Building Local Heroes: Localizing Innovation Incubation for Sustainable Development

April 8, 2024


“Innovation” has become a buzzword that everyone wants to incorporate into their activities. Like many other countries, Thailand recognizes the important role of innovation in driving growth and shifting the country towards a more knowledge-based economy to avoid falling into the 'middle-income trap' (UNDP and Nesta, 2020)

Myriad projects and programmes by governmental agencies and the private sector have been launched to build and strengthen the innovation ecosystem. However, the question is “Are these opportunities reaching where they are needed the most?”. Similar to livelihood and education opportunities, we can observe a common pattern that opportunities related to innovation development are often concentrated in Bangkok and major cities. They rarely extend to the places where development gaps are the widest and innovative solutions are required to overcome the most challenging issues. How do we build the innovation capabilities of those in the southern border provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala – the areas remembered for their long-term conflict and violence? How do we extend this opportunity to people in Mae Hong Son, a mountainous province in the far north, home to various ethnic minorities including some stateless populations? 

UNDP Accelerator Lab Thailand and Youth Co:Lab teams joined hands to bring our innovation incubation efforts to the furthest corners of the country. Realizing that localization demands a thorough understanding of local contexts and intensive community engagement, we pursue our mission with a strategic partnership with Thailand Knowledge Park (TK Park), a public organization serving as a knowledge hub covering 30 provinces. We started in 2022 with a ‘Training the Trainers’ programme implemented to build the capacities of TK Park provincial teams to become local incubators. In that first year, TK Park in Mae Hong Son and Narathiwat provinces organised their first local youth innovation challenges under the ‘Local Heroes’ series. In 2023, the programme expanded and led to four additional innovation challenges organized by TK Park teams: Clean Air Heroes in Mae Hong Son, Waste Heroes in Narathiwat, Circular Heroes in Pattani, and Zero to Hero in Yala. Each TK Park team designed their local innovation challenges to fit local contexts, the diversity of the model becoming an interesting learning for us all. 

This blog will walk you through the journey of our Local Heroes, explore the diverse models designed to incubate local innovation and reflect on what it means to become local incubators.  


Our backstory, how did we get here?

Recognizing the opportunity gap mentioned above, UNDP has worked with various civil society networks to reach out to diverse marginalized groups such as ethnic and stateless populations, LGBTI, and people with disabilities. In the early years of UNDP’s Youth Co:Lab programme, youth from Bangkok as well as other regions were invited to participate in social innovation and entrepreneurship incubation together. However, engaging youth from diverse backgrounds revealed a learning gap between Bangkok-based youth and those coming from the provinces. The tools and formats in the social innovation and entrepreneurship incubation process were totally new for many marginalized youths, taking them extra time and effort to comprehend. Moreover, some innovative ideas that they came up with might have been new and highly relevant to their local contexts, but they were not seen as cutting-edge for the ecosystem in Bangkok. Thus, marginalized groups are often at a disadvantage in national-level competitions. Furthermore, mentorship and ecosystem support are highly centralized to benefit mainly Bangkok.  When they go back to their hometown and continue their social entrepreneurship journeys, it is very difficult for these ‘saplings’ to survive the storm of early-stage development on their own.  

Learning from these experiences, Youth Co:Lab and Accelerator Lab set on our mission to decentralize the process and build youth-led social innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems at the local level. While Youth Co:Lab believes in empowerment of youth to become agents of change, Accelerator Lab believes in the power of grassroots innovation; the people living the closest to the problems are the ones who have the most knowledge about them and should be empowered to innovate home-grown solutions. However, the key success that both recognize is collaboration with local stakeholders. No sapling can grow without a nurturing ecosystem. We need local incubators who do not only facilitate the incubation process but also connect young innovators and entrepreneurs with local stakeholders, including academic institutions, municipalities, civil society, and the private sector in the provinces. To this end, we partnered with TK Park to build their capacities as local incubators who can nurture the local youth as well as connect them to the local ecosystems.


Diversity of incubation models, the beauty and learning from our localization effort

The heart of localization is the bottom-up approach. We need to let the local incubators be the ones who design the local incubation process, let them ‘own’ the initiative. After UNDP conducted the train-the-trainers workshop and provided examples of various incubation models, TK Park provincial teams took on the role of local incubators in selecting the theme that is a priority in their local contexts and in designing their local processes. UNDP played a mentor role in providing feedback to the model and facilitating social innovation and entrepreneurship workshops based on their requests. Developing an incubation model that best fits each local context is a learning-by-doing process. We give full ownership to local incubators to experiment, fail or succeed, and most importantly, learn from the process. In the meantime, we all get a chance to learn from the diverse designs of local incubation models.


Participant selection: While Youth Co:Lab at the national level targets youth aged 18-30 years old, the job seekers age range, local Incubation programmes need to adjust the target age ranges depending on their local networks. With very few higher education institutions in the province, Mae Hong Son extended the age range to welcome youth from 12 to 35 years and engaged many high school students. Meanwhile, Narathiwat utilized a reversed strategy of pinpointing their target group. With waste management as the theme and recognizing food and agricultural processes as the main source, TK Park Narathiwat partnered with the Faculty of Agriculture in Princess of Naradhiwas University and Community College Narathiwat, asking them to nominate youth to join the programme. Besides the age range, the application’s requirements also had a major effect on the programme design. TK Park Pattani and Yala required applicants to pitch their initial innovative ideas as part of the selection process while TK Park Mae Hong Son and Narathiwat welcomed all youth who were interested in the issues without prior innovative ideas.

Incubation process: We observed 2 main models of the local incubation process and learnt that each model may be suitable for different age groups and backgrounds of participants i.e. whether or not they already have initial ideas in mind. Let’s peek into the hackathon format and multi-step format designed by TK Park teams.

  1. The hackathon model covered most of the incubation content in a 2-day workshop – from problem analysis to ideation and sustainability model. However, an orientation organized 2 weeks before the hackathon equipped participants with the concept of grassroots innovation and gave them time to research existing grassroots innovation and interview stakeholders to gain local insights before the main workshop. This model is arguably suitable for participants of the upper age range (above 18 years old). The time between the hackathon and the idea pitching also made a difference. In Narathiwat's case, the pitch was organized 3 weeks after the hackathon, allowing the participants more time to develop their ideas into prototypes before the pitch. Thus, the Hackathon format provides all knowledge related to incubation in one time, but it is followed by check-point meetings afterwards to ensure that participants can apply the knowledge into action.
  2. The multi-step model broke down the steps of the innovation process into several workshops over a period of 3 months: 1) problem analysis to prototyping, 2) developing business models, and 3) piloting operations and sales. These 3 parts helped the participants gradually make progress toward building their social businesses. This model can be useful for guiding participants without any prior innovation ideas and those from the younger age range like in Mae Hong Son where the programme engaged many junior and high school students. The intensity and extended duration also led to the programme becoming a platform for intergeneration co-implementation, for example, between youth and teachers in the case of Mae Hong Son. Nevertheless, this model is considerably more resource intensive and only possible if the organizers are able to invest their time and resources.


Testing: Regardless of the different models of the incubation process, the common step among all 4 programmes was idea testing. 2 winning teams of each province were required to create a 3-month action plan. During the testing period, the selected youth teams had to bring their ideas into action and learn from actual implementation. As local incubators, TK Park teams learned to mentor and provide other supports such as organizing a marketplace to test product sales, connecting the provincial government office and local entrepreneurs to support youth in further stages, etc. Indeed, the role of local incubators does not end with organizing the training. It is about supporting the local youth to be able to grow their ideas and execute their social venture with support from stakeholders in the local ecosystems.

Becoming local incubators, what is it like? In their own words…

Although many of the TK Park teams admitted that they knew very little about social innovation and social entrepreneurship before joining the programme, they now talk with confidence about social innovation and social entrepreneurship processes and how they can significantly contribute to addressing problems and driving sustainable development in the local areas. “Proud” was the one word used by Rosneeta Doloh, TK Park Narathiwat, to describe her experience.. This word captures her feeling of being an incubator of the Local Heroes series. “In Narathiwat, there is no space or opportunity for local youth to show their potential. It is very rare to have a project inviting them to create social innovation. I am proud to be able to open space for local youth to realize their potential and connect them with the UN.”, Hasanah Abdullah, another member of TK Park Narathiwat elaborated.

In addition, all TK Park teams expressed how much they appreciate learning about social innovation tools. “We can apply and use these tools to work on other issues beyond the Local Heroes series. They help us analyze the problems in a more systematic way. For example, we used Problem Tree to analyze illicit drug problems in the community and it gave us a much more holistic and integrated view of the root causes.”, shared Atit Kruakham, TK Park Pattani. Social innovation tools foster logical thinking and creativity while also helping to ground innovators in real-world problems. Nevertheless, the tools themselves are only one part of the equation. Other skills are also thrown into the mix for an effective incubation. “I observed UNDP team using questioning skills to guide the participating youth. I really like it and set out to sharpen my questioning skills too. I feel very proud when I can ask questions that lead the participants to keep thinking further, and not stay stuck where they are. Asking questions is very powerful in helping them clarify what they wish to achieve, see the logical flow, and identify their flaws.”, said Nurma Alfatah, TK Park Yala. 


Local incubation also requires extensive engagement with a wide range of local partners – from local authorities and governmental agencies to the private sector, local communities, and education institutions. Many TK Park teams have the opportunity to broaden their partnership as they support the youth teams on their social innovation development journey. As they engage with the wider ecosystem, the interconnectedness of issues can emerge and enrich the mission. TK Park Mae Hong Son started off focusing on air pollution issues, but they soon found themselves connecting their work also to ethnic minorities and statelessness issues. “Youth from ethnic minority backgrounds are often discriminated against. At the community college where I teach, half of the students are stateless. Their freedom of movement is very limited. Bringing them here [attending UNDP activity in Bangkok] and supporting them to go further can create real change in their communities. This is the gateway. So, being here today means a lot to them as well as to me.” Aimorn Limwattana from TK Park Mae Hong Son shared this heartfelt message and underscored the importance of continuity. “The change I see in myself is the way I think. From seeing this project as another one that comes and goes, I value the continuity and realize that I have to keep working on this. There are local youth who take this opportunity seriously and this may become a livelihood opportunity for both the youth and their communities in the future.” 

Next: Keep strengthening our muscles and connecting to the wider ecosystem

Empowering someone to become a local incubator is not something that can be done overnight or after a three-day training. It is one thing to understand the overall concept of social innovation and the incubation process. However, it takes a lot more to weave together the various components and bring to life an effective incubation programme. Facilitation of social innovation tools is another set of skills to be mastered by the local incubators. This year, TK Park teams set out on a mission to sharpen their skills and increase their capacities to lead local innovation challenges with minimal support from UNDP. This is our path towards sustainability. In addition, this will allow UNDP to scale up our support to more TK Park teams in other provinces. As for the youth teams, our incubation has prepared them for more advanced stages of incubation. Thus, our role in the next stage is to connect them to incubation and acceleration programmes in the wider innovation ecosystem, for example, the Banpu Champion for Change, Ted Fund, and True Incube, among others. 

With the mission to localize the Sustainable Development Goals in mind, we believe that our early-stage incubation under the Local Heroes series serves as the first stepping stone for local changemakers like TK Park teams and the local youth to build their innovation capabilities irrespective of where they live and look for opportunities to grow. This will also bridge the gaps in Thailand’s innovation ecosystem, addressing inequalities by promoting equitable opportunities for all to become the champions of their local development processes. This is how we turn ‘Leave No One Behind’ from a principle into a reality, using innovation incubation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.