We Tapped into 350 Minds Across 6 Time Zones for COVID-19: Here’s What We’re Sensing

UNDP Accelerator Labs
7 min readApr 15, 2020

By Najoua Soudi, Head of Solutions Mapping UNDP Morocco Accelerator Lab

Over just the past few weeks in Morocco, country-wide social experiments have fast-forwarded advances that would have taken years under normal circumstances. How can we read these weak signals of COVID-19 that dominate normal unfolding before our eyes?

At the UNDP Accelerator Lab in Morocco, we took a bet on answering this question during a two-day #HackTogether for COVID-19 with UNLEASH Innovation Lab and people spanning the globe.

UNDP Morocco Accelerator Lab’s role in making sense of rapid responses

The COVID-19 crisis feels like a time machine to the unknown. Many of the rapid changes happening right now will leave scars once the world recovers. Some of these scars won’t be trending right now. The virus is an uncomfortable reminder of the value of taking in signals in one domain. Deciphering what they mean is another task entirely. In highly complex situations, we tend to miss that weak signals can present themselves through different types of cognitive and emotional biases. These biases could unknowingly cloud our thinking.

Our work at the Lab is to zoom out of the solutions layer to pick up on weak signals: less understood, but potentially impactful, changes that are reshaping the world today. We then ultra-zoom back in for evidence-based solutions while keeping an eye out for unintended outcomes. None of us can afford to miss what we are seeing, and even more so: what we are missing.

This is why the Accelerator Lab Network believes in interweaving methods such as systems thinking, collective intelligence, foresight techniques, and more. It’s kind of like the way swimming, cycling, running and many more skills are all needed to win a triathlon.

Unleashing collaboration for the global good

UNDP’s global Accelerator Lab Network is a fairly new kid on the block. There are existing networks across the world which are also pivoting their unique abilities to address COVID-19. One such network is UNLEASH, a global innovation lab, which gathers talents annually to collaborate on solutions to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In an unsurprising cross over, some of the 180 new Accelerator Lab recruits, brought in by UNDP in 2019, are also UNLEASH alumni.

Through a two-day collaborative event, these minds had the opportunity to work together in addressing current challenges due to COVID-19 by leveraging the power of diverse community, data, technology, and its own 5-step innovation methodology (problem framing, ideating, prototyping, testing, and implementation).

Here’s how we did it:

The virtual hack was organized with the help of basic technologies that allowed us to connect people across different parts of the globe from Kenya to Sweden, and Guatemala to Singapore. The platforms we used were: Zoom, Miro, Slack, PowerPoint and Airtable.

The teams were based on diversity, multiculturalism, expertise and interest in a particular Sustainable Development Goal. On the first day, in a matter of eight hours, the team members were challenged to find a problem to jointly work on and a solution for the identified problem based on the team´s expertise.

Our hypothesis builds on the evidence of distributed intelligence and the belief that fragments of the future might emerge embedded in the ways people think and hack responses to COVID-19. We asked questions such as:

  • What are some key perplexing themes and topics?
  • What are the known unknowns?
  • What do we need to learn more about?
  • Where might we find the unknown unknowns?
  • What questions do we feel are missing?
  • What do we know enough about already?
  • What are we uncertain about?

Here’s what emerged:

Mental health appears to be a red thread

From psycho-social support for healthcare workers to coping mechanisms for self-isolated seniors and people who are immunocompromised, as well as everyone in between, mental health was a key anchor of many conversations. Perhaps the mental health of the masses may soon become just as worrying of an issue as medical response and digital privacy. Or, perhaps companies and organizations can proactively begin to systematically plug in a mental health dimension to their products and services, similar to how services such as Affectiva are using artificial intelligence to read emotions.

The digital divide is reaching new heights

In times where the internet has its biggest upswings ever, it might seem to be the lynchpin of humanity’s options for work, education and entertainment at the moment. With the advent of 5G technology and fast-forwarding new use cases during this crisis, we are seeing a real-time widen of the digital divide.

Most of the world’s 4.5 billion active internet users live in developed countries and those not connected to the web tend to be disproportionately rural, low income, elderly, illiterate, and/or female. For countries such as Somalia, only ten percent of the population has access to the internet and even when they do, they often have to deal with slow connection speeds and expensive broadband rates, dynamics similarly shared with most low-income countries.

We also sensed questions emerging on the possibility of infrastructure failures impacting and deepening this divide — what if the internet or electricity fails in some locations during lockdowns? What happens to existing cellular or data networks, when the systems become overwhelmed with increased usage and/or traffic due to the crisis? What happens in these places to the hospitals, markets and other cornerstones of society, which are often heavily reliant on these technologies to function?

And now that nearly half of the planet are relying heavily on technology-based solutions to continue their livelihoods, would slow internet affect countries’ competitiveness and economic growth, the same way weak physical infrastructure did before?

Keeping an eye out so that the ultra vulnerable, such as refugees and homeless, do not become further sidelined

“COVID-19 has shone a light on our neglected social support structures, and requires that we reconsider our social fabric, and rewrite our entire social contracts to support the most vulnerable.”

Fatima Shehata, lead facilitator of the co-hackathon and a WASH Specialist with Sevea in Cambodia.

In a world where nearly one person is forcibly displaced every two seconds (UNHCR) and 20 percent of the world’s population lack adequate housing, responses for the most vulnerable are still underwhelming. The collective intelligence sessions we ran with UNLEASH tried to tackle how the pandemic exacerbates inequalities for the most vulnerable and most exposed people and communities. Africa, for example, is the most rapidly urbanizing region in the world, with 50–70% of urban dwellers living in slums. It is also home to 16 million displaced persons (10 million IDPs, and over 6 million refugees).

How can COVID-19 prevention and response tactics be adapted for these high-risk and high-need populations, in systems where social protection has had minimal investment? This remains an open question….

Sudden transfer of skills to fit the new context might help upscale economies

In the context of massive job losses, bankruptcies and business plan u-turns, some workers will be forced to change direction and learn new jobs in the span of a few weeks. Put on a nationwide scale, this might allow countries to tap into hidden opportunities, transitioning to more adaptable and agile economies.

World economies are already enduring trade and demand shocks, as well as impacts to vulnerable value chains. If governments are ill-equipped to launch sufficient stimulus packages, perhaps inspiration could be gleaned from well-designed upscaling policies, such as TechNation’s Upscale initiative for UK start-up’s. Initiatives could leverage the current spontaneous transfer of skills, albeit chaotic, as a lever of intervention. As Friedrich Nietzsch would say, “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”

From weak signals to solutions

The collective #HackTogether experience surfaced 26 viable ideas to aid in the fight against COVID-19. It brought together developers and design thinkers in a safe creative space and fostered the connections needed to start projects that matter. Following #HackTogether, teams were prompted to continue onwards to gain user validations for their ideas. With the help of the organizing team and a line-up of highly skilled facilitators, some teams are following through with their projects with linkages to funding and workable prototypes in order to turn the excitement of the event into successful startups which contribute to COVID-19 response.

The UNLEASH event was one of several hackathons deployed as idea generation exercises in the past few weeks as the global pandemic reached new heights. From these steps, must come action and further learning.

What weak signals are you seeing emerge as responses to COVID-19 ramp up in different ways?

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With special thanks for inputs and insights to Andreea Badache and Robin Liendeborg from Sweden, Viveka Guzman, Mexico/Ireland, Fatima Shehata, Cambodia, Lauren Behr and Hillary Eason, Chemonics International, Washington D.C.

UNDP is building the world’s largest learning network around development challenges. 60 Labs in 78 countries. http://acceleratorlabs.undp.org/

UNLEASH is a global innovation lab, which gathers 1,000 talents annually to collaborate on solutions to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. UNLEASH has been held in Denmark, Singapore and Shenzhen, China.

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UNDP Accelerator Labs

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