Our Perspectives

Four trends in development innovation


Mapping of the MaldivesDrone assisted mapping mission in the Maldives, a nation facing growing threat from rising sea levels and coastal storms. Photo: Vinita Aggarwal

This week’s High-Level Political Forum in New York will review progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Its theme “Eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world" makes reference to the accelerated pace of change, an indication of the determination UN Member States and agencies have to shift business as usual. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in April, “without innovation there is no way to overcome the challenges of our time” and added “to make sure that innovation works for all and not only a few”.

Innovation is maturing as a dedicated field within the development and humanitarian sectors, combining emerging technologies with user-centric, behavioural and lean approaches. Our report ‘Spark, Scale, Sustain’, released this week, highlights how the UN Development Programme (UNDP) is investing to test and scale innovation, with support of the Government of Denmark.

We invest in four main areas to unlock the potential of innovation for development with a focus on leaving no one behind:

Alternative finance

To reach the SDGs, national and local governments need new sources of capital to close an estimated annual gap of US$2.5 trillion in funding SDG efforts.

UNDP supports countries across the globe to identify and test new funding mechanisms. For example, together with the Finish Innovation Fund, Sitra, we are designing an impact bond on youth unemployment in Serbia; and in Grenada, we are paving the way for the world’s first ‘blue’ social impact bond to fund coral and mangrove restoration, benefitting primarily poor communities.

Investments in impact bonds are not only a vehicle to mobilize private sector resources for development, they also support a shift in delivery to outcome-based financing. Pay-for-success models necessitate innovation to reach the desired outcomes.

Data innovation

For almost a third of the SDG indicators there are no data collection methods, nor is reliable data available. We do not have enough data about people living in poverty and we are especially lacking data about gender inequalities. So there is no doubt we need to innovate and to work with the private sector to leverage emerging data sources for development.

Over 2015 and 2016 the UNDP Innovation Facility worked with UN Global Pulse on a portfolio of data experiments in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Arab States. In Tunisia, for example, the National Statistics Institute is now able to track sentiment regarding corruption based on analysis of data from a variety of social media sources.

We’ve also worked with UNICEF and the World Food Programme on a series of UN Data Innovation Labs. These Labs are built on strong partnerships with the private sector to support UN agencies in advancing their data analytics capabilities and to kick-start new partnerships. One experiment we further incubated at a Data Lab enables the Government in the Maldives to respond better to natural disasters and climate change using drones. To further advance data experiments in the UN system we released a practical guide for data innovation.

Behavioural design

Person writing on white boardRefugees from South Sudan and host communities teamed up to innovate on finding solutions addressing community challenges such as early marriage, alcoholism or crop farming. Adjumani, Uganda. 2016. Photo: Kathinka Hasselknippe/Design without Borders

Technology is one element of innovation, but successful innovation requires adoption and scale. So our work increasingly combines methods from user-centric design with behavioural insights.

In order to start with service users in mind we invest in better understanding their perspectives from the get go, often using ingenious solutions 'outliers' in communities have already discovered. We then co-design with users whenever possible, developing prototypes and rapid feedback loops that help us save costs later in the implementation cycle.

We combine this approach with insights from behavioural science, whenever possible designing parallel experiments to test what works. For example, in Egypt we are working with the National Council for Women to address gender-based violence. One potential trial will test behaviourally-informed messages delivered to women via electricity bills. We designed messages based on findings about human decision-making, combined with insights on specific behavioural barriers for women in Egypt. Sending different messages to certain households while monitoring calls to the help hotline will identify which messages work and which are less effective.

Earlier this year, we issued a call to action in the report ‘Behavioural Insights at the United Nations’: we must take an experimental approach to designing policies and programmes that incorporate findings on how people make decisions in their everyday lives. Behavioural insights can help us to better address last-mile challenges and reach the most marginalized.

Government Labs

Behavioural design, leveraging new data sources and engaging citizens in service designs are a few of the tools that Labs offer to Governments. Labs can be the outcome or the driver of policies for social innovation.

Over the last few years we established six Government Labs. All of them started with collaborations on concrete challenges. Only after tangible successes we started conversations about a space that can help governments to design for ten years ahead.

Labs work to rethink solutions as a set of hypotheses, to be tested before they are rolled out. In Georgia we worked jointly on redesigning emergency services to make them accessible for people with hearing and seeing disabilities. For three days, we brought together policymakers, people with disabilities and activists to collaboratively develop solutions. Fast-forward one year and the exercise resulted in a redesigned emergency service that won awards for its inclusiveness and paved the way for Georgia’s Innovative Service Lab within the Ministry of Justice. The number of governments investing in experimentation is growing rapidly countries such as Canada and Finland seemingly leading the field with trials to test the effects of a universal basic income. This inspired us to equally invest in a similar experiment in Serbia in our 2017/2018 portfolio.  

We are also infusing more agility within UNDP. Last year we ‘hacked’ our guidance on project management to provide a practical tool for adaptive management. We expanded our innovation champion programmes, worked with our Talent Management Team on building public sector innovation skills and developed guidance to scale  and to measure the impact of innovation, together with the Brookings Institute and the International Development Innovation Alliance.

We are far from having all the answers on how to best unlock innovation for the SDGs, but we invite you to join us on the journey. 

Blog post Benjamin Kumpf Innovation Private sector Sustainable development Sustainable Development Goals

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