A race against time: how are the UNDP Accelerator Labs contributing to the Global Goals?
June 1, 2023
After nearly three years in activity in 115 countries and running more than 400 fast and agile learning challenges (think ‘units of work’), the UNDP Accelerator Labs are reaching a state of maturity.
Over the course of three years, the Labs have been using innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals on the ground at an exceptional scale and speed.
But what can we see beyond each Lab’s contribution? As we curate the work of the Network at the global scale, and release our 2022 Annual Report, we take stock of the ways in which this unique learning Network, embedded in the heart of UNDP and connected to a constellation of ecosystems in the Global South, is making a broader impact on the sustainable development landscape.
A niche for innovation
We see the UNDP Accelerator Labs playing a role in SDG acceleration in three ways:
Filling data gaps
Making sense of emerging roadblocks to the achievement of the SDGs
Finding innovations that cut across the Goals to produce multiple gains
1. The Labs help fill data gaps in SDG monitoring
“...significant data gaps still exist in terms of geographic coverage, timeliness and level of disaggregation, making it difficult to fully comprehend the pace of progress towards the realization of the 2030 Agenda, differences across regions and who is being left behind.” The Sustainable Development Goals Report, 2022, United Nations
The task at hand is immense. For eight of the 17 SDGs, internationally comparable data from 2015 or later is dramatically missing. As data collection was strikingly slowed during the pandemic, with 57 percent of countries having disrupted their face-to-face data collection as of May 2021, the need to leverage digital tools for timely and accurate data collection has never been more acute. The Accelerator Labs are uniquely positioned to power the transition towards digital data collection, and make it stick!
For example, the Lab team of UNDP Uruguay tapped into Twitter data to analyze the acceptance of COVID-19 vaccinations among the Uruguayan population providing the Ministry of Health with actionable data to measure the impact of vaccination campaigns in real time. A similar approach was carried out by our team in Mexico.
Tapping into new and unusual data sources is part and parcel of how the UNDP Accelerator Lab Network operates. In fact, it has been designed as a key performance indicator of the initiative.
In 115 developing countries, the UNDP Accelerator Labs are using 45 new kinds of data sources such as satellite data or citizen data, and are in turn producing new, timely and inclusive data that help monitor progress on the SDGs. This aids in filling blatant data gaps in the Global South which could help inform where to best invest to support the 2030 Agenda.
Take the recycling rates SDG Indicator 12.5.1, where limited data is currently available for recycling rates globally. UNDP Tanzania, powered by its Accelerator Lab, is producing new data through mobile surveys to measure with granularity areas in Mwanza, Tanzania’s second largest city and one of the fastest developing urban centers in sub-Saharan Africa, where recycling is happening or not.
On SDG 16, recognized as one of the most challenging goals to monitor, the Labs are experimenting with ways to define and measure what a good public service looks like for its citizens. In 2022, 17 UNDP Accelerator Labs explored how public service innovation can help increase users’ satisfaction. For example, the UNDP Paraguay Accelerator Lab, in partnership with the Ministry of Health released a study to identify over-performing health centers in the country and understand what constitutes a good public health service for its citizens.
Specifically, we see an opportunity in using these new data sources for the real-time monitoring of the environment which would help close a gap where 68% of environmental SDG Indicators lack data. Take bike sensors that can detect the quality of the air as one cycles in a city, or small devices that can be used by children to monitor rainfall and predict floods in remote areas. The Labs are experimenting with these new participatory ways to generate real-time data which are being taken scale and are feeding evidence-based public policies.
2. The Labs make sense of roadblocks that are in the way of achieving the SDGs
Some of the roadblocks on the path to the 2030 Agenda are known. The COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of intersecting crises and the full-fledged climate emergency have a destructive impact on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Equally important are emerging trends that are complex in nature, hard to grasp on a global scale and off the radar of most international institutions. Because of its decentralized nature and its global scale, the UNDP Accelerator Lab Network is uniquely positioned to see these trends as they emerge in diverse contexts and different geographies.
Every day the 91 Accelerator Labs, covering 115 countries including 77% of Least Developed Countries and 66% of Small Island Developing States, scan for signals of change and collect insights that are context specific. Yet they make sense of it beyond national borders and regional cultures. They share intelligence across all continents in a matter of hours to confirm that a particular trend is not a bug but a feature, and they advance knowledge by analyzing how these trends are woven in a complex web of interconnected development challenges.
The UNDP Accelerator Labs are “a network of ecosystems that are individually effective yet collectively even more powerful to address large-scale challenges using insights gained from localized innovation and expertise,” according to Elizabeth J. Altman and Frank Nagle in MIT Sloane Management Review 2020 and now on the stage of the Harvard Business School.
Informality and misinformation are two patterns that emerged from our work in 2022. We believe they merit a much closer look from the international development community as they undermine the assumption behind the achievement of the SDGs.
With more than two billion informal workers worldwide and about 85% of the economy in Africa considered informal, a vast part of the economy in the Global South remains under the radar of most international cooperation initiatives. This calls for a rethink of the traditional approach to tackling poverty. What if this popular economy could be seen as an asset rather than a problem? By flipping this issue on its head, could we make strides on Global Goal #1 (No poverty)?
Through experiential knowledge and partnerships with the informal sector itself, the Accelerator Labs are helping UNDP open new conversations with the International Labour Organization to imagine new pathways to formality. The Labs are exploring hybrid models where formalization is not the only way forward and supporting policy makers realize the potential of the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem in developing countries.
Another major obstacle on the roadmap to 2030 is the quick rise of misinformation, disinformation and hate speech online. With the intent to tap into the collective intelligence of online users the UNDP Accelerator Labs partnered with the Healthy Internet Project (HIP), incubated by TED and launched a browser extension that allows any Google Chrome user to flag abusive content online. UNDP Accelerator Lab teams in Argentina, Kenya, Lebanon, Namibia and Sudan helped to test this tool and the concept of crowdsourcing online moderation through a series of experiments and pilot programs. Although this experiment to crowdsource internet moderation is now over and the browser extension has become open source, the UNDP Accelerator Labs have worked with the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs to explore the issue, and in the future will continue to research the topic of increasing polarization in 2023 together with UNDP’s Human Development Report Office and its Oslo Governance Center.
3. The Labs source innovations that create wins across economic, environmental, and social aspects of the SDGs
The Labs actually surface solutions that are innovative in nature, very often off the radar of most international top-down organizations which have the potential to address multiple SDGs at once. These multiplier effects across the goals have just been recently recognized as needed breakthroughs to build a Rescue Plan for People and Planet.
By virtue of looking for existing solutions that are bottom-up, scanning for early signals of change and partnering with unusual partners that are driven by action and anchored in specific contexts in the Global South, the Labs are pointing towards cutting-edge sustainable development solutions akin to a Research and Development pipeline.
Take seaweed. It is invading coastlines around the world and tends to be overlooked. Yet it can offer alternative livelihood options, increase health and food security (brown seaweeds are showing promise for the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases), support adaptation strategies to the changing climate (from sequestering methane to becoming a source for renewable biofuels) and can even be used to build affordable houses. UNDP South Africa, powered by its Accelerator Lab, is partnering with the Japanese Seaweed Resource Institute to investigate this huge potential.
Biowaste is another solution hiding in plain sight. Largely considered useless, biowaste could be turned into an asset to fuel the circular economy. The UNDP North Macedonia Accelerator Lab is looking at this solution which could create new businesses, employment opportunities and green economic development as part of the City Experiment Fund (CEF) — an initiative of UNDP and the Slovak Ministry of Finance, to support cities in the application of innovative approaches.
With less than seven years to the deadline for the Global Goals achievement, we need drastic systemic changes. This is the time to unleash learning through continuous exploration and experimentation so we can close the knowledge gap on what it will take to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. We hope that by filling data gaps, seeing emerging challenges to the SDGs and tapping into solutions that advance more than one goal at a time that the UNDP Accelerator Labs are fulfilling their promise to accelerate learning on what it takes to get to Agenda 2030.
Many thanks to Gina Lucarelli, UNDP Accelerator Labs Team Leader, for the initial inspiration for seeing the SDG contribution of the UNDP Accelerator Labs in this way. We invite you to read our annual report; The UNDP Accelerator Labs enter a year of maturity: let a thousand flowers bloom!, to discover how the Accelerator Labs are working to accelerate learning across all SDGs.