Introducing UNDP Innovation-AccLab Pakistan: Reimagining Development

January 22, 2020



UNDP has placed innovation at its core of doing business. Traditional, linear projects are no longer fit for the next generation UNDP. Nor will it help achieve the extremely ambitious and complex Sustainable Development Goals. The newly setup UNDP Innovation-AccLab Pakistan team began its operation in September 2019. In the first quarter, we took the time to reflect and define how we as an innovation team can add value for our projects and partners to develop relevant programming. We want to become part of UNDP Pakistan’s DNA. Here is our story so far.

‘For innovation to work in and for government, it needs to somehow become part of the DNA of the organization. Reinforcing our own hooks meant focusing on the needs of our untapped energy client base and transitioning from being a strategic service to a strategic resource.’[1]

Keren Perla, Director of the Alberta CoLab

UNDP in Pakistan began its innovation journey in 2017 with a commitment to mainstream innovation in projects and programmes. Now in 2020, we are scaling our innovation support with the newly established Innovation-AccLab Pakistan. This was made possible through the funding from Qatar Foundation and the German Corporation, under the UNDP Accelerator Lab network across 70 countries. We had a budget and were able to expand the team with a Head of Solutions Mapping, Head of Experimentation and myself, Head of the Lab (leading exploration).

Innovation-AccLab Pakistan conducted an internal scoping mission where we asked our projects for their challenges—and, they gave us plenty. For example, new work was emerging as a result of Government’s demand for a greener Pakistan in plastic waste. This was our hook. We could place ourselves where there were questions, ambiguity and even frustration.

We told our colleagues that we can do both the research and testing simultaneously and quickly using tricks from the innovation toolkit and new partnerships. Demonstrating clear ‘usefulness’ to our projects worked. As a result, AccLab Pakistan is now working with the Environment team and Unilever to understand the system of waste management with a focus on plastics using systemic design and strategic foresight. We do believe that it is important to understand the larger system under which plastic waste is an issue. Therefore, the Lab uses portfolio logic which means that we extract solutions and hypothesis in the systemic design session to create multiple small experiments that help us learn what solutions work. The process allows us to work with the complexity in the system instead of reducing it – this is our mantra.

Over the next few months, we will be expanding the portfolio to work with projects and partners looking at plastic waste to learn from. For example, we are holding a ‘Solution Fest’, essentially a design challenge to get designers, innovators, startups and stakeholders to develop quick prototypes using Unilever plastic waste. This exercise will help us identify and understand local solutions to the issue and create relevant linkages.

The AccLab Pakistan team learned that our value lies in becoming a strategic innovation resource for the country office helping programmes make better decisions. Giulio Quaggiotto et al in making the case for institutional innovation at UNDP argues that the Labs can become resourceful if they take a different look at what is already in place in the project portfolio. It is like ‘taking a look from the balcony to what is happening on the dance floor, and in the process allowing for a new process of seeing to emerge[2]’. We are already seeing how our projects are addressing different components of a larger system in women’s empowerment and access to service delivery. From our balcony, we can see these patterns, connection and potential new paths. Over the next year we will be using portfolio Sensemaking with the support of the Regional Innovation team to reveal these patterns.


Figure 1: Accelerator Lab Protocol


Giulio Quaggiotto, Regional Innovation Center Head, recently visited Pakistan to develop our vision. He met with representatives from both the government and the private sector, innovators and development partners for consultations on the Lab’s strategy. We not only found a huge appetite for innovation but were repeatedly told to continue holding these dialogues regularly to create a space to share learning and create collaborations. AccLab Pakistan will now be building a community-of-practice around innovation for development.

AccLab Pakistan will also extend its technical support to other UN agencies and external partners. For example, we are in discussion with the Government’s largest social protection programme Ehsaas under the Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety Division at the Prime Minister’s Office to provide innovation support in their programming. We are partnering with the policy team that designed the Ehsaas strategy and with the Resident Coordinators Office that are coordinating support to Ehsaas with other UN agencies.

AccLab Pakistan is creating a learning space to test effective and meaningful development approaches. Understanding the people we serve and the larger complex system is critical for us. Reporting on numbers of beneficiaries reached is not going to provide the insights on human experience needed to inform programming. Fifty women accessing legal desks is not going to reveal how to design support for them. What it does reveal is how much money can be allocated in the next year to this programme. Our team would be more curious to ask who these women are? How was their experience in accessing the service? We would also be interested in mapping the larger system itself, as traditional projects by design reduce complexity into a single issue with a single solution, thus creating high risk of unanticipated and unintended consequences. We can mitigate this risk by experimenting multiple solutions. Afterall, it is this experimental approach to alleviate global poverty that won Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer the 2019 Nobel Prize.

Having a Lab structure is new for UNDP Pakistan and we expect some failings from which we can learn and pivot from. We have no doubt that this is the right place to start from. Throughout this year, our team will be blogging about our journey and learnings. Watch this space for more learnings and contact us if you would like to get involved!






Beenisch Tahir is the Head of UNDP Innovation-AccLab Pakistan and also leads the exploration function. You can follow her @Beenisch