What open R&D for sustainable development may look like: a manifesto from UNDP’s Accelerator Labs

UNDP Accelerator Labs
8 min readJan 9, 2024


By Tayo Akinyemi, Learning & Community Manager, UNDP Accelerator Labs, and Bas Leurs, Lead Learning Designer, UNDP Accelerator Labs

In an earlier blog, our Team Leader Gina Lucarelli laid out the direction to evolve our learning network of UNDP Accelerator Labs to a globally distributed open Research and Development (R&D) capability for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Since then, we’ve been actively exploring what this function might look like, involving conversations with Lab members during regional retreats, discussions with UNDP Country Office management and consultations with various internal and external stakeholders, R&D practitioners and experts.

As our overall narrative evolved, we noticed a gap between the global and local narratives. We felt the need to intentionally connect the two to bring our new direction to life. We assumed that the answer might lie in current Lab practice, if we focused on identifying which aspects were an embodiment of R&D.

In this blog, we share the results of our explorations and how our journey continues to evolve.

An open R&D blend with a twist

But before we turn to that discussion, let’s begin by briefly explaining what R&D looks like beyond the Accelerator Lab context. We’ve noticed there is often confusion regarding the specific type of R&D we refer to. Generally speaking, we see three types of R&D that yield different outcomes:

· In science, R&D is an activity that helps us advance our knowledge about the world, the universe, and its phenomena (natural, social, cultural, economic etc.) to generate a better understanding of how it works.

· In the private sector, we see that companies have dedicated teams, sometimes with deep pockets, to develop new technologies, products and services to enter new markets.

· In the public sector, we see governments, or other social agencies, setting up labs or innovation units to develop better responses to public issues. This may involve public services and social innovations that improve livelihoods and help communities thrive.

Our vision of R&D has elements of all three, but with a twist — we gravitate more towards the way R&D is done in the private and public sectors than in academia, where knowledge is pursued for its own sake.

Understanding the open R&D narrative as it evolved in countries around the world

We embarked on a “strategy activation” exercise to see where the global vision and the local practices could meet.

We convened with Labs across the five regions (Africa, the Arab States, Asia & Pacific, Europe & Central Asia, and Latin America & The Caribbean) for reflection and discussion. To prepare, we asked the Labs to reflect on three questions, and when possible, discuss them with colleagues and partners (from the local ecosystem) as well. These questions were also used to guide the conversations by focusing on three areas: strategy, activity and legitimacy. To effectively serve as agents of change, the Labs must achieve alignment and balance in these three critical areas.

For each area, we posed a question that helped us explore what R&D looks like on the ground:

1. What does “doing R&D” look like for our Lab, the UNDP Country Office and the broader ecosystem?

2. Why does our Country Office and the ecosystem it serves need R&D?

3. How does the value that R&D generates get recognized?

A regional snapshot of open R&D Practices

As we examined our notes from the regional discussions, we began to identify key insights and patterns, organizing them into a “word cloud” diagram. This visual representation not only helped us make sense of the discussions but also illustrates the rich and multifaceted nature of R&D across the Accelerator Labs. Each region adds its unique perspective and flavor to our R&D practice, which we share below.

· In Latin America & The Caribbean, open R&D is characterized by participatory action, where research is interwoven with community actions, creating a dynamic feedback loop that reshapes both the process and outcomes of development work.

· Europe & Central Asia emphasize the need for staying ahead of demand, fighting for relevance, and being competitive. These regions see R&D as a strategic function that propels them to thought leadership and proactive adaptation to societal needs.

· The Arab States focus on transformative development, exploring uncharted areas and infusing future-focused innovation into their Country Office priorities, ensuring that they remain at the forefront of developmental thought.

· Asia and the Pacific have embraced a philosophy of connecting research and evidence to needs, focusing on localization and just-in-time learning that is grounded in the practical realities of their communities.

· Africa is committed to connecting knowledge to action, developing knowledge that is immediately applicable and actionable, translating research into tangible impacts on the ground.

Despite the regional nuances highlighted above, it’s worth noting one strong commonality. No matter where they are, Labbers are strongly motivated to make an impact in the world.

“The point of R&D is to generate knowledge that has an impact. We don’t [do it] just out of curiosity or to publish a research paper; we want to have impact on public policy. We want to bring a new perspective to a public conversation, because we understand what works for people. I want to be part of a movement beyond myself. I don’t want to be just a researcher; I want to be a changemaker.”

— María Verónica Moreno, Head of Solutions Mapping, UNDP Argentina Accelerator Lab

Five defining strengths of our approach to open R&D

When we take a step back and look at this palette of approaches to R&D, five key values, or signature strengths, emerge to define how UNDP’s Accelerator Labs do R&D. Taken together, they form our open R&D manifesto, and define our practice as:

· Learning and evidence-driven: We are curious about how the world works, and how to change it. We are continuously exploring the adjacent possible for new opportunities and use evidence to make the case for change.

· Action and impact oriented: We have a bias towards action, and we learn from doing. By making change we learn what to change.

· Locally focused: To inform our R&D work, we start with the local nuances that come from community groundwork to understand the nature of (global) development challenges.

· Community and people centered: We partner with those who are affected by problems, emphasizing inclusivity by amplifying often-overlooked voices, perspectives and realities.

· Collective and relational: We engage in collaborative R&D with partners from our local ecosystems, championing a participatory approach. We focus on cultivating and leveraging relationships for scaling impact.

The need for open R&D

When we asked Labbers why UNDP in country and national ecosystems need open R&D, the responses demonstrated a clear need. Open R&D serves as the driving force for innovation, providing a framework to test ideas and generate impactful solutions. It’s instrumental in developing interventions that resonate with the communities they are designed to serve, as well as fostering a culture of continuous learning and adaptation.

More specifically, open R&D generates new approaches, ideas and offers, and provides useful data and evidence. It can position UNDP and Country Offices at the cutting edge of key issues, allowing them to create novel approaches to addressing development issues. It unlocks new opportunities by creating a “sandbox” for testing innovative and risky ideas with limited resources, for example, a proof of concept for a new program.

For example, using an initial seed investment of $20,000, the Accelerator Lab in India formed partnerships with over 100 volunteering data scientists and 14 organizations to create a collaborative to prototype the Data in Climate Resilient Agriculture (DiCRA) platform. DiCRA leverages artificial intelligence, remote sensing and pattern detection algorithms to assess the climate resilience of farms. The data collaborative model enabled the development of DiCRA at just 10 percent of the market cost and was later accredited as a Digital Public Good by the Digital Public Goods Alliance.

Beyond UNDP, open R&D can reveal insights where government counterparts need to grow their knowledge or capacity to intervene, especially when these challenges benefit from innovation and speed. It can also help UNDP to explore new areas of inquiry with partners, promoting collaboration with researchers, the private sector and government. Finally, open R&D creates space for exploration by introducing new sources of evidence.

UNDP Country Offices can use data and the other forms of evidence that open R&D produces to inform proposals and programs. For example, open R&D can support a program development process by contributing robust evidence to inform programming decisions, build a case to invest in programs that have impact, and provide a quick route to validating ideas that improve programs. From a strategic perspective, open R&D can demonstrate how data-driven evidence can serve programs, as well as offer guidance on what to focus on and how to approach it. In terms of data, open R&D can open up new, high quality data sources.

Essentially, R&D underpins our ability to remain dynamic and responsive in a rapidly changing development landscape.

Giving clarity and direction

The Accelerator Labs have been a massive global experiment in development. Borrowing the words of UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner, the idea was to “let a thousand flowers bloom.” For that reason, we see an incredible richness and variety across the Network. Each Lab operates in its own development context and has its own way of fulfilling its mandate, doing its business and shaping its practice.

This strategy activation exercise has uncovered much of that richness, as well as showing us what the Labs have in common, and what defines the Accelerator Labs’ way of doing R&D. It has also shown us the opportunity we have to look beyond the boundaries of UNDP to see what we can explore and scale with broader social innovation ecosystems.

The five defining strengths will not only clarify what is important to us but will also provide direction as we continue to develop, embed and advance our practice. Learning to see the emergent attributes of our version of R&D will help us address our need to respond to the fast-changing sustainable development space. Because in an increasingly complex world, there are more questions than answers. That’s why we need open R&D to fuel continuous exploration and experimentation, and accelerate impact and learning at the local, regional and global levels.

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank our colleagues from the Accelerator Labs and the regional innovation advisors for their insightful conversations and traveling along with us.



UNDP Accelerator Labs

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