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Experimenting with innovation and accelerating development in Vietnam. In conversation with UNDP’s Ida Uusikylä


Vietnam is one of 60 countries where UNDP has established Accelerator Labs. The aim is to instil innovation principles and approaches into the work of the projects that UNDP implements and into the way UNDP works.

At the end of January, I went to Helsinki to participate in a two-day workshop on sensemaking and innovation portfolio management, organized by the Finnish Innovation Fund, SITRA. Giulio Quaggiotto who leads UNDP Bangkok regional office presented some of the experiences of the Accelerator Lab initiative in the Asia-Pacific region.

Testing innovation in Vietnam, Ida Uusikylä

To me, the labs are an experiment that is attempting to adapt UNDP to the development challenges of the 21st century. They are an attempt to move from a linear and results-based model of addressing development challenges to a systems approach which is more experimental, and to acknowledge that solutions to the complex development challenges of today require new methods, approaches and capabilities.

I am interested in learning more about how the labs are evolving in different social, political and economic contexts. As I worked with UNDP in Ha Noi for two years between 2006 and 2008, I decided to start there. I got in touch with Ida Uusikylä (Twitter), an innovation consultant with the UNDP Viet Nam country office.

Arnaldo Pellini – Ida, thank you for making the time for this conversation. Before talking about UNDP and the work of the Accelerator Lab, I want to ask about the situation in Ha Noi around COVID-19. In Finland, most schools and public places are closed.

Ida Uusikylä – Strict social distancing measures have been in place nationwide in Viet Nam for the past month and the schools and non-essential businesses have been closed. However, this week these measures have been eased as there has not been new cases for 7 days. Overall, Viet Nam has responded to the outbreak relatively timely and efficiently, and there have been only around 268 confirmed cases in the country. Despite limited resources, the government has been able to mobilize the authorities, army and civil society to respond to the outbreak and effectively contain the spread of the virus. The state has also been efficient in using social media and mobile phones (SMS updates from the Ministry of Health) to keep citizens informed. Viet Nam has also been one of the few countries to develop affordable and efficient test kits for Covid-19 that are now in production and being exported to Europe. This has been a huge success for Viet Nam globally.

AP – What is innovation for you and why did you decide to follow a career working on and with innovation?

IU – Innovation, although many times meaning everything and nothing at the same time, to me and to UNDP more broadly means ‘accelerated learning’ about what works and what does not. We acknowledge that we can’t just solve development challenges through traditional projects, but we need to explore new processes and approaches and learn quicker. On a more systemic level, as Luca Gatti from Chôra Foundation well put it: “Innovation is furnishing a system with renewal capability.” This new capability is something that we see as crucial in driving forward innovation and impact, and essentially remaining relevant to the governments we serve around the world.

At UNDP in the Asia Pacific region particularly, we have been driving forward the concept of inclusive innovation, as there is a major opportunity for policy makers in the region to play a more active role in fostering mission-oriented innovation policy and creating the conditions for innovation that addresses the new strategic risks faced by the region instead of focusing on quick fixes and single point solutions. Instead of exacerbating inequality, this type of innovation also fosters inclusion and aims to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. UNDP partnered with NESTA, building on its comprehensive framework of inclusive innovation to produce case studies from across ASEAN countries highlighting Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Viet Nam. At UNDP Viet Nam we have also embarked on an ‘action-oriented research journey’ to further understand what inclusive innovation means for Viet Nam, what the existing policies are to foster inclusive innovation, what are the next steps in advancing the agenda. We will be publishing the study soon!

I am eager to learn more about how we can institutionalize these essential renewal capacities in organizations, not just in UNDP but also in governments and other partners to accelerate impact and create more inclusive and sustainable systems. What is fascinating and challenging at the same time, is to learn how to translate different new theories and concepts from systems thinking to positive deviance to practice and strive for more systemic transformation. Oftentimes things get messier on the ground.

AP – I think that on innovation, systems thinking and design thinking, etc., the development sector is a bit behind. How did you find the discussion around innovation in UNDP when you joined the country office in Ha Noi?

IU – When I first started at UNDP, innovation wasn’t really considered as a process but more of a solution and predominantly technological one. Our innovation portfolio was very small and focused on supporting the development of the social impact business and start up sector in Viet Nam. With the establishment of the 60 Accelerator Labs around the world, a new narrative was introduced, not only to innovation but to development work more widely. The new approach introduced by the Accelerator Labs brought many new concepts to UNDP, such as systems thinking and collective intelligence, fundamentally questioning our traditional linear, project-based way of working shifting the focus from solutions to processes. Turning these concepts into practice has truly been eye-opening. The labs built on the lessons learned from our own innovation journey and other organizations to prevent the new labs from remaining as separate silos outside the core business of UNDP. Instead, from the beginning, they are deeply integrated at the heart of the organization. The intent with the network is far from modest – to build “the fastest learning network around development challenges”.

AP – Paraphrasing from the PDIA methodology, I think that two factors are key to support any new initiative: 1) Authority, that is, someone with decision-making authority gives the go ahead; and 2) Acceptance, that is, recognition by managers and middle-level staff that the initiative is worth pursuing. How do these two elements/principles resonate with the Accelerator Lab in Vietnam?

IU – I couldn’t agree more with how important it is to have strong support from the leadership and acceptance by the rest of the office. With the Accelerator Labs network, this was thankfully realized from the beginning and we were fortunate to have it launched by the Administrator himself, giving the highest priority to the agenda. Similarly, in each of the 60 country offices, the Resident Representative is the head of the lab. In our case, the lab team is also part of the management team, which shows the commitment to driving forward, institutionalizing and integrating the new approach in the office.

As with all organizational change, there is always some resistance. Before, we used to talk about the labs as the virus injected into the organization’s core and the body trying to reject it, but in the current context we might need to come up with a new metaphor. Nevertheless, with such a fundamental shift to the prevailing development paradigm it is understandable that there will be questions and initial scepticism. Moving away from the traditional project-based delivery to a portfolio of experiments is not an easy task for any organization. Still, the general reception of the lab has been very positive, and the approach has been widely approved and sparked a lot of curiosity and excitement among colleagues.

AP – When did the Accelerator Lab start and what, in your opinion, have been the key moments so far?

IU – The Accelerator Lab Network was launched in January 2019 and depending on each country office the teams were on board at slightly different times. For us, the first real kick off was the internal Portfolio Sensemaking we organized in June 2019. The Portfolio Sensemaking protocol is something UNDP developed with Axilo as a process to help country offices evaluate the composition and cohesion of their current portfolio of activities. Portfolio Sensemaking provided us a space for structured conversation about the scale, diversity, impact and coherence across all our current activities. These discussions allowed us to identify patterns emerging from the current set of projects (including on capabilities, system effects and inter-linkages) and formulate insights that were used to frame a portfolio of options for our country office moving forward. These insights set the ground for the lab’s work, which was up and running in July with our newly recruited team in place.

As a result of the Sensemaking, we have been developing key capabilities in the office and with our government partners on new governance approaches to complex development challenges, which we refer to as Triple A Governance: Anticipatory, Agile and Adaptive. Additionally, some key highlights have been working on addressing some of the most pressing issues in Da Nang city, namely waste management and plastics pollution, through carrying out a systemic design workshop for Da Nang city authorities, conducting our first experiment in a month to help the city develop its waste management model, and building a portfolio of experiments to create a more systemic impact. Currently, we are also engaged in a more fundamental process of systems transformation within UNDP Viet Nam through building new set of competencies about emerging policy problems for which there are no single point solutions for. This is with the acknowledgement that we will need to continuously strengthen our skills and capabilities to learn faster.

Da Nang, photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash

AP – What have you learned through this experience?

IU – Overall, some key learnings within UNDP have been around the importance of institutionalizing the Accelerator Lab approaches and systems thinking to the core business of UNDP, including existing and pipeline projects and internal processes and mechanisms. Additionally, we have been learning a lot about creating behavioural change within the office and developing new cross-unit ways of working to create a more systemic impact. One can’t underestimate how important good people skills are in leading and implementing such change within the organization or the government. Many times, a change is catalysed in informal gatherings instead of official meetings. Furthermore, at the wider organizational level understanding the underlying incentive structures and embedding the change within this existing system have been fundamental.

With our partners we have faced challenges in ‘legitimizing’ the new experimentation approach, for example in the eyes of local government officials, and building our credibility to work in Da Nang on the more system-level change. We learned a lot about behaviours affecting waste segregation practices as a result of our experiment, and about the systemic leverage points in the waste management system as a result of the systemic design workshop. This forms the basis of our subsequent portfolio of experiments. We also realized how reactive the local government’s response has been to many pressing issues, and therefore we have been developing key capabilities on Anticipatory, Agile and Adaptive governance to better support our government partners to respond to complex development challenges and new systemic risks.

The whole journey so far has definitely been accelerated learning for all of us in the office on multiple fronts, and the team is only getting started!

AP – What lies ahead? How do you imagine the Accelerator Lab in 2030?

IU – I think it goes without saying that COVID-19 will have a big impact on everything we do as it will most likely fundamentally shift the economic and social structures in place, creating a ‘new normal’. The question for us now is: how will we let it shape our societies and institutions? I think this is where the lab’s focus will be in moving forward, how to help governments in building back better. The crisis has emphasized the need for more anticipatory approaches, highlighting how initially a weak signal can create such massive disruption. It has emphasized the increased complexity of change: in speed, inter-connectedness and uncertainty, in which our work and the governments need to adapt. This is just one example of global disruption, which requires new types of responses from the government, businesses, civil society and development organizations alike. Accelerator Labs are UNDP’s way of responding to these challenges. Although their shape and form might change overtime, the approach they represent will be increasingly needed for us to remain relevant in addressing these strategic risks.

AP – Thank you very much, Ida.

If you republish, please add this text: This article is republished from Knowledge Counts, a blog by Arnaldo Pellini under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

Header image by Dan Freeman on Unsplash

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