Social Innovation as a Means for Fostering a New Culture of Collaboration: Reflections from Integrating Innovation Process in UNDP Thailand

Author: Pattamon Rungchavalnont, Head of Solutions Mapping, UNDP Accelerator Lab Thailand

Posted July 20, 2022

In addition to our flagship initiative on air pollution, UNDP Accelerator Lab Thailand also has the opportunity to support many other UNDP project. While we set out to assist colleagues integrate innovation into their work, those engagements help us learn how innovation process may or may not work in practice. This learning is particularly intriguing for someone like me who only joined the Lab one year ago with limited experience in the innovation field. Admittedly, I did have moments of doubt if the approaches and jargons we use in the innovation circle are just “old whiskey in a new bottle” as we say in Thai. Are we simply giving new fancy names to already existing frameworks and practices? What benefits do social innovation process bring that good old roundtable discussions do not? I suppose it is one good thing about being an outsider: I could look at things with critical eyes. Now you might be curious to know my take after a year has passed. Thanks to all the work that the Lab has done to support UNDP projects ranging from transformation of local food systems in the Thailand Southern border provinces to human security and preventing violent extremism, I got to see current limitations in our attempts to transform systems in Thailand, and what innovation process can bring to the table.

Although the projects are still ongoing and have yet to continue the solution co-creation process, I see the merit of reflecting on what we have learnt so far and would like to use this blog as a space to share some key learnings on how social innovation process can make its contribution to system transformation.

Collaboration, a matter of structure or culture?

            We are living in a world where partnership is no longer optional. Our problems are increasingly complex, and system transformation will require efforts from all sectors of society. No single organization or sector can do it alone. Unsurprisingly, everyone talks so much about collaboration. In every meeting and workshop I was involved in, the word “collaboration” came up. However, people have different perspectives on how to foster collaboration. Some focus their discussion on the structures which enable collaboration – signing memorandum of understanding, creating a joint committee or task force, changing structural regulations, etc.. Meanwhile, others argue that oftentimes, such structures already exist but it is the way that we work together which needs to change. In short, it is a matter of culture rather than structure. Personally, I do not think the answer has to be mutually exclusive; we need both to champion system transformation. The point is we need to not overlook the importance of culture, informal arrangements and relationships. We can have an official joint task force and all the structural arrangements for collaboration, but if we continue to operate with a culture where each agency focus first and foremost on its own agenda, no true collaboration will flourish. On the contrary, we have witnessed cases where structural conditions are far less than ideal, but people with positive relationships struggle to find ways to make their collaborative efforts work (exhausting but successfully in many cases).

            So, what are some elements of the culture of collaboration we have noticed so far? For one, relationship. Relationship is the very foundation of any successful collaboration. It seems so simple; everyone knows this. Yet, when looking at how we start a collaboration, they often take place in very formal settings with official protocol. Now we may ask ourselves how conducive to building a relationship that is. Or maybe we still underestimate the power of relationships in nurturing collaborations after all. This is where social innovation process comes in. Diverse tools are available to help steer conversations between unlike-minded people, invite them to step out of their regular framework, strip down power relationships, encourage people to listen to one another as equals and with open-mindedness, and reframe the issues to establish common goals.

            For the multisectoral dialogue on human security and preventing violent extremism, the Lab together with UNDP Thailand social innovation advisor co-designed the workshop process which asks participants to take off their usual ‘government officials’ or ‘civil society organizations (CSOs)’ hat. We asked them to share their personal experiences of what makes them feel secure and insecure. Be it government officials or CSOs, at the end of the day, we are all people who are possibly affected by human security and violent extremism. There is a common ground where we all share, and a common goal that we seek to achieve, regardless of the sector we belong to. Another example is having the participants do a role play, being an organization that is not their own and discussing how they would respond to a given situation of violence. These exercises lead the participants out of their familiar boxes, to find a common ground with others, and empathize with them. With the foundation of positive relationships well-establish, the project will proceed to provide grants for co-creation projects to give an opportunity for these multisectoral stakeholders to materialize their ideas.

Failures and limitations as the birthplace of collaboration

           As a perfectionist myself, I have the tendency to be terrified of mistakes and things I cannot accomplish. I am not alone in this; Thai culture is one that values excellence by way of following existing standards and best practices. It is reflected by the Thai education system which emphasizes so much on memorizing existing knowledge rather than promoting analytical and critical thinking. Imagine my surprise when I joined one of the Accelerator Lab Global Network discussions and heard a colleague share that “imperfection invites participation”. It struck me hard and shift my perfectionist perspective. This message was recently echoed again by participants in the workshop on policy journey for the transformation of local food systems in Southern Thailand organized by Thailand Policy Lab, Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC), and UNDP Thailand.

The workshop was designed in a way that participants outlined their journeys, their actions as well as feelings. Then, they took turns learning about their counterpart’s journeys. For instance, government agencies outlined their policy journey for building entrepreneurial capacities of small-scale farmers, then they rotated to hear about CSO’s journey working on the same issue and provide inputs on new opportunities. The CSOs did the same to learn about and add to the government’s journey. What these journeys revealed were pain points and limitations admitted by the journey owners themselves. With honest reflections, participants were able to empathize with one another and offer support to overcome each other’s limitations. One participant from the government sector reflected that it is uncommon but refreshing to not only present their organization’s accomplishments but admit their limitations and explore possible solutions that collaborations with the civil society can offer.

This is, thus, the second element for nurturing the culture of collaboration. On a personal level, admitting one’s vulnerability brings people closer and serves as one of the seeds for building trust. On the organization level, sharing our failures and limitations creates a space for learning and invites collaboration to tackle the limitations that each organization cannot overcome on its own. Social innovation process urges people to reflect and discuss these negatives in a positive light precisely for these reasons. It helps shift people’s mindset to value imperfections for their learning value and collaborative potential. Another underlying mindset is the humility that all of us must have; no one can solve all the problems on our own. This perspective also helps us see the value of embracing diversity. Despite being a beautiful concept, embracing diversity can be difficult for some; understandably, it is easier to talk to like-minded friends than those with opposing views. Yet, humbly recognizing our limitations makes us realize that diversity is not something we can do without.

Final thoughts (for now)

            Any systemic change needs to start with an insightful understanding of the systems and people that make those systems alive. Only then do we stand a chance of driving the change. How do we get those insightful understandings? Essentially, I think it is all about talking and listening to each other. Again, it sounds simple but unfortunately, we exist in complex power structures that make listening not so simple. Organizations’ mandates, power relationships, rules and regulations, among others dictate the ways we talk and listen to each other. This is where social innovation tools and process can make a contribution. Just like changing the language changes the way we think, changing the way we talk can change the outcomes of the talk. People-centric innovation tools shake us off our stagnated nature and urge us to start having conversations that really matter, not just presenting our seemingly perfect accomplishments, building relationships, learning from failures, and nurturing collaborations to overcome limitations. In a nutshell, social innovation process can help create a culture for collaboration; and perhaps with the new culture, people will demand and drive structural changes that we hope to achieve as well.

Having said that, I did come across moments where I felt uneasy with our obsession with ‘innovation tools’ and sometimes find ‘fancy tools’ hard to make comprehensible for local stakeholders. Remembering why we start, what do we want to get out of the process, is crucial so that we do not get lost in our ocean of tools. Furthermore, we need to recognize that social innovation tools are not the only path to genuine conversations; a combination of other traditional ways could work as well. On top of the tools’ own merits, social innovation process has the comparative advantage of being something ‘new and sexy’, so some people become more receptive to them. In any case, simplification is a requirement if we are to localize these tools. While sophistication might be good for resource mobilization, simplification is what makes actual application possible.

With clear objectives in mind and appropriate localization of social innovation tools, I can see more of humanized dialogues happening. This is exactly what we strive to create to pave way for people-centric innovation that considers what the people, both the implementors and beneficiaries, need in order to effectively transform our world into a more sustainable and inclusive one.

Read the blog in Thai version here