Inclusive Innovation Series: Stories Across the Ecosystem — Field Notes from the Philippines
In this #InclusiveInnovation Series: Stories Across the Ecosystem, we are building upon the research frameworks lifted from our recent UNDP-Nesta ‘ Strategies for Supporting Inclusive Innovation: Insights from South East Asia” Report. For more context you can see a quick background on ‘The Why’ ,implications in the COVID19 era, and the full launch details plus report and recording here.
In this post, Rex Lor, of the UNDP Philippines Country Office is interviewed by Courtney Savie Lawrence of the UNDP Asia Pacific Regional Innovation Center (RIC) cover it all — from how COVID19 is impacting the frontlines to how policy upstream is evolving their policy intent.
Courtney- RIC: Let’s face it, we live in a new #COVID era- a time in which innovative approaches are front and center to the critical response effort. Before we dive into the big picture and context of ‘inclusive innovation’ from a public sector standpoint, can you share what is emergent and interesting from your perspective in terms of the Philippines context?
Rex- UNDP Philippines: The Covid-19 enhanced community quarantine in the entire island of Luzon ushered in an opportunity for innovators, both public and private, to rapidly test ideas to solve existing challenges brought about by the lockdown. In the city of Pasig, for example, the reform-minded mayor introduced a couple of innovative solutions that are well-received by the public. This includes the introduction of large agriculture drones refitted to spray disinfectants in areas where there are reported positive cases. The city also introduced upgrades to their drones that includes a drone-based public address system and artificial intelligence for CCTV to encourage social distancing in crowded areas. Responding to suggestions from netizens on social media, the same city responded with agility and introduced mobile markets that go around villages in predetermined schedules. This provided the citizens access to fresh market goods while solving the problem of being unnecessarily exposed to risks in public spaces such as the market. How Pasig City innovates in the time of the Covid-19 crisis is a perfect example of what happens when governments embrace an innovation mindset: it allows them to see beyond the usual solutions, to embrace new ideas from people, and to take an experimentation mindset.
On a related note, and this is something that’s interesting, an academe and startup partnership is also not far behind with the introduction of a locally-manufactured RT-PCR test kit that is one-fifth of the price compared to those exported from other countries. The Philippine-made Covid-19 test kit is currently being field tested and will increase the capability of the government to conduct mass testing. Designers are also contributing to the growing lack of personal protective equipment needed by the medical frontliners- they are pivoting their whole operations to that of designing and creating reusable and washable PPEs using innovative materials such as the Tafetta (a water repellent fabric used in umbrellas and raincoats). Another interesting example includes the 3D printers and rolls of acetates, local makers have already collectively created thousands of face shields and distributed them in hospitals who have requested help on social media.
Courtney- RIC: We know that “inclusive innovation” has been a key agenda item, particularly at the policy level with the government passing the Philippines Innovation Act, just signed into law in 2019. Can you share more about what impact this is expected to generate?
Rex- UNDP Philippines: As you rightly mentioned, the Philippines Innovation Act of 2019 was signed into law and was created to support the development of the innovation ecosystem. It is worth noting that the law places at its core the development of MSMEs in the innovation ecosystem through education, training, research, and development. In addition, the law calls for the strengthening of partnerships and engagements among different actors in the innovation ecosystem, such as the public and private sector, academe, MSMEs, and communities to promote inclusive growth. Yes, “inclusive innovation” is defined in the Philippine Innovation Act, but the direction of innovation is one-sided. What I meant by one-sided is that the goal of inclusive innovation is to design-for or design-with the poor and the underserved. What’s missing is the acknowledgment of user-led innovations — those that are already existing and currently being done by the poor, or otherwise. There is therefore a need to expand and broaden the scope to include other types of innovations that are already existing on the ground, such as those in the public sector and the grassroot communities.
Because of this, we are approaching the mainstreaming of the conversation on inclusive innovation in the country in two ways: The first is to support and nurture innovation from the informal and indigenous sectors. In partnership with the Grassroots Innovation for Inclusive Development (GRIND) of the Department of Science & Technology (DOST) Region XI , we have trained 35 solutions mappers in the Davao Region, where they identified 37 innovations in the Agdao Public Market, Davao City during our SalikLakbay Solutions Mapping Adventure. DOST XI has already eyed a couple of mature mapped projects that they are planning to fund under their technology incubation program.
The second initiative is to jumpstart a high-level policy dialogue on inclusive innovation among policy makers and this is organized in partnership with the Development Academy of the Philippines. The plan is to organize a roundtable discussion attended by key implementers of the Philippine Innovation Act and representatives from the innovation sector. UNDP Philippines will also be inviting global inclusive innovation experts from the UNDP Bangkok Regional Innovation Center.
But with the enhanced community quarantine due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we have pushed the timeline towards the end of 2020 as we have to allow for our partners in the government to focus their efforts on recovery and rehabilitation. We also have to acknowledge that the recovery and the rehabilitation phase will be an opportunity to take stock on how different sectors will be contributing to the rebuilding of our country through the integration of tech, policy and design.
Courtney-RIC: It’s interesting to hear that localized innovation is becoming a priority (sometimes referred to as grassroots innovation or indigenous innovation). We know from the recent UNDP-NESTA report on inclusive innovation that there are alternative models to the often widely celebrated ‘Silicon Valley’ approach, yet what does this look like in the Philippines context?
Rex -UNDP Philippines: “Grassroots innovation” is not a term that is readily understood in the mainstream. My sense is that most people in the innovation sector in the Philippines are not really aware of grassroots innovation or, perhaps this is not “on their immediate horizon”. It is quite understandable that the slant of the Philippine Innovation Act is towards the Silicon Valley model of innovation as there is this pervasive romanticized version of Silicon Valley that anyone, with the right attitude and tech, can be a unicorn. Championing this model by senior policy decision makers is therefore not surprising as the support needed has long been overdue. Yet, the law also mentions inclusive innovation but its definition relates to a producer-oriented direction where innovation is a goal and that the poor are recipients of its benefits.
But support should also be inclusive and also recognize ordinary people as I mentioned before— the grassroots innovators — who are innovating silently on the side. A look into the world of grassroots innovators will give you a sense on how they think and solve problems. I have often observed that they have a different way of looking at problems, with a different mindset that is honed from years of multiple trial-and-error experiments. With few resources and tools, grassroots innovators almost always frame and approach problem solving in terms of speed and affordability. In order to optimize resources, they also are the ones who recycle or upcycle, cannibalizing parts to breathe life to others. These innovators also thrive and move around an invisible ecosystem that is a layer below the more formal and structured business ecosystem that have produced products and solutions used by the public. Notable solutions include the one-piso-based coin-operated machines that vends sachet versions of the wireless internet, water dispensing and entertainment. These solutions reflect the problems of liquidity as people struggle to make ends meet daily. Providing government support for informal ecosystems is a challenge because there is always that deep-seated issue of trust. The government, being in a position to support, should take the first step to acknowledge and accept existing grassroots innovation ecosystems and not just replace or regulate them.
Courtney- RIC: On that last note, you mentioned that the Silicon Valley Model has been championed by senior decision makers and the private sector as well, yet that it is a “fairy tale” that is now being challenged. What are you now noticing?
Rex- UNDP Philippines: Yes, the Silicon Valley model is still pervasive in the Philippines because it resonates and connects well with people due to its compelling narrative. This pushes the wide support needed by startups. But this model only can do so much, especially with its move-fast-and-break-things attitude fueled by exponential growth expectations from VC-funding. For example, we all thought that the answer to the traffic problem are ride-hailing apps like Grab and Uber, but what it brought is more traffic congestion due to the additional vehicles on the street. This also marginalized both formal (taxi and bus services) and informal (jeepney and pedicabs) sectors in the transportation industry. While it is true that this has improved the ride-hailing experience, it has also brought higher fare rates due to longer ride times.
There is therefore a need to rethink this type of model because when growth takes center-stage, social impact takes a backseat.
But here’s the silver lining…social enterprises are growing in the Philippines — more than 30,000 registered today! With social impact as the core of its vision, it offers an alternative to the celebrated Silicon Valley model. UNDP Philippines has seen its potential and has supported the social enterprises ecosystem when it launched the Innovation for Social Impact Partnerships (ISIP) in 2018, together with the Australian Embassy and the Philippine Development Foundation (PhilDev). And the Covid-19 lockdown has not stopped the ISIP startups from making their presence felt. Some of the notable examples include how the Futuristic Aviation & Maritime Enterprise (FAME) developed a respiratory support actuator that can act as a first responder breathing device while a ventilator is still unavailable for use. Another ISIP startup AccessiWheels provided patients with free carpool services to ferry them to hospitals. And, AI4GOV, a data-for-good startup, is working with the Department of Health (DOH) to develop a digital triage bot to assist medical professionals in the triage process.
Courtney- RIC: The numbers and bottom up innovations you just shared are quite significant. Can you give us some examples of initiatives that the UNDP Country Office is developing and testing in the inclusive innovation space?
Rex- UNDP Philippines: Sure, we are working on several different fronts- let me mention a few that fall under the ‘inclusive innovation umbrella’ that are currently being developed by the UNDP Philippines Country Office. One that I am involved in directly for starters is the Rapid Response Survey for MSME Value Chain through a periodic survey through online platforms. Using AI and machine learning, the results of the survey is further informed by social media listening for public sentiments. Set to be released in 3 waves over the course of 3 months, the goal of the survey is to understand how MSMEs are coping and responding to the supply shocks in the value chain due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Results of the survey is to inform and guide government policy directions and response to support MSMEs.
AccLabs Head of Experimentation, Francis Capistrano, is also involved in a similar socioeconomic impact survey but focuses more on individual households. The household survey also uses Messenger survey chatbots and social media listening using AI and machine learning. But since some target respondents have lesser access to technology, the data collection methodology will bring in the Zero Extreme Poverty (ZEP) movement to carry out the survey in the countryside. (ZEP, by the way, is a coalition of over 100 NGOs located all over the country.)
What is interesting with this survey is that it also attempts to systematically map positive deviance as households cope, respond and adapt to the crisis. I am curious to know what these are and what policy can be introduced to allow for households to be more resilient in future crises.
Another innovative project is the creation of a Centralized Data Warehouse Platform to support data sharing for multiple systems related to the Covid-19 response. This initiative is led by Jonathan Hodder of the UNDP PH Impact Advisory Team. The data shall be pushed to a command and control centre for national and local governments, allowing key decision-makers to get a holistic picture of both the health and socioeconomic situation of the country, city by city. Furthermore, the data shall be made available to a network of data scientists, social scientists, statisticians, economists, epidemiologists, and other experts from the private sector and academe, so that they can produce data-driven policy recommendations to the government in support of an informed COVID response and recovery strategy.
AccLab Head of Exploration, Irina Velasco, is leading a project that aims to address supply chain constraints by connecting the whole supply chain in a seamless and integrated way using digital technology and reimagining the manufacturing industry. Looking ahead, we think this can be expanded to other products to support “demand-driven manufacturing” in transition towards a ‘new normal’.
Finally, the UNDP Philippines country office is introducing mobile wallets to help the government contend with the huge beneficiary load. Working with the Mayor of Pasig City, Vico Sotto, UNDP Philippines will be pilot-testing this initiative to 3 barangays (neighborhoods). This also includes a mandatory financial literacy training to ensure that beneficiaries will spend their cash subsidies responsibly.
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 here or through LinkedIn here. Let us know more examples you see from the ecosystem, as we run the #InclusiveInnovation Series: Stories Across the Ecosystem.