Future-proofing UNDP’s Work for the Digital Age

Digital Fitness Programme at the Istanbul Regional Hub

May 7, 2024
Photo: UNDP

Josip Ivanovic, Information Integrity and Youth Engagement Specialist, Istanbul Regional Hub


At the beginning of the year, we took a significant step towards embracing the digital future in UNDP’s work by hosting a five-day Digital Fitness Programme (DFP), co-organized with the Chief Digital Office (CDO). Our overarching objective with this pioneering module was to ensure ethical and impactful technology adoption in our work across the Europe and Central Asia region.

The DFP module, which was delivered for the first time in a regional hub setting, brought together over 30 colleagues from 11 teams based in the Istanbul Regional Hub (IRH), to explore ways in which UNDP can leverage digital solutions effectively across its work.

“The DFP was incredibly engaging, offering a comprehensive understanding of product design with a user-centric approach as well as raising awareness around understanding the digital products that are available within UNDP.

Its interactive modules provided me a fresh perspective on producing my knowledge products with users in mind and was able to find new ways of improving the quality and efficacy of my day-to-day work.” – Kubra Ozturk, IRH

Our colleagues from CDO, Gayan Peiris and Dhani Spiller, brought us to a fast-paced learning journey through interactive presentations, evolving discussions (‘into a rabbit hole and back’) and group exercises, where we got down to the nitty-gritty of UNDP’s Digital Standards.

But what’s the big deal about the Digital Standards?

Most of us at IRH have heard or read about UNDP’s Digital Standards before, and most of us learned that these standards are the guiding principles we need to consider in ensuring tech is used ethically and responsibly.

Yet, Dhani and Gayan taught us something new. They helped us understand that the Digital Standards are like the secret ingredients among the vast number of intimidatingly powerful digital tools, which makes technology a force for good. They are the blueprint for a world where tech is inclusive, responsible and powerful enough to solve some of the greatest challenges.

From start with the need to plan for the long-term, we acquired a comprehensive understanding of how to prioritize user needs, ensure accessibility and build sustainable digital solutions. The Digital Standards provide a framework for innovation and improvement. By setting standards for how digital information is managed and exchanged, and how digital products are created, they help us ensure that new technologies are used effectively, efficiently and ethically. 

Principled and safe, yet adaptable

How to manage and share data? How to use new technologies like AI or blockchain? How to protect people’s rights and privacy while designing and deploying digital solutions? In the digital age, no approach or know-how is fixed or final, but they change and improve as we learn from the trends around us and from our own projects.

From day one until the end, the Programme followed the guiding principles, yet it wasn't primarily about principles but examples from our UNDP’s experience that showed the decisive importance of adaptability and our capacity to learn continuously as we implement our projects.

The key to any successful digital solution is user research, being always aware what the actual problem is, assessing past assumptions and having the capacity for continuous monitoring and fine-tuning.

Digital product design

At UNDP, we are an organization of problem solvers. Our primary role is to identify issues around the globe and seek feasible solutions to them. The problems we dealt with over the decades have never been easy, and they seem even more difficult with the rise of digital technologies. 

In the face of great challenges, however, it is good to get down to the basics. We produce solutions. We do that by listening to people, trying to define the problem and bringing to the table those who can provide a solution. This is not a novelty for us.

Yet, as a part of our digital transformation commitments, we need to be aware of the incoming tide of digital tools across the world, and we need not only to respond to it, but occasionally to compete with it.

To do that, we need a special skill. Luckily, our facilitators, Gayan and Dhani, were with us to single out that one special skill: being an excellent product manager.

In the digital age, we need to be fast and insightful in learning about the needs of users, and to achieve that, we need to be accurate and realistic in formulating our solutions to the developers and engineers who can build and maintain them.


Digitalizing the development mindset

What is a digital mindset? How to think digitally? How to identify leverage points to apply UNDP’s Digital Transformation Framework? These questions circled around the room during the Programme, they continue to circle around in our minds and they are here to stay.

The easiest thing we learned at the Programme is that there are no easy answers to these questions. Yet, one thing is certain: developing a systems thinking is a big portion of any meaningful response to the challenges that emerge in the digital sphere. Identifying the main people, processes, resources, goals, within a system, analysing how various parts of a system affect each other and the whole and understanding the patterns of cause and effect that shape the system’s behaviour over time, are some of the key things we need to focus on at all times.

Through us, users, digital systems are embedded in the offline world, and they interact with external factors such as environment, culture, social norms and politics. UNDP has a vast amount of knowledge on these external factors, but the new challenge is to understand how a slight (digital) change can have a significant impact. By gaining a deeper understanding of the digital systems and their dynamics in relation with external factors, we are exploring more effective ways to intervene with new, digital solution.

Digital (risks and opportunities) yet not so digital (consequences)

The times when inter-connected social systems acquire overwhelming proportions overnight, are the times when we need to deliver and evolve the most. That can, however, be a paralyzing duty if we do not identify entry points and right approaches. And that is exactly why we were so diligent in collecting all the relevant takeaways that our charismatic facilitators, Dhani and Gayan, offered to our teams at IRH.

We embarked on a digital journey and are ready to grow, take opportunities and face challenges that lie ahead in the digital age.


Want to learn more about our digital fitness marathon?

The DFP stands as a practical tool for every country office to test how digitalization can amplify UNDP's impact. Designed and run by the CDO, it serves as a knowledge exchange platform, with plans to spread insights globally. Today, 28 country offices have hosted CDO facilitators, with the Accelerator Labs, the world's largest and fastest learning network on sustainable development challenges, playing a crucial role.