Our Perspectives

Permanent Beta: Six ways to innovate for development in 2015 and beyond


Haitian gathering outsideLocals gather at the launch of UNDP Haiti’s LIDE project during the SHIFT Week of Innovation Action in September 2014. Photo: UNDP in Haiti

In this blog series, UNDP experts and practitioners share their experiences and views on innovation in development practice.

As negotiations on finalizing the new development agenda heat up, one thing is clear - delivering on these goals will require investment in innovation.

But what exactly does innovation mean in the context for development?

It means to embrace complexity, acknowledging that there are no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions for the persistent, inter-connected development challenges across the globe. Innovations that lead to breakthroughs can only be created in partnerships.

These are two of Nine Innovation Principles UNDP endorsed last year, together with seven UN entities and seven foundations and donors. We also launched the Innovation Facility with the support of the Government of Denmark.

The Innovation Facility’s “Year in Review” report is just out. As we approach our first anniversary, we highlight six areas where UNDP will seek to innovate in 2015 and beyond.

  1. What, exactly, is the problem? We focus on understanding the problem based on available data. UNDP is working with UN Global Pulse and other partners on big data analysis to help give us and governments the most detailed picture possible with the data available. We also embrace ethnographic methods that help us better understand the diverse perspectives of the people affected by development challenges. In Georgia, we analyze patterns of individual stories in collaboration with Cognitive Edge.

  2. The best ideas come from surprising people and places: We look for models and ideas outside of UNDP, with people who found practical answers to challenges in their communities. Open Innovation Challenges get the brightest brains working on development challenges. We establish spaces to that allow us to design development solutions alongside those affected by the problem. For example, a social innovation lab in Egypt helped find solutions to the hurdles of reporting incidents of sexual harassment and violence.

  3. Test, measure, improve: Instead of banking on only one idea, we test several in parallel and see what works best. For example, how can we ‘nudge’ people to make choices that benefit their health? In Moldova, we are working with the Behavioral Insights Unit to address the problem of low follow-up medication for tuberculosis, testing different interventions in randomized control trials.

  4. Who wants your idea? When investing in an initiative a business plan helps identify actors that might eventually bring the idea to scale, whether a government, the private sector or NGO partners. Last year, our team asked what development cooperation can learn from evolution. How can we create an environment of flexibility and adaptation in organizations often based on rigid mandates, fixed plans and risk aversion?

  5. Can we create shared value? Through local partnerships, we explore opportunities for shared value. In China, UNDP launched a “Data Innovation Lab” with Baidu, one of the country’s largest internet providers. The lab identifies valuable data sets and uses analysis to support China’s development goals.  UNDP and Baidu developed the mobile app “Baidu Recycle”, which links electronics consumers to legally certified e-waste disposal companies for safe disposal and recycling.

  6. Forget failure – learn! Innovation involves calculated risks. Some ideas will not yield results. But labelling these ‘failures’ discourages open discussion about what has not worked, and why. This an impediment to learning, which is an integral part of success. We are committed to learning from our investment on innovation and commissioned an evaluation of our work in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in 2012 and 2013.

In an ever-changing world, there will be no shortage of complex challenges and the need to constantly learn and adopt. Last year, we tested novel concepts in 49 initiatives across 54 countries. We invite you to send us your feedback and to join the conversation on Twitter via #inno4dev. We remain in Constant Beta.

A longer version of this blog was previously published on Devex. Read it here.

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