What are the new skills we need in development?

UNDP Accelerator Labs
5 min readFeb 21, 2019


Milica Begovic, Kal Joffres

What we are learning about the development skills of the future and how we’re hiring for them today.

United Nations OHRLLS

At UNDP, we launched the world’s largest learning network around development challenges in an effort to re-imagine development for the 21st century. The purpose of these 60 Accelerator Labs in 60 countries is to close the widening gap between the current practices of international development and accelerating challenges: unprecedented rates of urbanization, climate change, freedom of expression in an era of big data and mass surveillance, unemployment and inequality in an age of artificial intelligence, just to name a few. Few organisations have in their menu of solutions approaches that can match the speed and complexity of these emerging risks.

To catch up to runaway social and environmental challenges, we need to radically accelerate how quickly we pick up and make sense of emerging trends, their potential and real impact on development, and approaches and solutions that work and those that don’t.

The Strategic Relevance Gap

The Accelerator Labs aim to bring the time it takes for us to learn about what works and what doesn’t from years down to months or weeks. Key to this accelerated learning is locally-powered teams with a new set of capabilities and the ability to tap into the collective intelligence of 60 Labs across the world, including their relationships, contextual insights, and local dynamics in each country.

The network is powered locally. We’ve picked up on lessons not only from the existing UNDP labs in places like Moldova, Armenia, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Georgia. We’ve also drawn inspiration from models such as Buurtzorg, a collective of nurses in Netherlands that taps into ‘people helping people as a future of social services’ and shows how decentralizing decision making to front line staff and stripping away hierarchy leads to faster response times and solutions that are a better fit to the context.

The network is globally integrated. Decentralizing decision-making can easily lead to siloed teams that learn faster individually but more slowly collectively because they’re learning the same things over and over again in different places. We’re setting up “teams of teams” and designing in a series of work rituals that ensure teams invest time in the network — not just their own projects — and make learning their learning available and usable by other teams on a weekly basis.

The network is hiring a new set of capabilities that accelerate learning. To deal with today’s emergent and fast-moving challenges, we’re building teams that are very good at knowing what to do when no one (or very few people) knows what to do. Globally, we are hiring 180 people in 60 countries for the Accelerator Labs.

We are looking for Heads of Exploration who are endlessly curious and have a disposition for discovery and serendipity. The Heads of Exploration will continuously search for emerging, under-the-radar, and unintuitive solutions to the development issues we’re working on. Our hunch is that we accelerate learning from weak signals of change — a significant departure from the reliance on national averages and other national statistics. From Google leveraging their app data to provide real time information on greenhouse gas emissions for cities, to paradigm shifts in public sector finance management like New Zealand’s Wellbeing-Based Budgeting, to Rockefeller Foundation’s AI foundation to generate actionable intelligence for development, to scientists who ‘accidentally’ created an enzyme that eats plastic bottles — the Head of Exploration will not only track these non-obvious approaches but design ways to quickly learn about their value and translate them into application.

We are bringing on board Heads of Solutions Mapping to find local solutions that have emerged not just from hackathons in the capital but from the most remote parts of the country. When a challenge arises or a government service fails to deliver, people develop their own workarounds. We call these people lead users. Their needs are ahead of the market or the majority and they might live in extreme conditions and feel an acute pain. Importantly, they might not be entrepreneurs. Because they don’t go to startup events or try to sell their solutions to others, they wouldn’t ordinarily turn up on the radars of government or development organisations. We need to find these people, their solutions, and understand whether they can inspire solutions for other people in the form of government or business interventions that improve the welfare of people like them. We believe that local solutions are far more likely to stick than imported solutions.

Theodore Goutas on Unsplash

While these approaches are not new in the the private sector, they are underutilized in the development sector. The Accelerator Labs will be working with Lego’s Lead User Lab and IPSOS to leverage big data for lead user work. Many more inspiring examples are emerging: Bangladeshi villagers built floating farms to maintain their source of food and income during the frequent floods. Dana Lewis hacked her own pancreas to avoid making wrong decisions about regulating her diabetes during the night. Our own Giulio Quaggiotto writes about how citizens in Indonesia found a way to use insects for sustainable waste management and flood prevention.

Our solution mappers will not only be on the lookout for lead users, but come up with ways in which their insights can inform policies, change systems and bring solutions across the society.

Lastly, we’re looking for Heads of Experimentation. Here, we’re looking for people who can help develop and mature portfolios of tests made up of existing and new solutions to rapidly learn about what works and what doesn’t in addressing complex, fast-moving social and environmental issues.

Policy innovation labs around the world have taken up experimentation as a method for ‘failing fast and failing cheap’ to understand what works and what doesn’t. When done ethically, rapid testing can yield tremendously useful learning — and better results. We are working with Axilo and Nesta, both of whom have deep experience in this space, to build our capabilities around testing.

We’re also taking testing a step further. Instead of funnelling down to a single approach to solving a problem, our Heads of Experimentation build portfolios of approaches and test multiple approaches simultaneously. The goal isn’t to pick one solution — no single solution will solve a big problem — but to develop a portfolio of approaches to move forward.

The Accelerator Labs are a bold commitment to changing the way we work. This is the only kind of commitment we should be making to addressing today’s messy, complex, and accelerating challenges. We’re looking for people who are curious, persistent, and deeply committed to social change to join us in building this network. If you’re that kind of person, we’d love for you to apply or to join us at our next “Ask Me Anything” session about the Accelerator Labs and these roles.

With massive thanks to Bas Leurs and Giulio Quaggiotto for endless patience and advice.



UNDP Accelerator Labs

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