What we talk about when we talk about “Solutions Mapping”

This blog is the latest installment in a three-part series taking an in-depth look at the new ways of working within the UNDP Accelerator Labs. Check out the “what we talk about” series on Exploration and Experimentation.

Field interviews with vocational workers in Khartoum, Sudan made me understand their critical role in providing a lifeline for the poorest children of the city dropping out of school. ©Basma Saeed

“Something interesting, something inspiring, something intriguing”

This is how Professor Anil Gupta of the Honey Bee Network, a grass-roots innovation network and knowledge partner of UNDP Accelerator Labs, described how Solutions Mappers like myself should approach problem-solving.

The 3 ‘I’s: intriguing, interesting and inspiring solutions

Intriguing solutions are those that, when observed, make you wonder ‘why did they do that?’. You see something happening, but you don’t immediately understand the need behind it. These are solutions that get a mapper to investigate further and dig deeper to understand why.

One of my earliest observations of an intriguing solution was at Kimironko Market in Kigali, Rwanda during a Solutions Safari activity when I met my fellow solution mappers, at our first learning boot camp in Rwanda. For a mapper, there’s nothing more exciting than a Solutions Safari, an invitation to venture out from behind our desk which, according to John le Carré, is a “dangerous place from which to watch the world”. It’s an opportunity to pack a camera, or camera phone these days, and a notebook, engage with the local community in markets, bus stops, under the shade of a tree even, and practice active observation.

Solutions Mapping Starter Kit: what I always carry on me when conducting a solutions safari. ©Basma Saeed

As I was on a quest to look for solutions, I entered one of the busiest markets of the city where vendors sell produce and products from Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Kenya. In this buzzing Kimironko Market, I found water gourds made from pumpkins, repurposed jerry cans cleaved in half in a clever asymmetrical shape to scoop out grain, and table mats made of upcycled soda bottle caps upholstered in vibrant kitenge (an East African cotton fabric). These might seem ordinary objects to you, and honestly, before the safari I would have just passed by without giving a glance. Yet as I put my Solutions Mapper hat on and started questioning around, not just looking around (What is that? What does it do? What did they make it from? Why are they using this design or material?), these objects became answers to concrete needs. A change of paradigm.

From left to right: pumpkin water gourd, potato and grain scoop from repurposed jerry can (a very low-tech, inexpensive way to reduce spillage), upcycled soda bottle caps, and roof panel. ©Basma Saeed

And then came the ‘ah-ha’ moment. As I looked up, I realised what made this large warehouse complex so well-lit. It was not due to industrial lighting or huge overhead lamps but rather well distributed 2mx1.5m pieces of corrugated steel which had been removed from the roof of this structure and replaced by clear PVC roof panels to allow for natural light to seep into the structure. This was the non-obvious and intriguing solution that left me baffled: a solar solution to illuminate one of the busiest markets in Kigali!

Interesting solutions are doors to new realities. When finding these solutions, mappers learn new ways to solve problems, ways they hadn’t imagined existed. The second ‘I’ of this quest reminds me of the earliest challenges set by our UNDP Resident Representative in Sudan, Mr. Selva Ramachandran, to find ways and mechanisms to connect with the Sudanese diaspora as part of the bigger country office work on Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals.

As a mapper, it’s important to understand how a community interacts. At the time, I did not know any diaspora groups to reach out to, but I knew this community had a high online presence. 42% of Sudanese social media users are on Facebook, which made it a natural starting point for this digital research. A link to a YouTube video was how I landed on mapping Sudan NextGen, an online citizens platform created by the Sudanese diaspora to connect experts, think tanks, NGOs, youth and influencers in Sudan and abroad to achieve Big Fast Results (BFR) and leapfrog Sudan’s development. Whilst BFR is a development methodology for and by governments (established first in Malaysia and since adapted to support transformative change across African nations in Rwanda, South Africa, and Tanzania), Sudan NextGen is a bottom-up effort — and an interesting solution, if you will — towards transformative change. It connects citizens and the government by providing visibility to development projects and expertise, and it bridges these innovators to national strategic plans and ministerial specific priorities.

Sudan UNDP Accelerator Lab is collaborating with Sudan NextGen to map high impact projects that support the development of Sudan.

Inspiring solutions are great ones, transformative even. They create a ripple effect towards reaching impact.

Earlier this year, we hosted the very first UNDP Solutions Fair. An open call for solutions holders across and beyond the development world. UN Agencies, NGOs, IOs, civil society and community-based organizations, academia, private sector, development mutants and unusual suspects within the entrepreneurship space, grassroots innovation, social enterprises, and community initiatives were invited to share and showcase their work. And, drum roll please… to network.

Among the 56 solutions selected to participate in this three-day event, Saunders Homestay founded by Mahasin Ismail has left a profound impression on me. This digital marketplace for hosted accommodation stood out as a unique approach to the underserved tourism sector in Sudan. But it wasn’t just the novelty of this solution, what struck me was the team working in Sauders Homestay is composed entirely of Sudanese Youth. The social return on investment and impact is two-fold. It helps female-headed households grow a source of passive income by hosting visitors while fostering a new kind of inclusive tourism rooted in our culture and social interactions within a Sudanese home.

In addition, the UNDP Solutions Fair created a community of practice and network around user-led innovations. Having a continuous communication pathway to follow-up and our periodic outreach to solution holders has been extremely valuable to keep track of changes as they occur in the development landscape.

With the spread of COVID-19, having this network enabled me to update information on how different solutions holders are coping and shifting their focus to respond to this pandemic. One such solution is from Sudan Unity Networking, a civil society group founded by Dr. Hiba who looked to solve the issue around the lack of inclusive communication about COVID-19. While Sudan has over a hundred tribal languages and dialects, the availability of reliable health information around this pandemic was only available in Arabic, the official language of Sudan. This is a classic example of a solution created by those closest to the problem. This body of work which started as a personal initiative grew rapidly to include a network of local speakers from towns and villages across Sudan to record the WHO-approved health messages in Sudanese languages and dialects for wider dissemination in these communities. With the increase in reported cases, inclusivity in health communication is key to ensure vital information is shared about this disease to the most vulnerable across Sudan.

Solutions are found where problems are

‘Something Different, Something Better’ is the mantra of a Solutions Mapper, as described by Prof. Gupta of the HoneyBee Network, one of our partners. It is the lens that Solutions Mappers put on as we observe how communities find and create solutions for their everyday problems.

My interview notes from dialogues with solution holders. ©Basma Saeed

Solutions Mapping is the quintessential role for someone who is always curious to understand how grassroots innovators solve problems. Mappers abide by the principle that those closest to the problem, who live it day in and day out, are those we need to engage with and respect to find solutions. In other words, we’re actively testing the hypotheses that local solutions are far more likely to stick than imported ones. It’s like putting two and two together you might say, but we needed to intentionally build these skills and principles in the Accelerator Labs network to cement this bottom-up approach.

Similarly, indigenous knowledge is central to our work as Solutions Mappers. These communities have been holders of solutions to local problems, across generations. In the Sudan Lab, we are planning to document the practice of the Tuti community living on the river Nile island. Thanks to their local knowledge, songs, drumming systems, and community solidarity mechanisms shared over the past 500 years, they have learned how to reduce the risks of flooding. This ethnographic work needs a reboot though. We must be mindful not to extract the knowledge, but rather articulate it and cross-pollinate it.

One of the first rules set for us in the solutions mapping hive at UNDP is that there are no silver bullets for development challenges. The second golden rule is that we, as ethnographers, investigative journalists, and all-round problem solvers, need to remain humble and embrace the idea that ‘minds in the margins are not marginal minds. It’s in these deviations of innovation that UNDP can learn how grass-roots solution holders solve their (own) problems rather than chasing unicorns. It is our role to chronicle, analyse and share for wider cross-pollination, solutions in the development world, and beyond (think localities, states, country office programming, government policymakers, and the wider Accelerator Lab network).

Like bees in a global hive

Eight months into joining the Accelerator Lab Network, I have more learning questions now than going in. It all started with being curious, and I still am. I use this mindset as an open frame to throw the ‘question net’ wide by asking what the solution landscape looks like in Sudan across different development islands. Are these solutions addressing an individual or a collective problem? Can they be found in different parts of the community, area, locality, state, country? ​ Is this type of solution (standard) for this type of problem and are we seeing a similar approach, pattern elsewhere? ​

Learning questions are part and parcel of the journey across the 60 Labs which, as I write this, is expanding to 30 more countries (cross pollination!). A crowd of wisdom of 60 (soon to be 90) other Solution Mappers who are constantly and rapidly communicating over Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp. No rest for the buzzing phones, and minds.

To be a mapper in the UNDP Accelerator Lab network is to be part of a community of brilliant development practitioners who are constantly pushing the edge of development fieldwork. We are trying new approaches, tools and sharing knowledge and solutions found in our countries.

Take Rex Lor, our colleague in the Philippines, who has prototyped a Solutions Mapping Field Guide, SalikLakbay with over thirty government researchers, Department Of Science & Technology staff, and academics mapping 37 local solutions in the Agdao Public Market in Davao City. A body of work that supported us in our local Solution Safaris, Caravans and Trains. Rozita Singh and the team in the India Accelerator Lab have developed an online game to support COVID-19 awareness-raising. Mehdi Fathallah in the Tunisia Accelerator Lab is developing the Solution Mappers Playbook, a manual cataloging the methods and tools used in the network as we lead the way in user-led innovation in development. In the wake of COVID-19, María Gabriela Ayala and the team in the Ecuador Lab have developed very fast Collaboratory (Colaboratorio Cuidadano), a platform where citizens can crowdsource their needs from donating food supplies, helping out elderly neighbours with their groceries to swapping goods or services.

Solutions mappers are like a buzzing hive working out loud constantly, sharing experiences, resources, and often ideating together. A truly unique experience of cross-network learning.

Being in a loop within a wider loop

Solutions Mapping is a part of the UNDP Accelerator Lab Learning Loop to SENSE, EXPLORE, TEST, and GROW around future trends, grass-roots solutions, rapid testing, and iteration to validate solutions to generate collective knowledge and reimagine sustainable development for the 21st century.

Working alongside Sudan’s Head of Exploration and Head of Experimentation, we operate in a constant loop within a wider revolving loop of 60 (soon to be 90!) other UNDP Accelerator Labs. We are part of a network of ecosystems, surrounded, albeit virtually at the moment, by fast and curious minds who are striving, every day, to becoming the largest learning network around development challenges. This is what it means to be a solutions mapper with the UNDP Accelerator Lab.

I conclude this blog with a call to be curious, not only is it good for you, but it might be more needed than ever in today’s world. Look for; Interesting, Inspiring, Intriguing examples of problem-solving and share them with us! Tag a solution you find under #UNDP3Is on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. On behalf of my fellow Solution Mappers, we look forward to learning from you.

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

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