&D practices and open innovation emerging across the global Network. We talked to Jason Pearman. Meanwhile, Bas Leurs started drawing — always a sign that something amazing is imminent. The direction of travel is now clear: we’re evolving the Network into an open, globally distributed R&D capability for the Sustainable Development Goals. This blog is a reveal of what that means to us and why we are doing it. And it wouldn’t be gesturing to other blogs with this similar name without luring the chance for new partners to get in on the ground floor to invest in this next chapter. Come on in, the water’s fine!
Curating patterns for bottom-up organizational learning
An R&D focus means our Network tries out new ways of working as a matter of routine, experiments with what might work, learns from the possibilities of continuous exploration and renewal, and converts this into new practical action. The UNDP Accelerator Labs around the world create new value based on the opportunities they see with national innovation partners, farmers, communities, government policy directions etc. The Labs work on what they want to; they work how they want to and we curate from the distributed Network. The theory of scaling in the early days was that prototypes will grow in each of those countries, through investment to expand geographically or through policy frameworks that set incentives making it easier for people to innovate. While there is evidence that this is happening, it’s not an automatic absorption into UNDP and development practice more broadly.
Our evolution towards open R&D means we will be more deliberate about converting learning from each Lab in the Network into assets that are publicly available, making better use of UNDP’s global reach. While context is king, and nothing can be “replicated,” we’ve started to prototype a global R&D cycle based on distributed intelligence. We pick up on patterns based on what the Labs in the Network are up to, and then curate that into something accessible to help the global Network learn from the front line. We’ve done this in a few areas including informal business digitization, grassroots energy production and most recently via a prototype toolkit for engaging with national innovation ecosystems.
Breaking the Scale Barrier: what do we do with the leads we unearth?
Several months back, I had an interesting conversation with Eric von Hippel and Giulio Quagiotto. We were talking about the diffusion problem, wrestling with scale and all its implications and we landed on a strategy. In order to scale the learning from prototypes, UNDP needs to double down on working through open innovation and R&D ecosystems. To drive learning on what works in sustainable development, we need to move beyond thinking we alone can scale it. We need to keep evolving the way we open up our data and insights to facilitate the partnerships that enable innovation to spread.
Eric shared with us a paper co-authored with Jason Potts on the social welfare gained from the Innovation Commons which explores the counterintuitive economic incentives for firms to contribute information to innovation commons for free access by free riders. They talk about the innovation commons as “pools of innovation-related information that can be accessed by anyone for any purpose without payment and without limit.” And it all started to fall into place…open innovation could be our scaling mechanism and a good next mountain to climb.
Through the course of UNDP’s experimental and exploratory activities, we often spot leads for action by other partners. As we prioritize speed over rigor in our Lab Network experiments, we often unearth potential research agendas for academic partners. For example, we do quick turnaround experiments on behavior related to waste separation that call attention to new aspects, like the role of the informal waste pickers in the circular economy, but this could go further if an academic partner would validate the initial findings. Likewise, while we are mapping solutions to learn about the systems dynamics of grassroots innovations, there are often potentially viable business models in the solutions we map. While we aren’t the ones who can incubate or finance social impact entrepreneurs, our partners in philanthropy and the private sector can be the ones to do it. And, when we create proof of concept for new sources of data or the use of AI, such as mining comments on social media to inform tourism policy, the code developed can have implications for wider scale as well. While we aren’t designed to take prototypes to scale ourselves, we can be more deliberate about handover to other partners who can take them further.
What if we build a global innovation commons for sustainable development?
Our thinking is an SDG Innovation Commons will be the place where the leads we unearth through our exploration, ethnography and experimentation are shared; we see partnership as our main avenue for scale. We’ll build on what we are: a diverse global Network of innovation teams embedded in the UN, running experiments, tracking early signals of change, sourcing early stage sustainable development innovations and diversifying intelligence on global development problems. We plan to work with partners to double down on open repositories of insights and data for inquiry, analyses and contributions from academia, governments, civil society and private sector partners.
Our vision is that the SDG Innovation Commons can also serve as a platform for impact accelerators keen to diversify their mentoring and investments among early stage informal entrepreneurs working on energy, climate adaptation and other development problems. We’ve seen signals from governments and philanthropic partners across Africa that this is in demand.
And, to add something to the theory of what innovation policy looks like in the Commons, we plan to use our global Lab Network as a platform for public domain experimentation to understand how to incentivize open R&D and how to encourage those closest to the problem to invent, create and scale.
We’re looking for partners
Sometimes it can be hard to find reasons for optimism when it comes to a fair and sustainable world. Here’s one. The way we see it, the energy, solutions, networks and initiatives are actually vibrant, but they are not operating in concert or at scale. Connections, recombinations and handovers among partners is now no longer a luxury. That’s what the SDG Innovation Commons, powered by the UNDP Accelerator Labs, will be designed for: to unleash actionable partnerships, curated but not necessarily brokered by UNDP, to accelerate learning on what it will take to achieve the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Get in touch if you want to get onboard!