Coronavirus pandemic is an invitation to tackle uncertainty with innovation and creativity

April 21, 2020

Change in internet use in London (left) and New York (right) between Wednesday 19 February and Wednesday 18 March. Red shows a decrease in traffic, green shows an increase. (Cloudfare)

The COVID-19 crisis continues to be an unprecedented challenge for today’s world. It’s pushing the boundaries of the public sector in responding to the socio-economic fallout, of civil society in building and maintaining solidarity and of the private sector in transitioning to new business models. 

Our region, Europe and Central Asia, like the rest of the world, is facing a combination of shocks -  disruption of value chains and trade, reduction in demand on the overall service industry, especially tourism, and a decrease in oil prices. When you note that these shocks are coupled with ‘preconditions’ of our region, such as high degrees of economic informality, inequalities, overreliance on remittances, rapid depopulation and brain drain, and the consequences of a systemic de-investment in the public health system and other social safety nets, it is not difficult to see the strain that the pandemic has put on the countries of the region.

Yes, the pandemic will end at some point. But the recovery and transformation will take years, and the ripple effects it leaves in its wake will be seismic. This process is testing the extent to which countries and societies have the capability to respond both reactively and proactively, but it also has the potential to help us transition to more sustainable and mindful ways of consuming, producing and governing, and transform the values and norms that shape our societies. That would be some positive desirable outcomes in the midst of the gloomy forecasts. 

Traditional development programmes are often founded upon overall linear thinking of cause and effect, but the uncertainty and complexity of the COVID-19 crisis challenges that. It’s clear that conventional and linear thinking will not save us now. In their place we need fast iteration, accelerated learning and the dynamic management of portfolios building resilient systems for the future. 

While we brace for longer-term adverse effects, we should also see the crisis as an opportunity to use innovation and creativity to ‘recover better’ - not only recreate and ‘go back to normal’, but fulfill the ambition to create more sustainable and connected societies that are able to put innovative ideas into the service of their own development. 

Our experience at UNDP with innovation, inclusive of the learning network Accelerator Labs, puts us in a position to effectively respond to the immediate impacts of the crisis, while also crafting the long-term path to transformation. Here are a few ways in which we are using creativity and innovation to effectively counter COVID-19.

1. Accelerated digital transformation:

Our offices across the region are creating digital platforms to help spread information, provide educational tools and support government services. In Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Montenegro, our teams work hand in hand with the public sector on contactless public-service delivery - shifting how the public service works internally, increasing effectiveness and efficiency in the delivery of social assistance and providing one-stop shop digital services to citizens. In Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Serbia and Uzbekistan we are leveraging collective intelligence, through hackathons and innovation challenges, by engaging communities of innovators to identify solutions to contain but also respond to the cascading effects of the crisis, and to generate new insights using open data. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine and Kosovo* we are working with 3D-printing communities to manufacture PPE (face shields) and connect them with health services.

UNDP Turkey’s platform for distance learning allows Syrian refugees to continue Turkish classes uninterrupted. Photo: Levent Kulu / UNDP Turkey

2. Strengthening social cohesion:

While social distancing is taking its toll, research shows us that societies with stronger social ties and fabrics are more resilient. Our offices have embarked on initiatives to strengthen that invisible fabric. In Serbia, building off a social media campaign #togetherapart (#zajednorazdvojeni),  we are partnering with the government to invite available doctors and medical staff in the diaspora to offer support on a voluntary basis - whether online or in person - and over 300 medical professionals have already signed up. In addition, over 1,600 people joined the Be a Volunteer platform, for local volunteers to address the growing needs of isolated residents. In eastern Ukraine, we are supporting community security working groups to continue their work online so that cohesion work remains uninterrupted. Online platforms are bringing together local authorities, civil society, parents of students, and the police to discuss ways to better react to the challenges COVID-19 is posing to their communities.

3. Designing and managing portfolios:

We are moving beyond single point solutions into the design and dynamic management of coherent portfolios and offering the governments in the region cutting edge policy advice. This approach allows us to take a bird’s eye view on solutions, use resources and capacities better, and save money in the long run. That’s why, in North Macedonia, our teams are designing a dynamic portfolio offering the government new capabilities and advisory services on how to work in unprecedented levels of uncertainty. We have identified four key development challenges relevant to the country (migration, climate, pandemics and governance), and will be seeking to identify initiatives which will press the system levers on these issues to achieve transformation. Underpinning this effort is a robust digital infrastructure and capability.

These are only some of the efforts that UNDP is driving in responding to the crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed, along with everyone else, the development sector onto an unknown path. While uncertainty abounds, it is imperative for development organisations to showcase versatility and aspire to work more creatively. I hope the examples above demonstrate the diversity of methods and tools that UNDP is employing towards stronger engagement with the ecosystem of innovators and partners in addressing this challenge.

Are you working on applying innovation to the crisis and its effects? Please share your thoughts, ideas and practices with us. 

UNDP is working across the region to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Find out more about our work.

*All references to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of the Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999)