Can we make ‘Inclusive Innovation’ a COVID19 ‘new normal’? Here’s the latest Q+A from our Nesta-UNDP launch

By Courtney Savie Lawrence and Giulio Quaggiotto, UNDP Regional Innovation Center, Alex Glennie- Nesta, Dr. Robyn Klingler-Vidra — King’s College London

Last week we held the digital launch of the UNDP-Nesta ‘Inclusive Innovation’ report, which provides recommendations and concrete examples from South East Asia for policymakers interested in leveraging innovation policy to accelerate progress towards the SDG achievement. We ran a virtual session, open to the public, with over 130 people from around the world joining, with the intention to expand the conversation space far beyond those of us on the call.

If you missed it, you can watch the session here, see the backstory on the ‘Why’, and the implications of this agenda in terms of the COVID-19. Of course, all of this comes at a time when the world’s attention and focus is on what is front and center: the COVID-19 pandemic, whose far reaching implications are difficult to comprehend at this stage. Yet it is already apparent that COVID response is spurring an extraordinary amount of innovation, both from the public sector (that has demonstrated an agility that many thought it had long lost) and grassroots innovators.

The question for all of us is — how do we harness this momentum to spur longer term changes in innovation and procurement policies, so that they are more purposefully directed to inclusiveness?

For example, one of the first countries in the world to announce changes in its innovation policy as a consequence of COVID, Canada, does not seem to have not included harnessing grassroot or community innovation as part of its response, nor made explicit statements about including considerations of equality or sustainability in its redirecting of R&D funds. Can countries in Asia Pacific be at the cutting edge on this front, like they have been on other aspects of COVID response?

Below we capture some key questions, provocations and reflections that emerged in our session, as raised by participants. Take a look and let us know your thoughts- you can join the new open community of practice here on LinkedIn or this #InclusiveInnovation Twitter list.

“What do we really mean by the working definition of Inclusive Innovation (as mentioned in the report) and did you find different definitions in different ASEAN countries? It would be great for us to really think through what is meant by innovation especially in these times. A lot has been thought through about digital and technological innovation, but are any examples of social innovations in play (especially seeing as the digital divide impacts whole segments of populations for example women)?”

RKV: This is an excellent point. As mentioned in the session, innovation is often conflated with technology, or technological innovation. In the report, we distill one thrust of inclusive innovation so far as “technology will save us”, reflecting this notion that innovation and technology are often thought of in the same breath. This is institutionally reflected by the central position that agencies, like a Ministry of Science and Technology, have in innovation policy-making. If we are to think of innovation in a more inclusive way, we need a more inclusive sense of what is innovation, particularly embracing social innovation as a crucial form of inclusive innovation, as you suggest. Giving license to grassroots innovators to be empowered as essential engines for driving society’s ability to benefit from new products, new processes and new ways of thinking.

AG: From a policy perspective, we have been thinking about how government policies to support innovation can contribute to increasing inclusion and equality, rather than locking people out of the ‘innovation economy’ and exacerbating inequalities. In a 2018 Nesta working paper, we defined inclusive innovation policies as those that are directed towards ensuring that the benefits and the risks of innovation are more equally shared. These policies will actively consider whose needs are met by innovation and how excluded social groups could be better served, focus on initiatives that promote broad participation in innovation, and take a democratic and participatory approach to priority-setting and the governance of innovation. We saw elements of these kinds of policies across the South-East Asian countries we looked at in the UNDP research, but it was striking how broad the definition of ‘participation’ was in this region. In Europe and other OECD economies, we often see a focus on improving gender balance among those who are defined as ‘innovators’. In South-East Asia, the focus went much further, including those with disabilities or from different economic backgrounds.

“What are examples of Inclusive Innovation happening around the world in terms of COVID19?”

RKV: In stark contrast to the fear and risks associated with the spread of the COVID19 pandemic, the responses from governments, companies and communities has been heartening and promising for a new future of collaborative innovation that has social purpose at the heart. For example, in Vietnam, three test kits have been developed at lightning speed and low cost. The teams behind the affordable kits include the military, the University of Technology (UoT) Hanoi, and the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST) — all publicly funded bodies. The Institute of Biotechnology, within the VAST, for example, developed an affordable COVID19 test kit (at the cost of $15) by early March. The VAST test kit was developed within a matter of weeks and made available at an affordable price point which ensures that a greater share of the population in Vietnam — and elsewhere — are able to be tested.

RIC: In the session many resources on interesting crowdsourced examples came up- and continue to emerge daily. For example, this open source innovation map, or community inclusion currencies as a bottom-up initiatives. On the other hand, there is an acceleration of self-organizing open source collective intelligence networks arising, like this COVID-19 data collaborative data collaborative. Also, as mentioned earlier, not everything is bound by apps alone, and social innovation, plays a front and center role as well - be it screening tests at the hyper local level or supporting the elderly in important ways like pointed out here. As for the Asia Pacific Region especially, we are noticing interesting examples bridging the gap between grassroots ‘idea capital’ and governmental platform power: take the city of Pasig in the Philippines, last week the local mayor led the re-invention of the everyday marketplace concept- since citizens are unable to go due to the COVID-19 lockdown, they have introduced Mobile Palengke (market)-government trucks bring food to the neighborhoods directly ensuring everyone has food access. Or in the case of India you have the government creating an incentive to share local innovations for COVID-19.

“COVID is a systemic shock just like climate change — except time frame and speed! How can we use innovation as a lens to understand this “systemic shock” and source local solutions? Normal is not normal anymore.”

RKV: The COVID pandemic, and the social and economic crises that accompany it, are what social scientists (particularly historical institutionalists, like Kathleen Thelen and James Mahoney, would call a “critical juncture”. Past critical junctures included World War II, the Asian Financial Crisis, and the Global Financial Crisis. These events are called critical junctures because the severity of the socio-economic impact serves as a shock to people’s thinking, and in the process of cognitively responding to the shock, people become open to new paradigms, new ways of operating. The previous “path dependence” can be usurped because of this willingness to consider alternatives. As John Ruggie showed, for economists in the throes of WWII, there was an openness to embracing “embedded liberalism” for the post-war economic system, and as Ramon Pacheco Pardo and I have showed, in Korea (and elsewhere in the region), the Asian Financial Crisis led many to question the classic developmental state approach, and seek a new social purpose for the role of the state, in the shape of a start-up fueled innovation system best personified by Silicon Valley. The COVID19 pandemic — I believe — will represent such a critical juncture, and thus open policymakers and wider society to consider new ways of acting, and hopefully, novel approaches to the promotion of innovation.

RIC: Our team took time recently to lean into what the ‘new normals’ might be. Our scan here shares signals of what we see emerging, which will ultimately inform our post COVID framing. To your point about sourcing local responses, solutions, innovations- in our scan we found dozens of examples where local communities like peer-to-peer networks emerging in China or mutual aid groups or hyper local ones like this Bangkok COVID Aid group are cropping up around the world. Also, the UNDP Accelerator Labs across our region are keeping tab of locally developed solutions. Interestingly, today our UNDP team also ran a virtual session with Societal Platform- an approach to redistribute problem solving at scale- a space to watch.

“I have a general question: what is our next step? how can we all promote inclusive innovation in SEA going forward, or are we perhaps not best placed (from the UK for instance) to do so?”

We (Alex Glennie and Robyn Klingler-Vidra) tackled this question in a Nesta blog post on how South East Asia’s support of inclusive innovation can advance the UK’s approach. We said that the key takeaways centre on: (1) widening the definition of ‘inclusion’, (2) taking a broader perspective on the spatial aspects of innovation, and (3) doing more to promote innovation at the foundations. Overall, we are optimistic that learning from emerging economies can prove more effective in encouraging inclusive innovation than further turns to models such as that of Silicon Valley.

Other reflections that came from participants included the gaps- the elements of the conversation that were not explicit. We appreciated having this brought up just as much:

  • “The emphasis is really on digital and technological innovation, which is relatively pragmatic given the circumstances, but we should not rule out social innovation. One of the successes of the Ebola epidemic response was community-based approaches and social innovation. With COVID-19, we are really only focusing on the digital, but not taking a deep dive about how social networks and communities are responding to the pandemics, which I think is key. Even as we are all in self-quarantine or social distancing, we are still social beings, and leaning on high-tech solutions such as zoom, or lower down the pole technology such as SMS and WhatsApp. Even further down, are those who do not have access to either one of these methods, and how they are responding to the crisis in spite of the digital divide would be crucial for the work going forward.”
  • “Women — we do know that women are often left out of policy, so the question is within this crisis and beyond. Presently I see a lot of opinion pieces about how women will be disproportionately affected, but not a lot of data and projections on how, why and what next — what do we need to fix? From my perspective, I really look at women and gender champions working in Women, Peace and Security who are seen as part of the CSO space and further marginalized and their voices unheard. They are not victims, but they are finding ways to innovate in ways that I think that the inclusive innovation platform could also draw from.”

What else do you see? Let us know — join us at the new open community of practice here on LinkedIn or this #InclusiveInnovation Twitter list. If you are keen to contribute to the agenda, you can continue the conversation with UNDP Regional Innovation Center’s Head of Exploration, Courtney Savie Lawrence by sending a Direct Message via the RIC Team Twitter here or through LinkedIn here. We are seeking more examples from the ecosystem as we run the #InclusiveInnovation Series: Stories Across the Ecosystem.

Still looking to download the report PDF? You can find it on any of the following sites, along with other publications: Global UNDP, Asia and the Pacific UNDP, Vietnam UNDP, Philippines UNDP, Myanmar UNDP, Indonesia UNDP



Doing development differently through designing, developing, curating, collating and championing innovation and digital across the Asia Pacific Region.

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Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

Doing development differently through designing, developing, curating, collating and championing innovation and digital across the Asia Pacific Region.