A reflection piece on the UNDP Regional Bureau Africa Accelerator Lab Retreat

December 9, 2022

I have nothing against online meeting platforms. Zoom, Teams, Google Hangouts, Skype, WhatsApp... throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic, these were my lifelines; the portals to which I could still have somewhat of a meaningful engagement in making connections.  I continue to appreciate and marvel collaborating on Mural and Miro to enhance thinking and spark ideas in the digital realm.  While these online platforms are a testimony to the proliferation of innovation and use of digital tools with novel approaches that drove breakthroughs in learning together, nothing quite beats an in-person meet-up! Almost exactly three years ago to this date, my life temporarily transitioned from the joy of forming great online relationships with like-minded colleagues and other Accelerator Labs across the world starting with the orientation bootcamps in 2019 in Quito, to the promise of finally meeting my amazing co-Labbers and our Global Team colleagues in person. 

Fast forward to the end of August 2022, where the majority of the Accelerator Labs had experienced at least two years of “the Mothership” by testing, ideas, mapping processes, solutions and potential services, it was high time to reflect on the renewed purpose of the world’s largest learning network. So much was shared, done and  at the three-day Regional Bureau Africa Accelerator Lab Retreat which took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from the 30th of August to the 1st of September 2022.  I won’t go into the event itself, but I do wish to provide a brief snapshot: 31 Accelerator Labs across Africa; at least a hundred of the most unique and fascinating people I have ever met amongst them: explorers, experimenters and ethnographers or solutions mappers.

While it is important to reflect on the substance of the event, the organisation, the process as the social dynamic, this short blog shares my three key take-aways:

Takeaway 1: People and relationships lie at the heart of the work of the Accelerator Lab network

Our brief in joining the Labs remains centred on who we are doing our work for; in UNDP language, we are business change managers who aim to bring value to those we engage with – the grass roots innovators, the solutions mappers; people who are experiencing the world’s most profound challenges.  And this is both from the perspective of who the policy is intended for; the underserved communities,  as well as all the others involved: policy makers, the private sector, non-governmental organisations and development partners amongst others. There are pain and joy points at all levels, and focusing on only one stakeholder group, such as government alone,  skews not only the process but also the meaningfulness of the engagement. I believe that for the Accelerator Lab to continue making an impact we need to include and involve others.  We need to explicitly include the leadership, at Country Office, Regional Bureau and other teams across UNDP. This integrated approach towards relationship building is essential for the network to amplify its work.  

Takeaway 2: The Accelerator Lab, like any evolving part of the system, needs reinventing.

At the Retreat, in sharing our learning journeys, we acknowledged that if the experiments and solutions had not created value, we cannot possibly define them as innovations. The Accelerator Labs may not necessarily be well understood across UNDP, and we realize that one Lab’s focus is not necessarily another Lab’s priority.  There are different ways to innovate and to add value to either UNDP as an organization, the priorities of the national partner or to other stakeholder groups. Whether our work is focused on grand scale system transformation such as climate change, policy innovation or on smaller scale projects such as hackathons and challenges. In working on different projects with varying complexity, scale and scope we realize and appreciate that the Accelerator Lab members have unique capabilities. From inclusive and grassroots innovation, resource mobilization, design thinking, network building, data science to the use of behavioral insights to name a few.  As the Accelerator Lab Mid – Term Review conducted in September 2021 suggests, “The Accelerator Lab Network is an ambitious experiment and is already a success. It was launched as a deliberate disruption to the usual way that UNDP operates, and to increase the credibility of UNDP as a partner of choice for 21st century sustainable development challenges. It is both a unique organizational intervention at a national level as well as one working at a global scale, learning across a network of development practitioners across the world.”

Like most successful experiments, the question is: How might we continue to add value whilst re-framing the work of the Accelerator Labs in context for relevance to current development programming? The value proposition lies in positioning the Accelerator Labs as both a national, local and global Research and Development Facility. Communicating and popularizing action research and utilizing the intelligence of 91 Labs across the world as part of the design, development, implementation and evaluation of projects, programmes in the portfolio approach will take concerted efforts, but it is something we need to do collectively.

Takeaway 3: We need to re-define success and continue to systematise Innovation for development

What does success look like? For any of the Accelerator Labs’ interventions to be considered a success, we need to embed both inclusivity and equity as solid and mandatory design principles for innovation to happen – by involving those for whom our projects and programmes are designed, we are giving communities a louder voice in designing their own futures.

When I joined the Accelerator Lab network in 2020, I was on a mission to learn more about sustainable and inclusive innovation, diversity, and making Namibia and the world a better place (really).  I focused on what I believed the problem was, and at the time, I viewed at the broader challenge of addressing poverty and inequality through the lens of a citizen, entitled to efficient, effective and accountable service delivery.  Central to this lens is the inherent diversity and inclusion of the people we are developing projects for, using human-centered design and the importance of collective intelligence required to co-create with us. 

In one of this year’s final projects on SMART Cities, our Solutions Mapper focused on improving, and including the experience for persons with disability.  While sharing at the preparatory sessions with the interaction design students that we were about to launch this work, one of the students approached me and said (hypothetically), “I am visually impaired. I am a trans-woman, and I live in Havana (one of the informal settlements in Windhoek). Would I be able to take part in the city hunt?”   Within days, she was involved with the students, contributing to, and reviewing the interaction prototypes in adding to the experience.  Her contributions to inclusivity and diversity ensured that we had done our homework BEFORE launching the City Hunt.

And so, three years later, and post-the Regional Bureau Africa Retreat, I still see our work being about people; about creating and adding real value and promoting the ideals of using grass roots innovation and citizen insights. I can’t imagine this changing as I prepare for 2023, but I do see a continuation of the deep, insightful and sometimes re-imagining work we have surfaced this year.  We will continue to ask questions on how we might solve real problems that real people have, to ensure that we do so in a just and sustainable way.