Designing a Future of Work portfolio for UNDP Uzbekistan (Part 1)

From changing mindsets to transforming systems

August 2, 2022
Image: UNDP Uzbekistan

This blog kicks off a series on our portfolio design process by UNDP Uzbekistan, facilitated by the Accelerator Lab Uzbekistan and the RBEC Innovation Team. The process includes several steps. In the first blog, we cover the initial stage – the Problem phase. We thank Elina Jarvela, Yaera Chung, and Lejla Sadiku from UNDP Istanbul Regional Hub’s Innovation Team for their continued extensive support and guidance.


We are observing a shift across UNDP towards the experimentation with and adoption of systems thinking as an approach across diverse geographical and thematic domains. Systems thinking stems from an attempt to understand and solve scientific problems, which require looking at separate elements as interrelated parts of an eco(system). Now, it is also proving to be an apt tool to rethink development in the face of increasing complexity and uncertainty of the problems and their context.

Currently, in international development, projects are mainly a standalone undertaking, despite being formally nested under an overarching program. But decades of project implementation have shown us the writing on the wall: “Projects don’t change systems”. Many of the challenges faced by development organizations now require transforming the systems within which they operate and which they hope to impact. In this context, business as usual doesn’t work anymore. Hence UNDP Uzbekistan joined other pioneers in portfolio practice in the organization – from Burundi to Serbia – in exploring and adopting portfolio design.

Our choice of designing a forward-looking, employment-centered Future of Work portfolio for UNDP Uzbekistan was determined by the increasing importance of employment issues in the country, the potential for development impact, and the positioning of UNDP in this space. About half a million youth enter the labor market in Uzbekistan each year, with about a 5% annual increase. These trends will likely continue in the mid-term perspective. They may exacerbate existing risks in the backdrop of environmental challenges, the spread of technologies, and other socio-political factors. Or on the contrary, they can also be leveraged to transform labor markets, social resilience, and growth strategies for a better future.


The portfolio design process we used adopted and re-designed the Agora methodology, a system transformation tool co-developed with UNDP Istanbul Regional Hub (IRH) and the Chora Foundation, to fit the context of our work. Initially designed for urban pandemic response and renewal context, Agora was adapted for our needs, building on the methodology’s focus to facilitate strategic understanding and planning, coupled with non-linear thinking.

To run the process, we set up a core team which consisted of the Accelerator Lab and representatives from various program units and projects of UNDP in Uzbekistan.

The Problem phase started with an online introductory session on portfolio thinking, followed by coordination meetings, desk research (e.g., stakeholder mapping, literature review, collecting observations), in-depth interviews, consultations with colleagues from other countries, and a series of workshops to consolidate our findings.  


During the Problem phase we explored what, how and why the problem manifests in the system and how we can intervene in the continually changing Future of Work space.

The purpose of the problem phase was to build an understanding of the problem from three aspects

  • identity - who are the agents of the change with regard to the identified problem
  • object - what is the context of the problem
  • intent - what is the purpose of the portfolio to the context
Image: UNDP Uzbekistan

The team focused on exploring these questions through desk research and interviews, sharing and rendering the findings during the workshops.

We conducted desk research on the following eight distinctive topics to understand the system structures and dynamics in Uzbekistan:

  1. Systemic risks and resilience
  2. Enabling conditions and policy factors
  3. Resources and capabilities
  4. Emerging trends and drivers for work
  5. Decision-making process for job opportunities
  6. Demographic analysis
  7. Work environment
  8. Green jobs

Seven interviews were conducted with research questions focusing on the needs, resources, conditions, and intent in the Future of Work ecosystem with key UNDP Uzbekistan staff, university professors, NGO representatives, and entrepreneurs.

To consolidate the findings, identify dynamics, and map linkages at this stage, we organized several check-in and rendering workshops with the participation of the core team and an extended group of country office colleagues.


As we applied systems thinking to the portfolio design process for the Future of Work in Uzbekistan, we started by asking the question of who has agency and can act, influence, and represent itself, and has access to networks, resources, and capabilities to make decisions.

As for UNDP Uzbekistan, we discussed our role in relation to the Future of Work Ecosystem in Uzbekistan and came up with the following description of the IDENTITY to identify and narrate our position in designing the Future of Work Portfolio in Uzbekistan.

Image: UNDP Uzbekistan

Having formulated the identity, we moved onto thinking about the structures, elements, relations, and experiences that form the Future of Work Ecosystem in Uzbekistan. Specifically, we explored the needs, resources, and conditions around the work ecosystem to understand and identify the systemic issues and occurrences with a holistic view.

Image: UNDP Uzbekistan


We analyzed the country’s needs as a reference point in the context of work and its future that demands the country’s attention and urges its many elements (people, institutions, businesses) to take action.

  • Enhanced education: Despite the government’s attempts to reform, improvements are still needed in the formal and informal educational system.
  • Diversified approach: The service and industrial sectors are currently leading the economy, with the service sector accounting for almost 80% of newly created jobs. But there is an oversupply of labor resources, and a lack of diversified approaches to labor and employment.
  • Clear communications: Existing strategies, agendas, and initiatives should be aligned to move in the same strategic direction with a coherent narrative and clear communications.
  • Supporting the environment: Stable supply and efficient usage of energy, water, gas,, etc. is essential for a sustainable business environment.
Image: UNDP Uzbekistan


Resources available to Uzbekistan and within its immediate reach that it can bring and combine to answer to and engage with the identified needs.

  • Human and institutional capital – There is a significant underutilized demographic potential as about half a million youth enter the labor market annually, and women’s participation in the economy remains low.
  • Natural resources – Uzbekistan’s wide range of natural resources and agriculture potential lays a solid foundation for the economy and might generate new development opportunities.
  • Access to finance – Improved investment climate, support of IFIs, and solid flow remittances are sources to fund new opportunities.
  • Sectoral capabilities and potential – Agriculture, industry, and services are the main sectors. As digitalization and IT development are on the national agenda, interesting opportunities arise in the confluence of these sectors.
Image: UNDP Uzbekistan


Defined as structures outside the agency’s immediate control and area of influence. Often conditions refer to someone else’s Resources - they impact and mediate a country’s capability to address its needs and utilize its resources.

  • Current narratives in strategy – Current strategies for developing the labor market, education system, and green economy need coherent approaches (e.g., international standards, regulations, priorities).
  • Sustainable infrastructure and resource management - In the backdrop of climate change and nature degradation, Uzbekistan needs careful measures to sustain its resources (especially its water and land resources and mitigate future shocks.
  • Leadership and partnership commitment – Increasing the competitiveness of the labor market requires each stakeholder to be reliable and mindful of their responsibilities and liabilities to create an enabling business environment.
  • Transparency in governance – As the government acknowledges the importance of accountability and transparency, there are remaining tasks to improve current standards for a credible environment for national and international partners.
Image: UNDP Uzbekistan

Analyzing of the needs, resources, and conditions allowed us to generate insights on the Future of Work ecosystem and formulate our intent through rendering workshops.

Image: UNDP Uzbekistan

Based on these insights, we were able to formulate our INTENT. An intent is a stated determination to design the Portfolio of Discovery and Strategic Option to coherently move towards the outcome sought by an agent. The agent’s identity was defined at the beginning of the process, and the desired outcome is sketched by looking at the needs, resources, and conditions of the system.


Applying systemic lens through the dynamic management of a Portfolio of Discovery and Strategic Options, UNDP Uzbekistan CO will leverage

  • its distinct capabilities and resources across sectors
  • its intermediary role in bringing national partners and implementing agencies
  • its reputation as a lead international organization in green transition

to support and build a responsive, resilient, and sustainable Future of Work Ecosystem in Uzbekistan.

Image: UNDP Uzbekistan

Embracing systems thinking tools and the portfolio approach requires transforming our institutional culture and individual mindsets. To paraphrase a famous quote: it would be wiser to change ourselves first before changing the world. We believe that interlinked portfolios with interventions that learn from each other will become a ubiquitous tool to address the complexity of the challenges we face. In this view, it is essential to document the learning from running this exercise, which can add to the growing body of knowledge and practice within UNDP offices across the globe. This blog series aims to serve this purpose, both sharing our experience step-by-step and providing context and insights for each step.

To complement the picture, we also want to share some of our learnings from initiating the process and running the Problem phase:

  • Strategic guidance and support of the senior management, regional bureaus, and innovation teams are critical. In our case, the process was initiated by the senior management in our country office, which continued supporting and pushing through the following stages. The guidance and facilitation of the Innovation Team at the Istanbul Regional Hub allowed us to apply a suitable methodology and adapt it. They also guided us through the tool’s nuances and helped ensure the robustness and quality of the work.
  • Be selective in the choice of the first topic. For the exercise, it is crucial to find a thematic area that has complex and interlinked dynamics, is balanced in terms of programmatic interests, and is aligned with strategic priorities and capabilities. The choice of the Future of Work thematic allowed us to keep the necessary programmatic focus and engage all programme clusters through various dimensions of the topic.
  • The tools and methodology are best learned by being part of the process, contributing to the discussion and analysis. In this sense, it is important to ensure the participation of a wider group of programme specialists. It is good to involve a diverse group of people from various levels of the organizational structure and with varying specializations. These early pioneers will become the advocates of the changes and focal points in further applying the tool.
  • When exploring the problem, valuable insights may come from the most unexpected sources.  Look for unusual perspectives. In our case, we tapped into the experience and expertise of the NGO community, academia, and entrepreneurs, which allowed us to discover fresh viewpoints and new insights to complete the whole picture.
  • From the very beginning, try to set out a holistic roadmap and manage expectations (both short- and long-term) with colleagues and partners. The process is sometimes complex, and, in the beginning, it may seem redundant or void of immediate practicality. Frame the understanding that the puzzle pieces will gradually come together (for a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts) as you proceed.
  • If it is the first portfolio design exercise, meticulous documentation of the whole process will help to institutionalize the learning experience. Step-by-step reports, recordings, file repositories, saving online or offline work boards, interview notes, meeting minutes, etc., will help you enhance the learning process and your ability to replicate or modify the process in the future.

Crystallizing the Intent laid the foundation to proceed to the next – Solution Stage. In the solution phase, we built our hypothesis based on our understanding of the ecosystem and identified the areas of interest relevant to the intent.  Then we moved on to looking at specific areas to design strategic options by looking into existing UNDP initiatives and projects and other national and international initiatives to create coherent and connected sets of intervention options for a portfolio. Our next blog will cover this phase in detail. 

Muzaffar Tilavov is Head of Exploration at UNDP Uzbekistan Accelerator Lab. You can reach him by email: or via Twitter: @mtilavov