Training the “synapses” to be a network

December 2, 2021

You might have heard that the UNDP Accelerator Labs comprise the largest learning network in the world, with 91 Labs and roughly 270 people across the globe. But did you know that they work in a way that is similar to a neural network?

Each of these units has the mandate to explore, map and test solutions, using similar methods, approaches, and a think-alike attitude. But what makes us a network – a system where nodes have vibrant connections, ever-evolving and changing?

Think of it as a brain: The more synapses (connections between neurons) it has, the stronger the intellectual capacity of the human. The same is true for the Labs – more interactions mean higher collective intelligence and robustness.

As with the brain, synapses must be exercised to remain strong. UNDP Explorers train their “synapses” during bi-weekly calls, which is growing from an easy place to share ideas, hacks, and tools into a solid (but still lean) platform where we could discuss and elaborate methods, technologies, and frontier ideas to tackle development challenges.

What are explorers bringing to the UNDP?

One of the main ideas of being an explorer is to bring new methodologies and development instruments to UNDP's country offices. Explorers are future-oriented practitioners who are testing the boundaries of a complex system and communicate that with other team members within the Accelerator Labs and the country offices. Much like neurons do for our bodies, Accelerator Lab explorers are responsible for detecting what is going on in and around our country offices. Synapses develop when neurons communicate with each other by sending neurotransmitters across a tiny space between the axons and dendrites. For the neural network of AccLab explorers, our neurotransmitters are our bi-weekly calls.

In October-November 2021, it was the North Macedonia and Ukraine Labs who took the lead, shaped the agenda, and summoned explorers to discuss four topics: leadership, futures, portfolios, and innovation challenges.

During our two-month mandate, we focused on showcasing, as practically as possible, new methodologies that are on the radar of other explorers from our network and tried to collectively distill insights for application in the country offices.

Portfolio approach: crafting actions that foster emergent learning

Even though the portfolio approach has been on UNDP's radar for some time and is heavily featured in the Strategic Plan 2022-2025, not many country offices have had the chance to experiment with these modalities. Thus, we dedicated one session to this methodology. We heard from practitioners who created dynamic, city-level portfolios on the importance of including this modality in project proposals. Lejla Sadiku, Team Lead for Innovation at UNDP's Istanbul Regional Hub, and Justyna Krol, the Project Manager of City Experiment Fund, generously shared the concepts, challenges, and practical advice with our AccLab explorers. Here are our main takeaways:

  • The portfolio approach is closely connected with system thinking which is at the heart of managing complexity. The portfolio approach helps us to see the whole and not simply the parts of the system. It is a holistic way of looking at the world, where the parts to a system, such as development challenges, can only be properly understood and managed when taken in relation to the whole system.
  • The portfolio approach is nothing more than multiple connected interventions that are designed in such a way to simultaneously address different leverage points in a complex system. The beauty of the approach is that portfolios produce learnings that are emergent, and by continuous monitoring of the interventions we can valorize which have higher impact value than others.
  • The ones that have the highest impact value are so-called “sensitive intervention points” that with less effort produce a high impact in a system. Those sensitive interaction points are white spaces in a complex system that nobody is working on but if addressed correctly can create change in the system.

Innovation challenges: development instrument with a catch

Another method that we explored in more depth was the "innovation challenge" modality that UNDP has been utilizing since 2015. The modality is a relatively new mechanism that UNDP has been using to help accelerate progress towards the sustainable development agenda by identifying, financing, advising, and developing truly innovative, entrepreneurial, and creative approaches to solving global issues. On the panel, we had Mary Matthews who leads the Ocean Innovation Challenge where each winning solution is awarded up to $250,000, and Eva Lacinova, the mastermind behind multiple innovation challenges in the Europe and Central Asia region, such as the Slovak and Polish innovation challenge. Our final speaker was Jelena Manic who spearheaded the first Serbian innovation challenge. 

This is what we learned:

  • Implementing innovation challenges takes time, it can take a full year for proper design and implementation.
  • The innovators are often concerned with intellectual property rights, which according to UNDP policy stay with UNDP, hence proper communication and targeting should be planned.
  • Innovation challenges are an excellent modality for governments that want to enter the international development arena or help connect private companies with international partners in developing groundbreaking solutions.

Loosely coupled systems: leadership approach for Accelerator Labs

We spoke with Irina Fursman, co-founder and CEO of Huelife consultancy, about "loosely coupled systems" – a conceptual approach to organizational development applicable to large and flat structures like the Accelerator Lab network. At the session, we elaborated on the different approaches required to sustain the vision and success in organizations that are comprised of elements that operate independently at the component level but still work on the same mandate. From this conversation we learned that:

  • Loosely coupled organization structure can detect changes easier in their environment better than a large, tightly run organization.
  • Such organizations are balancing chaos and order, and the “core group actors” are required to ensure sustainability, foster engagement, and give structure when necessary.
  • Although there is a “core group” is it rarely the same people for long, they rotate to ensure a high level of “energy”.
  • Another level of governance in loosely coupled systems is the coalition of the willing, a group of people and organizations who act together to ensure shared values, interests, and power are maintained.
  • To strive in such an environment we need to focus on new skills and attitudes.

Strategic foresight: capacity to ask “what if?”

Our last call was structured around foresight and futures, and how this discipline can inform program design and better outcomes on the regional and country level. We spoke to Aarathi Krishnan, Strategic Advisor on Foresight at UNDP HQ, and her team that is leading horizon scanning work in the Asia and Pacific region. It was a lively discussion about the challenges of introducing foresight and some hacks that can help the Labs to successfully land it in the country office. These were our main takeaways:

  • At the current stage, foresight is best linked to better risk preparedness where it can find its practical use and contribute to corporate analytical products.
  • Running a horizon scan does not necessarily require specialized software. It can be implemented using freely accessible tools like Google Slides and Google Forms.
  • In promoting foresight methods, we need to be mindful of different contexts that people, especially vulnerable ones, can find themselves in. When people's basic needs are not met, their capacity to think critically is greatly diminished.
  • UNDP's “futures work” should promote the democratization of the skillset and tools, making them available to all and not the privilege of the few.
  • Foresight can create the “space to dream” and imagine a different type of ambition for an organization.

Parting thoughts

Taking over the organization of the bi-weekly calls was a great journey for both of us. It helped us to keep up our tempo of exploration and to injecting fresh ideas and perspectives into our work on the ground. We believe that this platform should continue to operate on a rotational basis, as we did in 2021, because it goes beyond merely helping us expand our professional knowledge and skills; it helps us develop something that is of intrinsic value to any network of people: human-to-human connection and trust.