Photo: Wolfgang Rottmann on Unsplash

COVID-19 and the innovation dividend

By Kal Joffres, UNDP Advisor, Strategic Innovation

How does a government mount a safety net for 5 million people in two weeks? Or pivot a helpline to screen millions of people for COVID-19 symptoms? Introducing our new podcast and blog series drawing out learnings from ‘policy frontliners’ in Asia’s pandemic response.

Will a new normal — or many new normals — really happen? Is the pandemic a portal, or will we rush back to the way most things were and try our best to normalize this social and economic blip? It’s just too early to tell.

The COVID-19 disruption has perhaps created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change society — just at the moment we were starting to reconsider capitalism, rethink how governments work, and reckon with the implausibility of preventing a global environmental crisis. But will we be able to capitalise on this opportunity?

Deeply entrenched aspects of government and society have suddenly — though momentarily — become unfrozen. In this period of forced experimentation, new possibilities are being explored, new fragilities are being exposed, new questions are being asked as “we must make 100% of the decisions based on a maximum of 50% of knowledge”. Our post-COVID trajectory will be shaped by what (and if) we learn today and bring to the other side.

In a crisis, you should always deploy an innovation team alongside the business recovery teams…to capture the novel practice. — Dave Snowden

In our new series of podcasts and Medium articles, we’ll be exploring how ‘policy frontliners’ are innovating in real time and asking which of these changes and “raw learnings” might become part of our new normal. UNDP’s Regional Innovation Centre for the Asia-Pacific is deploying people to learn from those at the forefront of the pandemic response and document their questions, contradictions and dilemmas as they are asked to improvise new ways of working, delivering services, and governing overnight. Capturing these raw learning “nuggets” as they happen is a way to avoid the “retrospective coherence” of many post mortems, where things are ordered in a tidy, linear sequence.

Only in time, elaborating and reflecting on these experiences, these innovations might serve as a dividend from this harrowing crisis. Martin Stewart-Weeks calls this the COVID Dividend, which has inspired the name for this series.

A COVID Dividend is the value we will reap from the reforms, changes in behaviour and other innovations which were caused, prompted or dramatically accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic that deliver sustained improvements in the social, economic, environmental, institutional, personal and community dimensions of our lives.

-Martin Stewart-Weeks

Asia’s governments are responding very differently to the COVID-19 epidemic. Though many stories focus on South Korea or Hong Kong, over two billion people live in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines — countries that have few ICU beds, limited social safety nets, and many people who rely on daily wages. Government officials in these countries are pulling off heroic feats, forging unique new partnerships, and MacGyvering everything from supplier contracts to public TV channels to reinvent government existing services and build new ones. What is learned today may not only become the cornerstone of future governance in these countries, it can also serve as inspiration for emerging country governments yet to be hit by this crisis.

Through this series, we’ll be exploring two questions:

  1. What is happening now that seemed implausible a short while ago?
  2. What could it mean for the future of government and society?

We’ll hear from a government mounting a safety net for 5 million people who have never been part of a safety net in two weeks and how a helpline pivoted to screen 2 million people for potential COVID-19 symptoms.

We kick this series off with Anir Chowdhury, policy advisor with UNDP and the Government of Bangladesh and Member of the Prime Minister’s National Digital Task Force. In our discussion, we explore how the Bangladesh government is repurposing assets for COVID-19.

You can hear the interview and see the transcript here



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