The fast and the curious: UNDP Georgia’s Accelerator Lab gets down to work

February 18, 2021

Photo: Beka Kokaia/UNDP

"In adapting our programme to support the pandemic response, we came more directly into contact with the people whose lives we hope our work will improve," Louisa Vinton, UNDP Resident Representative, wrote in her end-of-the-year message.

"We may understand their needs perfectly well intellectually, but that knowledge acquires a different weight when we cross people's thresholds and see into their homes."

To us, for the team of the newly established Accelerator Lab, these words meant way more than just a thoughtful direction for the action. This message helps explain why UNDP has chosen Georgia as the home for one of its new nimble, action-oriented labs. This blog continues this line of thinking. While introducing the UNDP Georgia #AcceleratorLab, we reflect on our local challenges and open up a broader discussion on what development in Georgian colors might look like.

UNDP launched the Accelerator Lab network in 2019 as a global initiative to identify, elaborate, and grow innovative and sustainable solutions for local communities. As 2020 has tested the organization’s resourcefulness and resilience, the #AccLabs helped UNDP adapt to uncertainty. This year, Georgia joined this global network of 91 fast and curious teams covering 116 countries in all.

Many Georgian colleagues are already familiar with the state-run and private accelerators that currently operate in the country. But while these endeavours promote startups and boost tech-savvy and cause-driven economic empowerment, UNDP's lab is designed to accelerate development itself. To meet this ambitious goal, the lab has three interlinked directions: exploration, solutions mapping, and experimentation. Their role is to draw on fresh insights and new technologies to devise solutions to protracted problems facing our communities. These innovative solutions can be anything from new municipal service to provide homecare for underserved citizens, to games fighting Covid-19 disinformation, to old-but-gold composting practices to prevent wildfires.

How do the labs get their ideas? The starting point is Agenda 2030: the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that cover almost every aspect of human existence. To narrow the focus, every 100 days each lab zooms in on the challenges that are at the top of local agendas.

In Georgia's case, the first 100-day cycle (ending this March) focuses on three questions.

First, how can we use digital tools to extend municipal services to hard-to-reach areas and vulnerable groups in pandemic conditions.

Second, how can we build momentum for recycling by convincing households to separate their waste.

And, third, how can we translate the country’s rich repositories of climate data into striking, legible, and actionable narratives that can change people’s behaviour. When we take stock after 100 days, we expect either to have solutions ready to scale up or new topics to explore.

The Lab operates on a timescale that is unique for a development organization. The 100-day cycles are meant to mark milestones when we can pause and reflect on the work performed and judge whether it is feasible to continue investing human and financial resources into projects. As we see it, if we are meant to fail, it’s better to fail fast. Because the magic number 2030 – the deadline for achieving the SDGs and the goals defined in our national policies – is only nine years away. In a volatile and unpredictable decade, conventional timelines and methods are no longer enough.

Our mission is to overcome some persistent myths that hamper progress in Georgia.

Myth #1: "There is no data."

"Due to the lack of data ..." This is a phrase that haunts everyone who works in development. We all know that our data collection system leaves a lot of room for improvement, especially at the local level, where changes become more material and tangible for the beneficiaries. The AccLab is not meant to generate comprehensive conventional research. Instead, our aim is to find alternative data collection methods and analysis that can underpin evidence-based decision making.

This is what we mean by “exploration”: to re-define the research question to get answers that help us take action. For example, we know that it is possible to map the contours of a functional region – the area defined by intense economic activity that disregards administrative boundaries – by studying the number of "marshrutka" trips. This is perhaps not as precise as collecting microeconomic indicators at the settlement level, but it delivers the results we need quickly and cheaply.

Myth #2: "The experts know better."

We may never know the name of the person who first installed the coin-payment system in the elevator. But we know for sure that this solution became a symbol of Georgian resilience during the economic and political crisis of the early 2000s.

At the AccLab, we are trained to listen, look for, and sense this kind of bottom-up solution that improves people's lives. We call this process “solution mapping.” It means a hands-on search for local inventions, grassroots initiatives and indigenous knowledge, where the people directly confronted with a challenge have devised their own solution. And because they arise from the local context, such solutions sometimes work better than what the experts might recommend.

As my urban design teacher would say, "if you plan a new path in the park, look at the traces people leave. This is where they will actually walk, no matter how beautiful your design might be."

Myth #3: "It won’t work in Georgia."

Georgia is quite famous for its brave redesigns of public institutions and ambitious regulations. Yet we all remember the scepticism that these novelties faced. "Safety belts for Georgian drivers? Never!" Yet not so many years later, wearing a seat belt is an unquestioned norm.

Things change, and sometimes we just need to nudge that Overton window – the range of policies judged to be acceptable to the mainstream population – open a bit wider. To do this, the AccLab runs experiments: small pilots to test what works and what does not, saving both time and effort.

Here our aim is to debunk the myth that to do anything in Georgia, you need to start big. Our mission is to show that there can be progress even without answering the question, what's our "General Plan," as the popular song puts it.

To do this, the AccLab aims to work with our partners to build a network of projects and institutions that are on the frontline of development.

Sounds intriguing? Then we look forward to welcoming you to our launch coming soon on the 12th of March.

To attend the event, please register here.