Exploring Innovation in Iraq

March 12, 2020

Accelerator Lab Community Service Team. Photo: Iz Al-Nuaimi/2019.

“I don’t want to learn about mediation, I want to learn how I can be economically independent. I want to be able to financially support myself and my family,” said Nora, a widow and a mother of three children, while I was giving a training on Life Skills and Mediation in Sadr City, Baghdad.

This comment left me thinking about whether the organization I work for is addressing the right challenges. We usually ask experts, but are they the right ones to ask?  Hence, are we addressing the right challenges?

Iraqis know their challenges, and for centuries succeeded in finding local solutions to overcome the obstacles they face on daily basis.  In some cases, these solutions have led to innovations that have shaped the course of history. The plow, the wheel, the sailboat and the first-know map, to mention a few.

Fast forward, and eight years later, I joined the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Accelerator Lab in Iraq.  In order to truly understand local communities’ challenges and scale-up their local adaptation mechanisms, the UNDP launched Iraq’s first Accelerator Lab.  It is one of 60 labs around the globe, created to address 21st century development challenges. It will explore the unexplored, dig deep into existing systems to find the real challenges and opportunities, and explore the local innovations built around them, assessing if they can be replicated elsewhere, in Iraq and abroad.

The UNDP Accelerator Lab in Iraq has prioritized the problem of youth unemployment, including the associated challenges, opportunities and solutions from a community point of view. No one knows the root issues more than the people who live it every single day and have already created their own local solutions. The UNDP Accelerator Lab works to locate local insights and assist communities in scaling them up by building partnerships around them.

Approach and Hypothesis:

What is the best way to reach the Iraqi local community and perform on-the-ground exploration of local insights and how to build real connections with them?

These local insights exist under the radar in communities and are communicated through word-of-mouth and not generally displayed in formal written reports. To perform real on-the-ground exploration, and identify local solutions while building solid partnerships, the UNDP Accelerator Lab in Iraq decided to expand its activities to include a volunteer team of activists who have their fingers on the pulse and have access to local insights since they are indirect contact with the community members, empathize and understand their needs.

The general hypothesis is that if we build a volunteer community service team from the different geographical areas and sectors of Iraq then we will be able to identify priority challenges, effectively explore innovative solutions, disperse the new way of thinking about development, build local partnerships to pursue local agendas, and scale-up innovative solutions. 

In 2019, UNDP performed systemic stakeholder mapping, which is an internal mapping of relevant actors in Iraq. The identified actors from institutions identified in the internal mapping were then hosted by UNDP in Erbil and trained on Human-Centered Design and Systemic Thinking.

Stakeholders-mapping designed by Accelerator Lab Team-Iraq, March 2020

Innovation at Work, Results and Patterns:

In record time, UNDP succeeded in forming the Accelerator Lab Community Service Team, composed of 30 volunteers from local branches of select line ministries, the private sector, civil society, youth groups, entrepreneurs, and in addition to the United Nations. With this, the lab established a connected eco-system and defined an entry point for innovation in Iraq.

The lab used gamified and localized methodologies including, but not limited to, systems mapping, a causality loop, and a hypothesis framework, to guide them through the analysis. One challenge identified is the limitation youth put on their career options in an attempt to guarantee themselves government jobs or succumbing to family pressure related to becoming doctors or engineers. This is known in the field of business and management as “Tunnel-Vision of Employment.” The lab is now working to identify local solutions to this problem.  

Accelerator Lab Iraq approach, designed by Accelerator Lab Team-Iraq, Jan 2020

The UNDP Accelerator Lab’s results has led other local and international organizations to adopt the same methodology, forming local volunteer teams and searching for tried and tested local solutions.   Imitation is the highest form of flattery and is an affirmation that we are on the right track.

Next, the UNDP Accelerator Lab in Iraq with the support of its Community Service Team will work towards mapping local solutions to the “Tunnel-Vision of Employment.”  Also, the lab will be exploring the challenges and local solutions directly caused by the issue of climate change in Iraq.