Experimentation in action: How do you “save” Da Nang city from a looming environmental disaster?
By Nguyen Tuan Luong
This blog post is the first in a 3-part series that shares Viet Nam Accelerator Lab journey applying innovation and experimental practices to help Da Nang city solve its wicked problems.
The stage: Vietnam’s most livable city
Da Nang, one of the largest cities in Viet Nam and a popular tourist destination, is often dubbed the most liveable city in Viet Nam by media due to its pristine beaches and surrounding vistas. Home to a thriving economy and a fledgling start-up scene, this quaint little city was the 2nd best city in Vietnam for ease of doing business in 2017 according to the Viet Nam Provincial Competitiveness Index. In recent years, however, Da Nang has slipped down in the ranking holding the fifth position now. This is partly due to some serious environmental issues hindering its development as a tourist’s dream destination.
Poor solid waste management and waste disposal practices are currently one of Da Nang’s most burning issues. With 1,100 tonnes of solid waste being produced on a daily basis, Da Nang’s waste is soaring by 16–17% annually leaving the city’s only landfill constantly overloaded and on the verge of closure — quite a disaster!
To help Da Nang city achieve its ambitions in becoming a smart and resilient city, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between UNDP and Da Nang to explore the formulation of Da Nang CityLab promoting innovation and experimentation in public services. After much deliberation, our Lab chose waste management as the first real case for our team to sink our teeth into among dozen requests from Da Nang city. By providing a suite of social innovation methods like human-centred design, solutions mapping, and lean experimentation, our government partner was able to tap into a unique set of competencies that helped them to anticipate citizen needs and rethink how to solve Da Nang’s most pressing problems.
For the past 4 months, we have been engaged with the Da Nang Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DONRE) to support the city-wide waste sorting pilot. Our ambition was to co-create sustainable solutions with local communities through experimentation that can achieve systemic impact rather than imposing a single top-down solution. The only catch here is that we had roughly 100 days (as part of a global Accelerator Lab challenge) with a freshly minted team to do an experiment in another city that’s scientifically rigorous, ethically compliant, achieving quick wins while working towards a more systemic change, all this while navigating two massive bureaucracies (UNDP & Da Nang People’s Committee). Sounds like a mission impossible? YES, AND… we jumped head-first into this adventure anyway.
Leveraging the power of a network
The waste issue in Da Nang is, without a doubt, a wicked problem that involves a wide variety of formal and informal stakeholders with many fast-moving elements. It is an intricate mix of cultural, behavioural, infrastructural, economic, and many other factors that shape the state of the system. As a Lab, we weren’t experts on the matter of waste management, so jumping into this domain was entirely new to us.
Thankfully, one of the amazing perks of being part of a learning network in today’s digitalization age is that you are able to connect with relevant expertise and knowledge all across the globe. With the support from UNDP Bangkok Regional Innovation Center, we were connected with domain experts from all across the world, which leads us to partner with Alberta Colab — a Canadian Public Sector Innovation Lab — and Gabriella Gomez-Mont former Director of Mexico CityLab to tackle Da Nang’s issues by applying systemic design and experimentation. It was through this connection that our team was supercharged with experience from abroad on how government innovation labs operate and solve problems.
We then started to systematically map out Da Nang’s current waste management system and interviewing local people to understand their experiences and to establish a baseline on the waste situation in Da Nang. But scientific research on waste data in Viet Nam is still at an early stage, accessing reliable quantitative data is always a challenge. There are no unified standards for measuring and evaluating a city waste flow and composition, much of the data that’s currently available are rough estimations from a few sporadic research projects. So, we needed to conduct our own research to start making sense of the local situation and identifying a potential entry point.
Stories from the field: following the trail of trash
With the support of DONRE, I hit the street to conduct ethnographic field research on household waste sorting habits. I had the chance to talk with many amazing people from informal waste pickers and environmental officers to government officials, local NGOs and businesses, who work hard every day to keep the streets of Da Nang clean. As we immersed ourselves deeper in the local reality and heard directly from the people who were most affected by the challenge, many of our initial assumptions were swiftly debunked. From seemingly simple things like why people are putting trash in front of their house to larger questions like where are the main sources of the plastic waste generation? — there was always more than what meets the eye.
After conducting interviews and surveys, we found out that the practice of sorting valuable waste (glass bottles, metal cans, paper etc.…) is already quite common in many households. This isn’t obvious if you only look at the formal waste disposal infrastructure. Currently, there is no comprehensive waste separation infrastructure for different types of waste in Da Nang. Most of the daily solid waste that is collected by Da Nang’s environmental company gets thrown into single compartment garbage trucks that end up in the landfill. So that begs the question, why bother sorting waste at all? It turns out, the informal sector plays a huge role here. Informal waste pickers, usually women, go around blocks every day to collect valuable household waste to earn their income. As for households, sorting valuable waste is a way to keep the house clean, sell for scraps, and help the environment.
Throughout this process of systematically collecting data and mapping out the current waste system, our team was able to gain a fuller, more nuanced picture of where are the key bottlenecks in Da Nang’s waste management system. We gathered contextual information about beliefs, attitudes, and cultural elements that are reinforcing the current patterns and issues. Another interesting insight we gained here was that there had been quite a number of initiatives tackling waste sorting over the past 15 years in Da Nang. Despite successfully mobilizing waste sorting at the household level, these pilots had a limited long-term impact as they couldn’t address what happened to the sorted waste after it was collected. Since there wasn’t a full supply chain to hold, separate, and transport different kinds of waste, most of the sorted waste still go to the same one compartment garbage truck. As a result, some of the local people we talked to also reflected that they didn’t feel motivated to sort waste because they knew that the sorted waste will end up in the landfill unsorted anyway. This is an unintended consequence of single-point intervention that can make future interventions more difficult as citizen trust was eroded in the past.
At the end of the day, it was clear to us that this is a systemic problem that has to be addressed at multiple points, from generation to collection, to disposal. We need to find ways to reduce the material flow generated that results in waste (e.g.: no single-use plastic, reduce excessive consumerism etc.…) and address bottleneck in the waste supply chain. Otherwise, no amount of recycling or sorting will ever fully address the issue of waste and plastic pollution if our consumption patterns continue as is.
Back to the office report
Coming back from all this, an unexpected outcome from all this research was that other units in our office started to pay attention and collaborate with us. A key advantage of having an in-house Lab like ours is that we are better able to internalize our knowledge within our Country Office. As a cross-cutting unit, we can be involved in new project design to enhance collaboration and share knowledge among the office units. Indeed, we are already seeing demand from other units to incorporate our Accelerator Lab approach to design better interventions that are more responsive to the local reality, empathize with intended beneficiaries and ultimately deliver more meaningful impact.
So now that the stage has been set, with the understanding that waste management is a complex issue without a one-size-fits-all solution and we don’t have all the answers, the only question now is…where do we even begin with such a massive problem? Stick around for part 2 to see how we went from field research to design a portfolio of experiments that help us achieve systemic impact.
A BIG thanks to my amazing team Lan, Ida, Binh who dared to brave the uncertainty of this journey and made things happen despite the odds. Grateful to all the support and kind guidance from UNDP Bangkok Regional Innovation Center, as well as many more people who have contributed to the insights and thinking from this blog series.