Towards a stronger innovation ecosystem: Co-creation and informal partnerships are leading the way in Iraq

June 27, 2023

A picture of Shatt Al-Arab in Basra, Iraq by Mahdi Al-Saadawi

Iraqi youth celebrate university graduation with a lot of joy, music, and parties; it is one of the biggest achievements for Iraqis, yet this joy is short-lived, due to the frustration of matching with job opportunities post-graduation. The World Bank estimates the youth unemployment rate in Iraq to be 36%, more than double the national employment rate of 16%. Many factors are leading to this challenge including demographic, political and economic factors. One factor includes lack of innovative and creative knowledge and skills depriving youth from private sector job opportunities available in the market. 

► Innovation and the youth unemployment challenge

UNDP Iraq’s Accelerator Lab (AccLab) has acknowledged the role of innovation in enhancing employability opportunities of youth through enriching their knowledge and skills, creating expertise in new areas, supporting the birth of new startups, and generally diversifying the economy of Iraq. The UNDP Iraq AccLab started with Exploring Innovation in Iraq in 2020 and began Discovering Beyond the Known in 2021 and connecting the dots between innovation and youth unemployment challenges in Iraq. Specifically, these endeavors aimed at assessing the innovation ecosystem in Iraq and finding the critical points of intervention where innovation can support tackling youth unemployment in Iraq. 

One of the valuable insights generated is the weakness of the innovation ecosystem in Iraq, which is limited in supporting the private sector and related employment opportunities. More specifically, the insight revealed that there is a lack of utilization of innovation in diversifying the economy of Iraq, supporting the movement to entrepreneurship, as well as a limited number of partnerships (both formal and informal) to enhance the innovation ecosystem. 

► How can we strengthen the innovation ecosystem in Iraq?

Our starting point should be strengthening the innovation ecosystem in Iraq with the aim of enhancing employment opportunities for youth. After scanning the innovation ecosystem, one of the major insights generated is related to methodology; some of the current approaches to enhancing innovation is mainly focused on structuring specific interventions and projects that target one of the causes of the weak innovation ecosystem. Moreover, the specific interventions are usually implemented by solo entities or with partners via complicated lengthy formal partnerships. 

Considering this, the UNDP-AccLab in Iraq started formulating interventions. i.e., projects, to tackle these challenges with the intent of enhancing the ecosystem to empower youth and support in decreasing the high unemployment rate in Iraq. The UNDP-AccLab portfolio focused on:

UNDP-Accelerator Lab in Iraq interventions to tackle youth unemployment challenge

Moreover, the UNDP embarked on the journey of Deep Demonstrations to support the movement from projects to portfolios; specifically move away from single point solutions and embracing portfolio logics to tackle complex systemic challenges. Within this approach, the UNDP-AccLab-in Iraq recognized the need to enhance the innovation ecosystem, mainly through various interventions within a unified portfolio. Also, UNDP started emphasizing more on building partnerships and emphasizing on the importance of uniting efforts and expertise available in the ecosystem to collaboratively act and truly add value and strengthen the innovation ecosystem in Iraq. The AccLab in Iraq initiated various interventions with the ecosystem supporters to achieve these goals.

► The power of partnerships

The UNDP-Accelerator Lab is an agile entity; we see opportunities and we grab them fast. The UNDP-Accelerator Lab in Iraq identified the opportunity to establish informal partnerships with ecosystem enablers by co-creating a “Business Development Manual.” This local solution aims to support the upskilling of Iraqi youth inside public universities and support innovative thinking and business knowledge development. 

The opportunity of co-creating this local solution is with one of the Accelerator Lab network believers and drivers, GIZ, and a key stakeholder in the education sector, MoHESR, and with various influential partners from the innovation ecosystem in Iraq. The collaboration includes authors from institutions with focus and expertise in laying the ground for a coherent innovation ecosystem in Iraq and driving youth towards self-employment including UNDP AccLab in Iraq, The Station for Entrepreneurship, Prosperity Catalyst, INSM, IQ Peace, GroFin, Zain Iraq, and Careem

The Business Development Manual is intended to strengthen the innovation ecosystem not only as a solo intervention, but through the collaborative effort of co-designing a local solution and for the ensuing informal partnerships to accelerate development and create opportunities for Iraqi youth. 

Innovation Ecosystem in Iraq

► Effectiveness of informal partnerships

Partnerships, more precisely interconnections between various stakeholders, are an integral part of enhancing the innovation ecosystem worldwide. Formal and informal partnerships among ecosystem stakeholders in Iraq provide access to under the radar knowledge and generate contextualized insights, enhance the collective sensing and exploring of challenges and opportunities, sharing of resources - human and financial- and enable reaching a wider audience. In Iraq, partnerships usually take a formal form through partnership agreements with the aim of formalizing the intent of the partnership. Typically, this process is lengthy and requires a considerable amount of paperwork, especially if partnerships are between various partners, and not bilateral in nature.

For the co-creation of this solution, GIZ and the MoHESR opted to establish informal partnerships with various influential partners from the innovation ecosystem in Iraq with the aim of smoothing the process of co-designing “The Business Development Manual.” The Business Development Manual is used to teach within Career Development Centers of 35 public universities across Iraq. The process of informal partnership was directed towards the intent of collaborative designing, writing, testing and finalization of a localized business development manual for Iraqi youth. 

The informal partnership enabled a quick and timely intervention to fill the “Market-Skill Gap.” Moreover, it led to establishing a sense of responsibility to collaborate and strengthen the innovation ecosystem and resulted in ownership of the local solution leaving behind organizational restriction and any potential conflict of interest. 

► Co-creating solutions

Endless dedication, research, writing, and editing combined with of the use of Zoom, Slack, and Google Shared Drive supported the creation of the Business Development Manual over the course of one year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Twelve writers from eight different partners with expertise ranging from business knowledge to project management, finance, marketing, SMEs support, and innovation gathered to produce the 10-chapter manual. The manual was revised in two steps; first, an internal round by the authors that included peer-revision and cross-team revision. Second, external auditing took place with one international editor and five local editors to provide a second review to ensure overall coherence and lucidity of the manual. Due to the crucial role of visualization, a specialized creative agency designed the final copy of the manual, with a focus to appeal to Iraqi youth. Next, the manual was tested through two testing workshops with trainers and several testing endeavors with students to validate the written material,  the flow of content, and the relevance of the manual to Iraq’s business landscape. 

The co-design and co-creation process revealed valuable insights. First it allowed partners to play-off of each other’s subject matter specialties and allowed for sharing of expertise, since the authors have knowledge, insights, and real-life experience on their specific subject-matter. Moreover, the collaboration led to building a local solution that speaks to the needs of Iraqi youth and will support in providing them with tangible tools to enhance their creativity and innovation outlook. 

Authors of the Business Development Manual: From Idea to Startup

► Business Development Manual Content

The Business Development Manual is a self-explanatory guide for entrepreneurs’ journeys “from idea to startup.” The manual includes a step-by-step guide on how to start a business in Iraq, including an introduction to human-centered design, collection of information with a business development canvas, lean startup methodology, cost and revenue, financial planning and record keeping, project management and team building, marketing and sales, legal considerations, and financing available in Iraq.  The Manual is now adopted by the MoHESR and is being used inside the Career Development Centers (CDCs) and as the main learning content for GIZ’s project Intilaq.

The Business Development Manual: From Idea to Startup

► Insights:

The design process and content of the Business Development Manual holds valuable insights related to:

  • The innovation ecosystem: The inclusive approach to enhancing the innovation ecosystem, through co-creation and informal partnership, proved to be a powerful tool to shape local solutions that strengthen the overall ecosystem as well as contribute to creating tangible and sustainable change.
  • Innovation: This experience has provided insights on how to embed innovation in Iraqi public institutions, working in close partnership with the Government of Iraq.  Specifically, it provides a valuable insight into the adaptability of Iraqi public institutions and their readiness to embed new methodologies and tools within their curriculums to support Iraqi students. 
  • Employability: Iraqi public institutions, specifically universities and Career Development Centers, have recognized that the job market requires more than formal education and that business and entrepreneurial knowledge and skills are essential to enable youth to be market fit. 
  • Capacity building: Iraqi higher education professionals are willing to learn new and innovative methodologies and utilize all the available tools to enhance their knowledge in entrepreneurship, innovation, and the overall ecosystem. This commitment was demonstrated, in terms of effort and time, by Career Development Centers trainers’ willingness to fully grasp the manual’s main aspects and participate in testing.

This opportunity opened new doors to utilize informal partnerships across the active stakeholders in the ecosystem, and specifically for the UNDP-AccLab it enabled us to sense and explore the needs of Iraqi society using a bottom-up approach and support in developing local solutions and scaling them to strengthen the innovation ecosystem. Next, the UNDP-AccLab will build a multi-level intervention portfolio to tackle youth employment challenges innovatively!