Decoding the mystical terms of innovation

February 25, 2021

As UNDP Egypt Accelerator Lab’s journey kicks off, our mission is to be a fast-learning network on sustainable development challenges and catalysts for change. Source: Splash/Joshua Hoehne

For Julian Meyrick, Professor of Creative Arts, Flinders University, innovation was a word a few years ago, and not the Word. He explains that the word innovation derives from the Latin word innovationem, used as a noun of action – “a new idea, device, or method” – in the 16th century. Until then, “novators” were treated with suspicion. In the 19th century, French sociologist, Gabriel Tarde noted that social change required the stimulus of innovative thought. Innovation signified an act of disruption creating new opportunities for emerging segments of the population. And in the 20th century, innovation became identified with market innovation. It shifted from a quality of thought to an intellectual commodity. Innovation was required for increased economic efficiency. It was something to produce and possess.  

If we take a closer look, we will see that innovation advocates and active communities are not only building exciting things but and are also constantly adding new terminologies to the dictionary. This glossary is rapidly evolving at a pace faster than regular people can assimilate. Terms like “co-creation”, “design thinking”, and more recently, “future foresight”, “positive deviance”, and “collective intelligence”. Yes, the world is evolving that fast, but can this be a little too much?

Beware of red flags

This linguistic evolution, in itself, is a signal of change, and change lies at the center of innovation. It is a healthy sign that we are advancing intellectually and paving the way to doing things differently. Yet, we really need to stop and think if this is becoming jargon that makes the act of innovation more elusive and exclusive. After all, the language barrier is the kernel of communication challenges.

So, what does that mean for the promise of “Acceleration”? As UNDP Egypt Accelerator Lab’s journey kicks off, our mission is to be a fast-learning network on sustainable development challenges and catalysts for change. UNDP Accelerator Labs provide partners with new approaches to address development problems unleashing the power of local innovations, collective intelligence and experimentation. This means that we start asking unusual questions, experiment with new approaches, and introduce new concepts that usually involve progressive discourse and non-traditional terminologies.

But what if we started speaking a language no one is relating to? The risk of falling into the trap of semantics, sophisticated terminologies, and untied links was a red flag caught early on. When people speak different languages, it is a two-way break in communication, which can interrupt any velocity before it picks up.

An inward break: many forms of innovation are happening every day in our vibrant country office and across our programmes. Communities at the grassroots are constantly inventing their own solutions. Most of the time, their innovations are not disclosed nor scaled nor patented.  Consequently, they don’t make it to the glossary(ies) of innovations. As a learning network, we need to capture those opportunities, re-package them, and give them room to grow.

An outward break: we take pride in being a global network with 92 UNDP Accelerator Labs around the world, learning together and building something significant to share with the development world. We are branching out, designing new tools, and capturing hidden signals of change. But no amount of knowledge would matter if we are not able to share and disseminate what we capture. Sooner rather than later, we should find the right language to talk our walk before asking others to walk that talk.

Starting at the center of a possible ripple

With UNDP’s outreach, the voice of change gets better chances. Sitting at the heart of UNDP helps to make acceleration ambition more attainable. This makes the Accelerator lab’s integration with the rest of the country office team indispensable. Finding one common language can help us avoid both inward and outward communication breaks. If we manage to streamline acceleration and innovation discourse among ourselves, we can accelerate UNDP’s role as an integrator for sustainable development and accelerate progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

1.     Speak relevance

UNDP Egypt is one of the most vibrant and busy country offices in the region. We have award-winning projects that contribute to market transformations. With an existing dynamic programming, we need to advocate early on what solutions mapping, portfolio thinking, and other exciting approaches mean to climate resilience, women’s empowerment, inclusive development, etc. We train ourselves to move from pitching shiny but abstract concepts into tangible and relevant game-changing solutions.

2.     Show don’t tell

Most people would be reluctant to travel into newly discovered territories before hearing people’s stories who have just been there. Existing examples or “use cases” are sort of a guidebook to innovative approaches. For newly launching Accelerator Labs, this can mean starting with stories from our global network. Instead of talking about collective intelligence and system thinking, we can show how Ukraine is collectively crowdsourcing solutions for the tradition of using fire to clear land for agriculture through behavioral change and how Pakistan is creating a circular system for managing its plastic waste. Sooner than later, our own learning portfolio will have similar approaches as we move forward with the exploring and experimenting journey.

3.     Connect .. communicate .. repeat

We are wired to be fast, but we cannot expect everyone to jump into the same pace from day one. After our first Accelerator lab presentation, we realized that it would take us at least a few other assemblies to get our message through and for everyone to get onboard. This is absolutely normal; we went through an intensified onboarding process to be ready for acceleration. Since then, we talk about it and breathe it every day. So, we need to say it, re-say it, and then say it one more time.

We believe in our role in sparking the development discourse, bringing in global practices, and disrupting traditional ways of doing things whenever needed. But we are also on a mission to make innovation more inclusive.

We say let’s start by removing the language barrier and getting everyone into the innovation conversation. What else can we do today to truly endorse innovation?