[Podcast] Solutions Cast | Episode 4: Role of Innovation Labs in reimagining development

Solutions Cast is a podcast series hosted by Innovation-AccLab Pakistan—where we explore disruptions in the system, form connections, and highlight local innovation & solutions.

In our current set of conversations, we are aiming to decode what our methodologies and service offerings mean at an introductory level. View our previous episode on an introduction to innovation in development here.

In this episode, Ehsan Gul (Head of Experimentation) and Javeria Masood (Head of Solutions Mapping) discuss the role of Accelerator Labs in bringing agility and systems thinking, and highlight key elements a Lab needs to fulfill its potential. 

Javeria Masood: Good evening everyone. I am your host, Javeria Masood, Head of Solutions Mapping, and I am joined by Ehsan Gul, Head of Experimentation at UNDP Pakistan’s Innovation-AccLab. We are back with another conversation in this Solution Cast series. What we were aiming to do, is to breakdown what the methodologies are, the way we work and why and how we do, what we do!.

In the previous episode, we talked generally about what innovation is, value of it, and we also discussed its myths. In today’s episode, Today ,we will talk about the Accelerator Labs.

Ehsan Gul: Which we are one as well.

Javeria Masood: Absolutely.

Javeria Masood: How do we define these Labs? And how do we put the boundary around this? I mean the concept of Accelerator Labs?

Ehsan Gul: The Lab is a place technically—where you test the things, where you come together, you collaborate and there is a process of methodologies. You think that how do we execute something, or even before that you think how do we explore, how do we get to the problem and how do we define that problem.

A lot of concepts of systems thinking, design thinking (which we will define in the next episode) are implemented in these spaces. I see Innovation Labs as these platforms where people with certain skillset come together and collaborate to explore a problem, to define a problem, to test a problem, but then capture those learnings in a way that can be brought back into either a programming where the Lab is housed, or let’s say it’s an action lab for any particular development challenges. For instance, you hear that there is a poverty action lab, there is an action lab for climate change, or circular economy. People have created these spaces, in fact spaces which are open to innovation, which function in a very open looped manner, where you can bring the startup community in, you can interact with ecosystem without being judged or an appetite of failure. That’s how I personally define it, anything you wish to add on the Innovation Lab front?

Javeria Masood: Yes, I will also elaborate on this point of safe space and having this open-minded thinking. Because a lot of the times in organizations, we have goals and we have deliverables that we have to cater by end of the year. And these are very strong performance indicators (KPIs) that everyone is working towards, and there isn’t enough space to fail or acceptability to fail. So, this opportunity to test—and test that can go in any direction, even if you fail, there are learnings outcomes that can be part of the program.

Javeria Masood: So, where are these housed? What kind of organizations set these Labs up?

Ehsan Gul: Possible organizations which are struggling with fiction of change, and they have identified certain pain points and they want to move beyond them by increasing more collaborative processes or bringing innovation process in their work or mainstreaming innovation. Often innovation sits at the periphery as we discussed in our last episode, so any organization which is going through this pain point of trying to change the way they have been working, reimagining, rethinking their model or moving away from the traditional practices, these kind of organizations which are looking forward to, or have already established innovation labs. One such example is UNDP itself. Right? Maybe you can elaborate on this fact that why Accelerator Lab or Innovation Lab was needed in UNDP.

Javeria Masood: Remember we were talking earlier that UNDP and other development organizations have been opened to hiring consultant, they get an individual on board and through that they try to address this pain point that you have talked about; whether it is friction, or space of saturation or whatever. But often what happens is that, consultant may bring a lot of experience, but they are not central in the Programmes. But when a Lab is established, it has a micro organizational element to it. It has this opportunity, or a leeway to imbed itself in the Programmes to be taken seriously. I also wanted to talk about what you have talked, about certain people, certain capacities within it. Tell me about the organizations, that don’t realize this pain point? What about those organizations, who are working, delivering and are not accustomed to the idea that either they are missing on something, or innovation is required? A part of UNDP I must say falls into that category?

Ehsan Gul: That’s possibly sprouting from having no agility, or let’s say that vision of future vision scoping we often talk about. Either they will die off, or either the system will throw them out, or somehow the other will become irrelevant. And irrelevance in today’s time means death. Even a startup, any organization, if not today, but five years from today or ten years from today they will become redundant or they will become irrelevant. Because at the pace these development challenges are changing, the rapid speed it is changing at, already we are working at a relevance gap, and that is going to be bigger if we do not come up with these spaces— which are quicker in testing, in finding the future, or as you have written in your blog on weak signal analysis, that how can we analyze what is sprouting around us in a way that we can bring it back into our Programming.

I like the point you have picked up, that there are certain skillsets needed for an Innovation Lab. I often say that Innovation Labs are human labs. It’s not a space where tools and resources are put into a library, or you have a dashboard to access to innovation tools. Innovation labs are collaborative, they are vulnerable, there are nervous people, there are stressful people, they are reacting to things, they are enthusiastic, and they are crazy. But that’s the beauty of these labs, where the creative are given that space to sprout in a particular organization and it trickles down from there as well. Like this is the Innovation Lab we are sitting in Pakistan, and I feel that if there is more radiance of creative energy and innovative thinking coming out of this room, it will move beyond this boundary into the organization as well. But if you are hesitant and resistant let’s say bringing on these kinds of mutants in your team and not giving them the space, energy (and also very important) resources, and giving them the teeth to function, then they will struggle in mainstreaming innovation. Hence organizations which are traditional and are not looking forward to enhancing their innovation scales, I am not saying establishing a Lab per say, but at least (give) freedom to your colleagues, and team mates to think beyond the obvious and give them the push.

Javeria Masood: You mentioned that they have to be big on testing, big on collaboration. What are some of the other ingredients, let’s say what are five things a Lab must have?

Ehsan Gul: I must say this is a difficult one. The Lab first needs to have that creative freedom. If you function in a hierarchy and if you afraid to report something to your high-ups and if you have to be, let’s say cautious that oh they might judge me, or I might fail miserably, it’s okay. That freedom or that agility are the first ingredients required for a Lab. Until or unless you don’t provide this space of creative thinking to your colleague, they will always function under the rock, they’ll be afraid and they will turn into those people, who are doing this just as their job, you know?  So how do we help break that kind of thinking? Firstly by telling them that we function in a non-hierarchical manner. Please embrace this place and creative thinking, even stupid ideas and best ideas, both are welcomed here. Nobody is judging you, until we get into the programming realm. That’s one. Other one would be having these three core functions. I’m not saying that our Lab is established in the best of formats, but I do believe that these three core roles in the Lab are important where someone is helping exploring, someone helping looking into the data sources, someone helping looking into the future through their role of being an exploratory lead in the office as well as in the Lab. But then a very important component of the lab is someone who is looking at the systems. Someone who decodes the system. In UNDP Acceleration Lab we call it Solution Mapping, which is you, the Head of Solution Mapping. Your work is to helps us to decode the system, break it apart and bring it together. Right? So, trying to understand in modular manner, which is digestible for the country office, as well as for our external partners. Then for myself, whose role is to experiment, and help put these things into the ‘doing’ bit. Help test them quickly and then bring the learnings back. But here again we are going to repeat ourselves, which we said in our previous episode as well that while you are doing this, be careful of what is fast value and what is long value.

Often, like I can create let’s say a wonderful Artificial Intelligence based experiment, and it get appreciation from all the world around, and from digital space, but it is not translating into systemic action, then it is a fatal experimentation. This is the second ingredient of our three ingredients. The third ingredient for me, sprouting from my previous comment is to have that systemic lens. If the Innovation Lab does not have that longevity thought through, or that systems thinking imbedded within it, and is not helping creating those systems shocks, then it is just a cool place, just having a washing effect. Let’s say people will only say that they are flashy or they are cool.

Javeria Masood: So we are discussing the ingredients a Lab needs to have…

Ehsan Gul: yes, we have three so far…

Javeria Masood:  Also, earlier you also said resources.

Ehsan Gul: Yes, so a very core and important ingredient is; resources. For instance, you have the right people, right culture, but if you do not have the right resources aligned with it, not saying put a million-dollar fund and then make a Lab. It may depend on the size of your organization. Even startups who are listening to us, or organizations like us, identify your pain points, identify your scope of work you function in and then try to keep certain resources for the Lab people. At least, when they say that they want to test something, they should have a pool of resources. Example, the money, infrastructure support, logistics support, human resource, or the legs you required to go into the field.

The last ingredient for me is not to think of the Lab as just one space. It has to have, let’s say its feet outside. For instance, in our case your role is very much external facing. Where you work with the community, you work with grassroots, listen to them and bring their insights inside the room. If the Lab is just a space within your organization which doesn’t have the connection from the outside, then Lab doesn’t work.

Javeria Masood: For any kind of innovation, or work with any kind of disconnection with the larger community, you absolutely need to go out in the field. You need to understand what you are trying to solve, the impact it may or may not have, who are the stakeholders or who you are missing out on. I think most of the work is outside of the office. Less we are dependent within the office structure. One thing I often think about is, the future of these Labs. The reason why I am asking this is also, because if a Lab is established in an organization successfully, and as part of its mandate is required to streamline innovation in all of the organization, right? How that happens is also capacity building. The people who are working, who are you peers, but not within the innovation realm, they are also up to speed on what to do, how to do, how to do ethnographic research or how to test. When all of that work is done, then what is the future of that Lab? Is that Lab still necessary when the entire culture (of innovation) has been trickle down in the organization?

Ehsan Gul: So then new problems would come forward. Because problems never end. That is where the role of explorer comes in. Who helps to see beyond what the lab, let’s say you and I are deeper in the problem. Let’s say Circular Economy for now, or plastic waste management. We are ripping it apart, working on it, or working on different parts. But then similarly today in one of our calls with the Regional colleagues, we were challenged on to that fact that circular economy is bigger than plastic waste, and how do you move on to other portfolios such as green jobs or looking into enhancing business circularity in the country. Right? So, it never stops. There are odd growth patterns to these problems, and you grow the solutions tree around it. But then if you think that we have achieved innovation, or we have created an Innovation Lab after a year, doing smaller learning cycle through all of these systems work, testing work, then probably you are not defining the Lab well. Because the Lab is just like communications or operations team in your office. They are always needed. They are the people, if they stop working, then somehow your work would stop. For instance, if we are not working out loud, then advocacy messages won’t go out. Similarly, for innovation, we might not see the very tangible outcome immediately, but to further that culture into your organization, to further those resources you identified, push for more resources and to keep that culture alive, Lab needs to live.

Javeria Masood:  It also happens that complacency kicks in. You may learn new skills, your peers learn to be extremely agile. But as you said, that not just new problems come, but new technology comes in, new kind of restrains also come in as well. But you as a Lab also, when we talk about pivoting and redefining, the Lab also constantly needs to do that. In the individual capacity of resources, but also as the culture of the Lab. And I feel that openness to change and having that metamorphosis all the time, at multiple stages, is something that adds key value to organization.

Ehsan Gul: Like for you, let’s say this is Innovation Lab 1.0 right now. Where we are fixing the culture of our organization by bringing these innovation tools. So what is Innovation Lab 2.0 for you then?

Javeria Masood: I think something, which is external facing also, right?  I feel that we came in, and we were in the periphery of our organization. Slowly we are seeping in and using this very strong thing about having a lens for the unobvious to get our way into it. But I feel that we also need to be external facing. There is a lot of work that happens in our office and there is a lot of work we do, but that is still in a silo from the larger community. We can perhaps also offer our services and the learnings we have gathered, to startups, or government, or educational institutes or innovators of the future. Ideally, we should position ourselves at the cusp of outside and the country office. For me, the next stage would be that how we kind of maneuver to that side and operate from there.

Ehsan Gul: So we test often, and we plan to scale these startups or social ideas or whatever the solutions we suggest. How do we push for that political agenda to rethink for the whole system? Like it is easier to say it rather than doing it. But are you frustrated about this that the Labs are made in this way that you need to quickly test or send those learnings into system change?  But I feel like there is some friction there. So how do you move pass it? Or maybe it is just me who is facing this?

Javeria Masood: I totally share what you have said. Because I know that when you are, like we are right now, confident in a way that we demonstrated how some kind of practice works in innovation and how that can be strongly interlinked with the country office. Just like the case of plastics portfolio with the Climate Change and Environment Unit (ECCU), at UNDP Pakistan. A year earlier we were hypothetically thinking that if we do this, so this may have happened or this may not have happened.  But within that space there was frustration. Because we have to report an experiment or an entire cycle of exploring, finding signals, breaking the system, bringing it together, testing or bringing that learning. Delivering that cycle in couple of months, I believe is maybe an unrealistic thing. But even within that, we were able to find or redefined what an experiment or cycle looks like. We chopped it into very thin slice, so that we can kind of take hints of what things would look like in the larger scheme of things.

I do share some of that frustration, but I feel like the process is something that we see value, but not everyone else. Most people, because they are driven by delivery and at the end of the year kind of conclusivity, so they just want to see the end product of it. The real value of subjective knowledge kind of doesn’t always see the light of the day. And that is another thing where you talked about the political agenda setting, that is where we can use that intelligence, translate it where it possible into policy propositions, use that as the way to test those policies work or not and then turn it into an actual advocacy campaign for policy. That can totally work in housing crisis, in health care, environment, means there is so much that can be altered or updated just by pushing these advocacy campaigns.

Ehsan Gul: I think the listeners will get to hear one of our examples of the plastics portfolio in the coming episodes, where we’ll be expanding on to how we did it. We are at a stage where we have experimentation happening, and the political agenda setting, but then that transition from doing to a movement and helping community come together is something we are at right now, but then hopefully get to hear of our further progress. Because we are keeping it very agile and living, as this podcast is a living podcast. You will see that as we go and struggle with some challenges, we will pass on to our listeners as well. And if you have better solution to these things, so reach out to us and let us know, we can think through it.

Ehsan Gul: Other than that, just on a closing note, how is your experience working in an Innovation Lab? I know that you are an innovation expert from your previous life, but now working in a lab setting with other colleague; do you think we are staying true to the vision? Which we are created for?

Javeria Masood: Because I was not part of the vision when it was created, so I can’t answer this with simple yes or no. But right now, as you asked the question, I kind of recalled that my previous job was also about setting a new, like we actually called it a Lab also. But it was also about creating a new team and bringing in an organization which is operational since very long, and now you want to change the way that organization is working. So you bring in a team of people, with diverse skillsets and exactly all the ingredients you said, safe space to voice your ideas, to be silly, to experiment, to test, to fail and have the little bit of resources at the back to support that. But that was corporate sector and this is development. This is very different. Because it has certain layers of bureaucracy and it has certain diplomacy where you have to operate in. I mean, I was happiest to find out that after years of pushing for it, I will be working in a space where I could kind of marry design and policy. You know six years ago, when I got done with graduate school, that’s what I wanted to do. I have been very excited about this. Of course, every day challenges are different and you know more than me, because you are the person who is driving our procurement, admin and all of those boring, but extremely crucial things. So now I kind of throw this question back at you. When you have to steer the front of all of those layers of operation, they seem very external to innovation, how do you then find a creative space for yourself when you have to push back on so many fronts?

Ehsan Gul: It’s a tricky space. You need to…

Javeria Masood: Again, I want to emphasize that these operations and all are very important elements of the Lab.

Ehsan Gul: Yes, it is also an ingredient. Maybe adding a bit in your question, if any graduates are listening to us, or people who wish to setup a Lab, few of the skillset within Lab should be diversified. Do not bring all design people. It adds value to each other’s work. Because a Lab has multitude of functions. From entrepreneurial energy to operational energy to someone who is fun to work around. So, try to find this mixture of skillset.

We’d also look into, especially for the fresh graduates, of how and what kind of skills they can build upon, if they want to work with an Innovation Lab in the future. Problem solving, to prototyping, or working in a startup. There are a lot of those skillset that can be found in this document.  Coming back to the question, on operation—so it is tough. I would not act like a superhero.! It actually does diminish your creative energy. But that is where the team comes in together and helps putting you back on track. Also, you find spaces within your week, when you just shut down yourself a little, you try to find those unobvious around you, read about things or explore. Social media plays good role, where you see the new trends and things like that. But there is no easy solution to this. Project management for anyone who is working on multitude of things, is difficult. But I would say, don’t be too rigid on to learning these things as well. Let’s say if a team doesn’t have an operational support, go ahead and learn some parts of it, so that your work doesn’t stop. Because for me my gaging indicator is, how much we are getting done on-ground. If I cannot move pass my own operational hindrances and procurement hindrances, the ideas coming from the solution mapper will never see the light of the day. So unfortunately, or fortunately it will come on to you. So happy to do it; but honestly a lot of support comes from the team. So it’s okay, it’s natural, but be a little agile and remember this is an Innovation Lab, and a space where you test.

Javeria Masood: We can wrap this conversation here. But we will meet you very soon to discuss more components within it. And as we would move forward with this series, we’ll get more and more focused on the technicalities as well. Right now, we are trying to build the momentum, just having good time talking about it.

Javeria Masood: Thank you and goodbye.

Ehsan Gul: Bye from my side as well!