Tools of the trade

Innovating for development goes beyond gadgets and gizmos

April 30, 2018

A rudimentary medical clinic serving an overcrowded shantytown… A sprawling settlement for displaced families… A dusty urban centre pockmarked by years of conflict…

These probably aren’t the places where you would expect to find or the most cutting-edge technology or the most inspiring future thinking. But it is precisely there, and other places like it, that such innovation can have the greatest impact.

The world of global development is in transformation. This changing landscape calls for a major rethink of how development is done. As outlined in our new Strategic Plan, UNDP is focused on delivering creative responses to the new and emerging needs of our Member States, sister UN agencies and other partners.

Here are some ways we’re putting innovation to work for human development.

A woman and her boy walking past wind turbines in a Chinese village

© UNDP China / Stephen Shaver / Bloomberg News

In countries around the world, renewable energy technology is helping communities that were never connected to electricity grids leapfrog into a cleaner, more secure energy future. Whether it is biogas in Botswana or wind power in Uruguay, these proven technologies are helping to secure sustainable energy for all.

A man on solar-powered dialysis in Libya

© UNSMIL/Abel Kavanagh

In Libya, in areas where conflict has destroyed basic infrastructure, the sun still shines. Solar energy is a natural solution to the frequent power outages. Fifteen hospitals have been hooked up to panels that power everything from light in maternity wards to equipment in operating theatres. At the Benghazi Kidney Centre, the technology is saving lives by providing uninterrupted power to dialysis machines and other critical equipment.

A woman holds a mobile phone displaying an application to keep track of vaccines stocks in India.

© UNDP India/Prashanth Vishwanathan

The same technology that allows us to keep in touch with our friends is also touching lives in the development sphere. Mobile phone technology is being put to use in everything from agriculture to health and crisis response.

In India, health workers are using a mobile application called eVIN to keep track of vaccine stocks across the country. The smart, easy-to-use app is key to achieving the country’s ambitious goal to immunize 156 million women and children every year.

A man stands in the middle of a destroyed house in Dominica, after hurricane Maria.

© Zaimis Olmos/UNDP Dominica

Mobile technology is also being deployed in response to natural disasters and other emergencies. In Dominica, we teamed up with the government, Microsoft and Engineers Without Borders on a specially-designed app and tablet for disaster assessment.

About 100 Dominican women and men used the equipment, inspecting up to 800 buildings per day following the devastation of Hurricane Maria. “It’s going to change the way assessments have been done,” UNDP crisis advisor Ugo Blanco says. “It can be deployed anytime, anywhere.”

A group of men in the Maldives look at a drone

© UNDP Maldives / DJI

Drone technology is also proving to be a transformative tool for development. In the Maldives, we work with the government and Chinese drone company DJI on disaster planning and response. By flying drones across the islands, we created three-dimensional risk maps to show authorities which areas are most at risk and which would be safest in case tsunami strikes. Where mapping 11 islands with traditional means would take almost a year, a drone mapped an entire island in just one day.

Man throwing a drone in the air in Uganda

© UNDP Uganda/ Steven Goldfinch

Drones are also helping to improve community planning in refugee communities in Uganda. Using high-resolution aerial photos taken by drones, the country is creating base maps of refugee settlements that show how land is being used and pinpoint the location of various hazards. The maps provide important evidence for risk-informed planning and allow community members to get involved in the planning process.

A yurt in Mongolia, a little girl in the doorway and a solar panel in front

© UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

UNDP is exploring the potential of block chain technology to reduce the cost of remittances. Money sent home by migrants helps sustain families and fuel economies in the developing world, but a significant portion of the funds is lost to fees. Working with private company AID:Tech, UNDP Serbia aims to create block chain-based payment systems to make financial transfers cheaper, faster and more secure.

This is just the beginning for this powerful innovation. Together with digital assets platform Blockchain, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Economic Forum (WEF), UNDP recently published The Future is Decentralised, a white paper exploring other uses of block chain technology for development purposes.

A women in the Solomon Islands tends to her crops in a canoe


These gadgets and gizmos are helping to bring about transformation in people’s lives. But innovation isn’t just cutting-edge technology. It’s also about shaking things up by rethinking how we do things, challenging long-held assumptions and breaking with convention.

Take for example the canoe gardens that are helping people cope with a changing climate in the Solomon Islands. Mother and climate innovator Janet realized that discarded canoes could make the perfect raised beds, a simple innovation to protect her fruit trees from extreme heat, flooding and salty groundwater. With help from UNDP, Janet is spreading the word about her techniques and inspiring similar ingenuity from her neighbours.

A shelf of seeds-filled jars

© SDG Fund / Freya Morales / UNDP

Sometimes looking at a problem with fresh eyes can prompt a return to old ways of doing things. That’s what happened in Colombia, where farmers have rediscovered native varieties of cashew, tamarind and other produce. These native seeds had fallen into disuse despite being more resistant to high temperatures and erratic rainfall.

A female scientist takes water samples at a well in Bangui, Central African Republic

© Laura Gil Martinez / IAEA

One of UNDP’s most valuable assets is its strong partnerships with other UN agencies, governments and others in the development community. These partnerships help magnify the impact of our work and are always an opportunity to learn.

Our sister agency IAEA is best known for combatting nuclear weapons proliferation. But the agency also works to develop peaceful uses for nuclear technology. One example is the use of isotope hydrology to conserve water in the arid Sahel region of Africa. By studying the different isotopes present in the water, scientists can understand the source, flow and quality of groundwater resources.

Testing tubes standing in a jar

© Laura Gil Martinez / IAEA

The science has potential to help communities around the world better manage limited water resources. That’s the central goal of UNDP’s approach to innovation: identifying tools and techniques that work and expanding them or adapting them for different contexts.

In 2014, we established our Innovation Facility to ramp up innovation for development. The Facility provides technical support and funding to UNDP teams around the world that are testing frontier technologies and new approaches to deliver better results. It’s our mantra that innovation must be central in the work of UNDP, and the larger development system, if we are to successfully address the global challenges of the present and future.