Syrian Spectacles: Can we map it? Yes we can

“The yearning for excursion delves into the horizons” – Al-Idrisi

March 31, 2021


“The yearning for excursion delves into the horizons” – Al-Idrisi



Figure 1: Mind-beat Tracker


100 Days… 99 to be exact… between submitting our frontier challenge and our learning report. However, my countdown app reminded me of this fact differently. In reality it was 99 opportunities to learn from 100’s of remarkable UNDP Syria colleagues working on projects in 1,000’s of communities across Syria that provide development for 10,000’s of direct beneficiaries and indirectly supports & impacts, 100,000’s of families. Yet, as our Resident Representative Ramla al Khalidi echoed: “Syria deserves better & more [From us]”

From the get-go the Accelerator Lab concept & team was welcomed by the country office. The UNDP Syria staff faced the good, bad and ugly during the past 10 years of the Syrian crisis. The big question, however, was how to coordinate and integrate with such a diverse team working on such diverse projects. To help give a sense of the scale and depth of this diversity; think of a learning or development question… someone at UNDP Syria surely has the answer. Need some proof? Here are just some of the initiatives [ ■ Internal ● External ♦ Current]:


Virtual Career & Job FairGrassroot NGO E-Learning Platform ■ Beneficiary Engagement

Social Enterprise Idea Challenge for Women Economic Empowerment ♦ FinTech Ideathon

♦ Alternative Solar Powered Livelihood ♦ Live Culture Maps ● Psychological Support Hotline

Social Cohesion Theatre ♦ Rural Development Platform ● Simple Agri-Tech Tools

Entrepreneurship for People with Disability ♦ Context Sensitivity Knowledgebase

… About 30 more from the 10s of meetings we conducted


The beauty of the initiatives above is that they range from the specific to holistic… traditional to innovative… behaviour to technology based…  focused to cross-cutting… past to present.  Moreover, many of these were though up and implemented during the past 10 years and linked with local NGO’s, innovators, and grassroots entities. This allowed the office to become our sustainable development window in Syrian society. Hear about the six degrees of separation? Well in Syria,
it felt like two degree of separation. Where it was possible, in most cases, to reach anyone from the most well-known advisor shaping the financial sector to an old genius creating agri-tech inventions in an isolated village somewhere in rural Aleppo.  It was simply a day, colleague, and a cup of Arabic coffee away [excuse the rhyme].



Why was the Accelerator Lab needed?

“The yearning for excursion generates the horizons” – [Adapted from Al-Idrisi]

“Fantastic! Okay so why are we here again?” I could remember the exact moment that this thought came up. Sitting quietly in my 5th meeting of my 3rd day of our 1st excursion… overwhelmed by the stories of resilience I was absorbing and analysing… Just as they were bringing in the coffee… Eureka! [Which may have been caused by the smell of cardamon, mastic and coffee noting I am one of few Arabs who does not particularly enjoy the taste]. We as the Accelerator Lab have a vital role in documenting, verifying, expanding and re-trying development initiatives to, as hinted by our RR, make them better and spread them more.


Internally, this meant testing oddball ideas that no-one had the capacity, time or resources to experiment. Conduct training on the latest design and system thinking methodologies. Contribute to proposals by expanding their horizons. Externally, this meant finding pathways to value for innovators with big solutions but circumstantial disadvantages which prevent them from connecting to the right opportunity. Generating a new horizon for the existing network by establishing a 3nd degree of separation. Working tirelessly to support, train, build and test the sustainable development initiatives that could be scaled into the next project for the UNDP, UN, NGO, private or governmental partners.


Generally speaking, act as a helpdesk for sustainability, accelerated learning & innovation... Just dial 360 [One of our actual office extensions] to spin your head around but keep you on the same track. Most importantly, our activities run parallel to existing mechanisms, integrate to various stages and operate at 1, 10, 30, 33, 50 & 100 day cycles depending on the problem.


Figure 2: Accelerator Lab Learning Geometries



Where did the Accelerator Lab find a challenge?

“Traveling… it leaves you speechless then turns you into a storyteller” – Ibn Battuta

Perhaps the biggest mind shift that was needed to find a worthy challenge was learning to take a literal hike [The lack of elevators at the office made a 5 staircases barrier to new stories]. Our frontier challenge was somewhat contentious from the start, I admit. Re-visiting 10 years’ worth of ideas & initiatives in 100 days isn’t exactly a walk in the park… but it might just be a hike in the forest. When one takes a hike in the forest; are they really focused on needlessly labelling, tracking, and documenting each individual tree and its growth to make the walk meaningful? Or is it more of recurring excursion into an everchanging environment.


To really learn, we didn’t need to observe individual trees but rather map the ecology. In this mapping, an awe-inspiring jasmine flower or cedar tree will reveal itself but only when the local forester and botanists are consulted for the right location and time of year to see these spectacles. Moreover, the Accelerator Lab needed to understand that in an ecology everything is linked, and genuine sustainable development needs a deep dive [or holistic hike].


Figure 3: Virtual Excursions into Everchanging Forests



What could the Accelerator Lab do about it?

“Your relationship with your surrounding is dependent on your understanding”” – Ismail Fahed

Meeting after meeting… another question started to pose itself, even if we understood our purpose [Why?] finding our rhythm needed engagement [What?]. So, what did we do to find it? The first of our engagements came at an internal event focusing on implementing the integrated area-based approach. The Accelerator Lab used this golden opportunity, using an innovative technique to reward innovation by investing chocolate coins, slabs and boxes in proposals. The second opportunity came at the external bootcamp event with the youth leadership program where we created a piece of art made of the colourful fingerprints of Syrian youth and  involved them in 12 different science kit experiments but with a focus on implementing findings on broader scale. The third opportunity was both internal and external came in the form of a social idea challenge for women economic empowerment where we assisted 50 local grassroots initiatives to get exposure and ideation from experts using UNDP’s Sparkblue platform. Moreover, in collaboration with our EDL department we generated digital certificates to recognize the efforts of our internal staff and volunteers who acted as both physical and digital mentors given the language and technology barrier faced by the owners of these initiatives. Unclear to us at first, but this is how the Accelerator Lab made things better.


Figure 4: Accelerator Lab Events Participation



How did Accelerator Lab use the adjacent possible to pave the way?

What was lost in documents… was found on a map” – Head of Experimentation | Syria


Yet, one aspect of our monthlong virtual bootcamp kept coming up… the adjacent possible. What that meant in this context was vague at best but somehow somewhere, I knew it would become our silver lining. As we hiked higher, more neurons would fire. A realization would start to emerge that perhaps the simplest improvement that builds on the existing skill, interest, need, and resources is the answer to our challenge. As I was visiting a colleague on floor number 3, being offered coffee but requesting tea… joking about the leg workout I get every day, I turned to the right and the adjacent picture lit the way… a link to specific excel function made my day.


Our adjacent possible was a map… Not the map itself but what maps represented for Syria. In its geographic or infographic format it was the best way to make sense of it all. To show the links, possibilities, and integration in a single picture… that’s all. This simple seed grew to a fruit bearing tree; some ripe and some still green. Yet, the diversity of the examples below says it all… maps were the answer, guess our search didn’t go to waste after all. Rather, it allowed us to do more.


Figure 5: Accelerator Lab Mapping Activities


[1] A gamified on-demand volunteer map-app [2] An interactive sense-based culture map-app [3] A map to assess the impact of solar lighting on the economic activity of a street  [4] A map to identity proximity of Persons with Disabilities to Projects [5] Beneficiary Mapping