From Theory to Practice: How citizens in Kyrgyzstan accelerate development of their communities

April 14, 2021

"How fascinating it was to receive more than 80 individual and team applications from over 200 people aged 18 to 62 living in different regions of Kyrgyzstan and even abroad", remind the Accelerator Lab team about the hackathon and sense-making seminar. These events were held in March aiming at exploration and exchange of knowledge about innovative development approaches within different communities. Photo: Public Fund "Urban Initiatives"

Putting our boots on the ground

It's been 100 days since our Accelerator Lab team began sense making and exploring the Frontier Challenge (FC) called "Citizen-empowered community development." The process of defining and articulating the issue turned out to be a fascinating and challenging task.  How can we capture the complexity of the issue in one statement while maintaining its comprehensibility? How to balance between the clearly set goals and relative flexibility for further actions in exploring the FC?  How to avoid coming up with ready-to-go solutions for the FC which we may assume, but still have a well-articulated plan for the next few months?

These questions have been discussed over several iterations with our colleagues in the Country Office. And we've been very lucky! We would like to thank all our colleagues who gave us their recommendations, advice and constructive feedbacks. Only with the support of the colleagues and dedicated teamwork, we were able to better conceptualize the logic of our next steps and define more explicitly the role of Accelerator Lab as an integral part of UNDP in the Kyrgyz Republic.

Social innovations are out there!

Coming back to the FC on the citizen-empowered building of sustainable communities, we may consider our working process through the lens of developing a digital product. Thus, we can say that over the first 100 days we passed two traditional stages: "Idea" and "Proof of concept." Once the idea was formulated, we started testing our initial hypotheses. For example, "IF communities in Kyrgyzstan are capable of self-organization, THEN they can jointly solve community’s problems" or “IF representatives of the Kyrgyz diasporas are actively involved in their home communities, THEN they can also contribute to local development." It was important for us to find "champions" in the communities, to learn about positive trends and signals that can be further scaled up and improved using technology and innovation. To achieve these goals, we organized two online events: sense-making workshop and a hackathon.

Collective intelligence in practice: “Citizen-empowered community development”.

On March 10th and 11th, we organized our first online meeting with the public including different stakeholders at a sense-making workshop "Citizen-empowered community development." During the preparation phase of the event, we explored relevant topics about community development and civic participation. We also started mapping solutions, "champions" and grassroots innovators. Given the restrictions on travel and physical meetings due to the pandemic, meetings with innovators were held online. We met with civic activists in the regions, youth organizations, urbanists, experts on local self-government, migration, diaspora representatives, and leaders of social projects focused on digital solutions.

Thanks to the teamwork with our Country Office colleagues, we were able to gather over 150 participants at the online event. You can learn more about the workshops here.

At the sense-making workshops, Accelerator Lab considered the following issues for exploration:

  • Existing solutions and approaches used to engage citizens in local development;
  • Getting more detailed descriptions of positive examples of local problem being solved by citizens and diaspora members;
  • Receiving feedback on the Accelerator Lab’s methods and approaches;
  • Mapping organizations interested in social innovation.

By bringing together representatives of different groups of citizens who are involved in local development, we were able to turn on our "curiosity detectors" and document interesting facts and signals of positive changes in the communities.

"We see the potential for community development through the systematic engagement of citizens and maintaining those positive trends that emerged during the pandemic. We also better understand the important role local authorities play in enhancing citizen participation and resource mobilization, including diaspora members." - Accelerator Lab Kyrgyzstan. Photo: PF "Urban Initiatives".

One of the signals of a transformational change we observed was about Karakol citizens who self-organized to co-plan, co-create and co-implement the development of their city.  Earlier this year, a group of more than 50 civic activists discussed the problems and perspectives of Karakol’s development. One of the initiators of the discussions was a co-founder of the DEM Platform, Mr. Akhmet Makaev. During the pandemic, he and other active citizens launched a social space - a coffee shop with a library. The venue was created using the "Ashar" method, Kyrgyz traditional voluntarily based way of co-financing and co-implementing initiatives important for community members such as construction of a road or another facility for public use, usually.

Initially started with an idea to create a platform to popularize reading, the social space quickly transformed into a venue where citizens can discuss problems and exchange ideas about the city’s development. Over time, the City Initiative Group was founded and continues raising important issues and develop solutions for Karakol’s development.

During the workshops, using the examples of "champions" and innovators, we were able to capture the signals of change that can grow into potential transformational changes in the communities. Here are some signals of change:

  • The pandemic intensified participation of civic activists in community life.
  • Citizens began to self-organize and hold discussions on local development issues, as in the Karakol case: from a social library to active participation in strategic planning of development.
  • Young people are increasingly involved in the development of local communities, especially in the IT sector. Today, youth activists come together to empower young people with digital skills in rural areas.
  • Platforms for co-planning to address the needs of cities and villages bring sustainability to the interaction between the municipality, civil society and the community. For example, brining community members together for co-planning of public space through the "Minecraft" game as well as the creation of dialogue platforms at Bishkek Mayor's Office to discuss problems and generate new ideas and solutions.
  • Migrants actively participate in community development. There are many examples of their participation, ranging from co-investment into social infrastructure of villages to the development of digital solutions by active compatriots working in IT sector. Such solutions allowed crowdsourcing skills and other resources to help communities during the pandemic. It is interesting that while the main reason for migration abroad is lack of jobs and income, over time important stimulus for their return are improved conditions (infrastructure), reduced corruption, better opportunities to start business, education for children, improved health care, and others.

These and many other signals of change provide food for thought and ideas for testing solutions and creating portfolio of experiments to increase citizen engagement in community development.

#DevelopMyCommunity Hackathon: inclusiveness and diversity for digitalization

Besides the exploration of new trends and citizen priorities in building sustainable communities, the sense-making workshops also helped us to ensure inclusiveness and diversity of citizens participating in the subsequent #DevelopMyCommunity hackathon. One of the very common challenges in organizing a hackathon is when IT specialists lack understanding of the context of the problem to be addressed. This might result in development of digital products which either do not solve the problem or are not user-friendly at all. In this regard, workshops became a platform where people with different backgrounds shared their experiences and ideas bridging the gap between IT and non-IT people. This fact featured our hackathon from the similar events. 

Participants of the hackathon "#EmpowerMyCommunity". Photo: Asem Mukeeva/ UNDP Kyrgyzstan

In general, the main goal of the #DevelopMyCommunity hackathon was to find digital solutions which could empower citizen to participate in co-planning, resource mobilization, and co-implementation of the projects aimed at community development. It is worth mentioning that participants of the workshops frequently stated that digital solutions based on crowdsourcing and crowdfunding practices might make citizen engagement more systemic, consequently, accelerating sustainable development.

How fascinating it was to receive more than 80 individual and team applications from over 200 people aged from 18 to 62 living in different regions of Kyrgyzstan and even abroad. 34 teams worked on digital solutions to promote citizens-empowered community development and 16 teams were given the opportunity to pitch their projects. Three winners were selected, and Accelerator Lab UNDP is considering further collaboration with them.  You can read more about the winning projects here.

What is next?

Strategically, the inclusiveness of the events allowed us to test our hypotheses about the role of citizen engagement in sustainable community development. Therefore, we can say that the test was quite successful. We see the potential for community development through the systematic engagement of citizens and maintaining those positive trends emerged during the pandemic. We also better understand the important role local authorities play in enhancing citizen participation and resource mobilization, including diaspora members. It was also important for us to verify whether young people are capable to be “catalysts of change” and “key agents" accelerating community development using digital solutions. We are more than happy to say that not only youth, but the older generation as well see benefit from such acceleration.

Thus, after “Idea” and “Proof of concept” stages, we come to the next important phase– development of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). MVP is “that version of a new product a team uses to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort." MVP will help us understand where and how to move forward and what amendments should be made to our strategic plans. To this end, we plan to dive deeper into communities through the upcoming field work. MVP will also enable us to test the potential of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding mechanisms based on the enhanced citizen engagement into community development.

Stay tuned for more news about the UNDP Accelerator Lab in the Kyrgyz Republic!