Lebanon’s Accelerator Lab: An Iterative Role

February 3, 2020

UNDP Lebanon was set to launch its own Accelerator Lab mid-2019. The UNDP Accelerator Labs were launched globally in July 2019 with the aim of building the world's largest and fastest learning network around development challenges.

The team was on board, an office space with colored post-its was secured, and an onslaught of meetings laced with acronyms ensued.

UNDP Lebanon has four portfolios and dozens of projects running simultaneously. The country office took on its lab potential to build a “learning portfolio,” or a collection of experiments within our projects that would give us the highest “learning on investment”. Little did we know that 17 October would roll in and suddenly no 3M post-it would hold against the roaring “wind of change.” 

17 October in Brief

Overnight, protests took hold across the country in an unprecedented and decentralized fashion. The protests carried waves of demands running the political, economic, and social gamut. The AccLab team compiled the demands that emerged over the first two weeks of movements; this helped us see that SDG 16 took center stage.

 Proportion of demands mapped corresponding to SDG area of work before resignation of cabinet.

Simultaneously the economic situation turned from bad to worse in a matter of days: hundreds of Lebanese people were losing their jobs, businesses, and homes.

Uncertainty: The Mother of Iteration 

In this environment, UNDP programs and projects could no longer carry on with business as usual. It was also clear that UNDP needed to adapt to respond to the fast moving situation on the ground. In addition, many operational obstacles emerged from access to funds and even access to sites. It was obvious that our organizational efforts would require a quick reiteration to remain in service to Lebanon and to live up to the new development challenges.  

In such circumstances, there is no room to get attached to plans, activities, or ideas because the context demands a timely response. For UNDP and many other organizations in development, the questions outnumbered the answers. What are the consequences of this new reality? How do we navigate the complexity? What do short and mid-term priorities look like? 

However, there was no linear path for us or any of our partners that would lead us to “the” answer, there is really no way to define what “Done” would look like. 

Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers

“...anyone who’s ever tried to do something ambitious in a volatile, multi-stakeholder environment has doubts that they can ensure we do “a”, it leads to “b” and then “c” goodness in the world happens.”

- Gina Lucarelli, “What does success look like for UNDP Accelerator Labs.” 

In true lab form, we realized that with each day comes new input, and accordingly we needed to unpack, reflect, and convene a way forward in a collective and lateral manner. 

Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers

The only resource we could truly rely on was the people, outside UNDP and inside it. We turned to our dedicated staff who also happen to be managing high levels of stress in both their professional and their personal lives. Therefore, we decided to facilitate informed conversations that would capitalize on the collective knowledge of the organization’s staff in order to form a shared understanding of the situation and its implications for UNDP. 

Join the Conversation series; a convergence platform

The Accelerator Lab brings its methodologies and its tools, but UNDP Lebanon’s greatest asset is its employees, the people who manage our projects on the ground. Given the scale of our organization, including the number of projects, people, and locations, we decided to pool in a diverse group of 40 experts from across UNDP, as a starting point.  Our hope was that this group of participants would champion the conversation within their specific organizational corners and help us extend the platform to partners and others on the ground.

Unpack Collective Intelligence: Learn from Each Other, Make Sense Together 

The first step was to initiate a conversation series packed with a punch.
Every time a group of people is together in one room, idea cross-fertilization and creativity have swelling potential. The quality of this conversation, thus, depends on how we bring people together and around what. 

We kicked off by allowing for a very divergent series of chats and designed conversation spaces. This “unpacking” technique presents an optimal way to surface knowledge, impressions, and concerns; all of which were necessary for us to see a shared springboard before we jump into action. 

The series was presented as a dedicated safe space to reflect and converse on the  circumstances that we suddenly faced. 

Data visualizations that captured Lebanese protesters’ demands over the first two weeks of protests were used as conversation starters. Using prompts, tools, and conversation circles, we were able to capture our colleagues’ impressions and perceptions. 

We used issue clusters to visualize the insights generated through our discussions. These maps would later guide the conversation series moving forward and become prompts for further investigation and inquiry. 

User-Centered Programming: Mapping Our Role in a User-Centered Fashion

The first leg of the conversation series focused on the individual, their vantage point, and their respective role. The second phase took place a week later, which allowed for time to reflect and take stock. 

The visualizations that captured the insights from the first phase were made available to participants at the start of the activity. Making data available in a variety of forms as opposed to just text on paper makes a huge difference. In order for us to tap into this collective intelligence, we need to prompt and encourage “emerging” ideas. The way to do that was to re-present findings and switch the perspective from an individual to a broader perspective. 

By exploring notions like “confirmation bias” and tools for “persona development,” we were able to hang our UNDP hats momentarily and look through the eyes of other impacted citizens and residents . Marrying this type of exercise with all the findings from session one, allowed for a rich exploration space, in which we determine  where we need to respond directly and identify blind-spots. Importantly, we accomplish these tasks through an inclusive lens that is true to our mission. 

One dynamic exercise that showed us questions matter more than headlines was a personification exercise where participants went wild answering “What if UNDP was a person?” The framing was around virtues, vices, aspirations, and fears. 

While all had fun, some questioned the value of such an exercise. The purpose here was to understand our relationship with the organization by assigning it human attributes, including emotions, feelings, and desires. 

As this exercise demonstrated,  the “imaginary” is sometimes an ideal proxy, kickstarting a problem-solving mindset. The value this lens added was creating a common platform for cross-disciplinary participants to share a vision of what is possible by building this understanding together. 

Iterative Agendas: Risk and Agile Application

Conversations don’t end; they are always carried over “till next time.” Our “Join the Conversation” series was a responsive, iterative platform. Our intervention moving forward is to take a more divergent turn, bringing all input together, sharing insights, and inviting experts to weigh in and inspire. When we converse collectively, we also have the chance to create collectively and benefit from a much richer solution landscape. 

Carrying on the Conversation 

This series will result in contributions to a bigger agenda, but our aim was to ensure that the process will not simply remain within the confines of these three days or our 40 participants. The goal is to package the experience and empower each participant with the tips, tools, and content to carry this conversation forward in a hopeful attempt to bring more and more talent into this space. The most vital element to meaningful conversation remains the diversity of its participants, we aim to engage with various partners - other development organizations, NGOs, universities - as we all contribute to shaping what our next steps look like. 

We are listening. If you wish to share your thoughts and join this conversation, you can send us your thoughts on acclab.lb@undp.org and add the subject line: Join the conversation!