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 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.

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.

You can hear the interview and see the transcript here

The Innovation Dividend explores how innovation in society and government are paying off. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring how ‘policy frontliners’ are innovating in real time in the COVID-19 pandemic and asking which of these changes and “raw learnings” might become part of our new normal. You can subscribe to the podcast here.

Update- you can explore the following published episodes that are live:

E1- How the Bangladesh government is repurposing assets for COVID-19

E2- How to build a new social safety net in two weeks

E3- Why p-commerce is the new e-commerce in Bangladesh

E4- Providing education for 50 million children who are out of school

E5- Mayor Trevino & Dino Cut — What is it like to run a city during a pandemic?

E6- Daniel Gomez- How Colombia accelerated the expansion of its social safety net

E7- Dr. Sania Nishtar — Behind the scenes when government goes all-out to combat poverty

E8- Ilana Trombka — Setting up the world’s first digital senate

E9- A COVID cash transfer programme in Togo that gives more money to women

E10- Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr — The political will to transform a city

E11- Naheed Shah Durrani — Green Stimulus planting 10 billion trees and creating jobs

E12- Why COVID has made government Agile (for now)The Innovation