What we talk about when we talk about “experimentation”

Source: Exploring the unobvious: why governments need to experiment outside their comfort zone

Experimentation helps you explore the unobvious space

In my role as the Head of Experimentation here in Pakistan, my job is to help institute rapid learning about emerging development challenges through the design and running of a portfolio of experiments that is coherent with the needs of the local community, government and UNDP country office. Experimenters like myself working for the Labs are creating multiple intervention points to help address complex challenges.

Source: Based on Christian Bason (2010)

“Innovation amateurs talk good ideas; innovation experts talk testable hypotheses.” -Michael Schrage

For the Heads of Experimentation working in 60 countries across our network, experiments teach us to take a different attitude, summed up in our ‘test, learn, adapt’ mantra. In this way, we embrace failure as intelligent, structured and mitigated — although not always without discomfort. The world of experiments can be tough to navigate. A wise approach is to be open to the breadth of methods, while also thinking carefully about which ones are best suited to getting the answers we need.

Experimentation and Uncertainty

Often the environment we operate in is increasingly complex and uncertain, the issues we are trying to tackle are too complicated for a linear process, and there are no ready-made solutions available. The traditional plan-prepare-execute approach is not enough, but we need other tools to deal with complexity and uncertainty. Experiments bring tangible evidence early in the process when it is still possible to change the direction without big costs. Therefore, as shown in the figure below, the earlier we start experimenting and collecting information, the quicker we can reduce the level of uncertainty.

Source: Why there’s no innovation without experimentation

Experimentation to tackle plastic waste in Pakistan

Our process starts with acknowledging that ‘we don’t know’ even if it makes us uncomfortable. We need to be curious to constantly question and challenge our own assumptions.

Source: Decision tree for running experiments
Some glimpses of our exploration journey to find testable hypotheses

Spreading our bets in a portfolio of experiments

Moving past the exploration stage, we are designing multi-factorial experiments to test hypotheses and leads identifies by our Solutions Mapper addressing the issue in a portfolio manner. In easy terms, that means putting the problem in the center and throwing experiment bets across multiple factors to generate systemic change, rather than taking a one-solution approach.

Creating multiple intervention points to shift the complex system

A portfolio is a set of connected innovations that learn from each other: a deliberate set of connected experiments (Nesta, The Experimenter’s Inventory, 2020). The key word here is connected.

Source: UNDP Accelerator Labs

What are we getting out of experimentation for development?

As UNDP is working towards reimagining development, we are moving towards putting learning at the core of their programming. Undoubtedly, experimentation is one of the major added values from UNDP’s Accelerator Labs at this stage. Experimentation is all about learning through gathering data, answering questions and testing assumptions. Experimentation can help us navigate in the avoidable uncertainty that is part of any innovation process, by remaining curious. Learn more about what success looks like for the Accelerator Labs Network at UNDP and beyond.



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UNDP Accelerator Labs

UNDP Accelerator Labs

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