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Inclusive Innovation Series: Stories Across the Ecosystem — Field Notes from Viet Nam

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, Ida Uusikyla, Innovation Consultant and Lan Phan, Head of Exploration, Accelerator Lab of the UNDP Viet Nam Country Office, are interviewed by Courtney Savie Lawrence, Head of Exploration of the UNDP Asia Pacific Regional Innovation Team, on the part of the report concerning Viet Nam.

Courtney- RIC: What we know from the conversation that was sparked around the recent ‘Inclusive Innovation’ NESTA-UNDP report launch is that the terminology, interpretation and meaning can vary significantly depending on local context. Can you share more about what is happening in Vietnam’s innovation policy space?

Ida- UNDP Viet Nam: It’s such an interesting and relevant space, not only for the region in general, but Viet Nam specifically. Through our deeper inquiry into the concept, it became very clear, quite soon, that the understanding of ‘Inclusive Innovation’ is very context specific. This was also something that was raised during the launch. Conceptually, ‘Inclusive Innovation’ has been seen as focusing a lot on different demographic or geographically defined groups, for example, as producers and consumers, highlighting the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) approach. But for a middle-income country like Viet Nam with a rising middle class, we see inclusion more from the perspective of mass innovation. For example, SMEs account for over 95 % of all firms in the country and employ almost 50% of the labor force, yet innovation in SMEs is still lacking. Also, grassroots and social innovation are often left outside the general innovation narrative. The preliminary findings from one of our upcoming studies suggest that there is little evidence of concerted efforts to more systematically include citizens in the Science Technology and Innovation (STI) policy making process. So, we wanted to start a discussion on how to include both of these segments into the innovation narrative and overall policy in Viet Nam, especially in terms of how to support the development of innovation policy that is inclusive — rather than exacerbating inequality, which can sometimes happen by default as we have seen in other places.

Courtney- RIC: We know that COVID19 is having a disruptive effect on global and local systems- what is your take on how we may be able to use the pandemic to have a catalytic effect in terms of inclusive innovation? What do you see happening now, and are there any specific examples you have noticed?

Ida- UNDP Viet Nam: As suggested by our upcoming study, one of the challenges we face (yet are working on) in Viet Nam is a lack of coordination and mission orientation in the innovation policy space.

Now COVID-19, in a way, provides a new shared mission in which all ministries are invested, which has had great implications for inclusive innovation. As a result it has led to the government successfully mobilizing the civil society, researchers and businesses to address the outbreak through convening these groups to focus on R&D.

We’ve seen this come to life especially through smart communication and distribution of information. For example, Viet Nam was one of the first countries to develop effective and affordable test kits for COVID-19 and they already have orders from all around the world. The development and scale up of the solution has been supported by the government of Viet Nam. I see this as a great concrete example of inclusive innovation, where the distributive effects are benefiting the masses. Also, COVID-19 has definitely catalyzed a big leap in digitalization already. Actually the Government is forced to digitize many of its activities and services such as allowing e-learning for all schools and even adopting online meetings for important government gatherings. Additionally, many policies to accelerate the digitalization are currently under urgent consideration, such as e-payment, online certification procedures and e-Government more broadly. For example, the number of files for public services submitted online doubled in the past month accounting for the total figure of the previous 20 years. This leap in digitalization has the opportunity again to benefit the society at large, spurring innovation, fostering new markets and driving inclusive growth.

Vietnamese scientists have been able to design a test kit for the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that is on a par with those produced by the World Health Organization (WHO) source:

Lan- UNDP Viet Nam: Of course, the whole COVID case has also demonstrated the readiness of business (and the private sector) to rapidly respond to changed circumstances. Overnight, many factories reacted to the crisis by beginning to manufacture Personal Protective Equipment(PPE) and other needed supplies at scale. An example is that many textile businesses in Vietnam have shifted to producing antibacterial masks to serve market demand, first in the country and now trying to export to the US and Europe. It shows how entrepreneurial and resilient the Vietnamese society is. Also, it demonstrates the supportive role of the government towards the private sector during the crisis. In particular, the antibacterial material (yarn) was first developed by Vinatex, a state-owned textile and government company, but quickly adopted by the Ministry of Health as the national standard so that the technology can be transferred to other private textile companies to produce the needed products. In this case, COVID-induced demand and supply shocks were actually the catalyst to bring such elements of both government adaptivity and business responsiveness together. But of course, at the same time, many businesses are already being heavily impacted and livelihoods are at risk. Some sectors are seeing bigger impacts than others, for example tourism, which is one of the most important driving forces for Vietnam’s economic development. The impact to the informal sector is also huge as mom-and-pop shops and street vendors are basically closed for weeks; motorbike taxis, househelpers, construction workers, etc. — they can’t find new employment to earn their daily income. The disruption brought by COVID-19 will most likely severely impact these industries, catalyzing change in the structure of the economy.

Courtney- RIC: Those are interesting examples, from the test kits, to business manufacturing and even the digitalization of government services ramping up- plus the knock on effects you mentioned. What about the ecosystem at large- what is being coordinated now, from the ground up, can you share a little more about what is happening in the less usual spaces?

Lan- UNDP Viet Nam: Viet Nam has been quite efficient in containing the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic and recognized internationally as a successful case for response with limited resources but determined leadership. As said, the Government has been successfully able to inform the everyday citizens through mobile phones and social media — and also mobilize the army and civil society groups to take additional precautionary measures. Apart from the top-down response, the situation has also prompted many interesting organic bottom-up responses. As one example, the local makers and engineers community has been working on creating a platform for providing 3D printed PPE from open source designs to respond to immediate needs of hospitals, clinics and quarantine centers. Also, although we see this happening around the world, Vietnamese, innovation ecosystem has responded with innovation challenges- mostly focused on technological solutions and directed to startups.

A very context specific example here- as a result of the COVID outbreak and disrupted farming supply chains linked to China’s closed borders, a local bakery not only used dragon fruits to make a new type of dragon fruit baguettes (the famous Vietnamese “banh mi”) but also opened the recipe for any local businesses to follow. This created a new trend of making “pink food” in the country, from KFC dragon fruit buns, to dragon fruit pizza dough, while helping to support local farmers who suddenly needed new markets, as the previous ones had collapsed.

Ida- UNDP Viet Nam: Also, grassroots innovation, which is often not recognized in the traditional innovation narrative was something that came up from our first Action oriented research session as well, where we had a Government participant from the Provinces saying that the workshop really opened his eyes to innovation as he understood that it is already happening in so many places in his Province. This was an interesting insight as with acknowledgement to these different types of innovation, the Government can better utilize and support the development and scale up. These innovations also have an important role in building resilience in the communities, which the COVID-19 outbreak has so clearly brought to light. A good example highlighted by the UNDP Nesta report was Dmap — a grassroots innovation that provides information on accessible public spaces circumventing services that the Government has not been able to provide. Coming back to COVID-19, as Lan said, the Government has been very good at informing citizen about the outbreak and in this context, another great example of creativity and Government innovation was demonstrated by Ministry of Health’s National Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health, who created the catchy Ghen Covy handwashing song with leading artists to inform public about protection from the virus. UNDP has supported in translating the song into sign language.

Courtney- RIC: Can you tell us more about the work UNDP Vietnam is doing to promote inclusive innovation- and how is this a response to some of the historical challenges? You mentioned that there is a mass innovation landscape already in existence, yet where does this complement or depart from the inclusive innovation agenda?

Ida- UNDP Viet Nam: I think there are so many things that our team is currently doing, and has been doing for years to promote inclusive innovation. Our understanding of the concept has also evolved along the way. For example, we’ve been working for years to promote and develop the social impact business sector on both policy and grassroots levels empowering the youth and entrepreneurs via different challenges such as SDG Challenge and Youth Co:Lab. This is a space to prototype and develop solutions to address social and environmental challenges. We have also worked with persons with disabilities communities to innovate solutions to the challenges they face and promote their participation in the policy making processes. I guess you could say that we strive to be a platform for grassroots innovation by facilitating these types of discussions and connecting the different ecosystem partners through events such as National Innovation Festival -Techfest, Youth Co:lab National Dialogues and Ha Noi Innovation Summit.

Lan- UNDP Viet Nam: If you look at the second focus of our new study on SMEs, UNDP Viet Nam has been working with the Ministry of Industry and Trade, and for example, published a piece of research last year on Industry 4.0 Readiness of Industry Enterprises in Viet Nam. The study concluded that the majority of key industries for Viet Nam are not ready for the IR 4.0, their technology adoption is low and they remain labour intensive. We are also facilitating the access to market for ethnic minority women in Bac Kan to expand their business and escape from poverty through e-commerce and e-payment solutions.

With the Accelerator Lab, we’ve also been scanning and found many local grassroots innovations in the field of circular economy and waste management- and we are now experimenting with the scaling of some. We are continuously learning as we go but close collaboration with the local ecosystem of innovators and ecosystem partners through different events we organize, helps us to understand more about what is happening on the ground.

Courtney- RIC: I really enjoy the examples you just shared- work happening on the ground. Let’s move back to the futures oriented horizon: we know there is a National Innovation Center under development- in what ways will this be a space that champions inclusive innovation? And are there any other interesting initiatives in the pipeline?

Ida- UNDP Viet Nam: The content of the new National Innovation Center (NIC) is being developed as we speak, but the idea from the beginning has been very focused on the infrastructural project side of it and technological innovation specifically. Through our Action oriented research we have been trying to influence the discussion and design of the NIC to be more inclusive as it represents an opportunity to develop a space for future innovation, rather than to replicate the ‘Silicon Valley’ type of models focusing on purely high- tech innovation. One of our overarching preliminary recommendations is that the different programs within NIC should take inclusive innovation and socio-economic development into account and align with, and drive forward, the SDGs. There are multiple ways in which this can be taken forward but for example the NIC could be developed to be a hub for harnessing the ability of collective intelligence and IR4.0 to address some of the most wicked challenges in Viet Nam such as climate change, air pollution and more. To facilitate this, the NIC could be a learning platform and convener, providing different learning opportunities that aim to increase the participation of the mass, including SMEs and grassroots innovators, in the production of innovation. Similar efforts to convene different innovation ecosystem partners have been seen around the country as for example, there has been a very exciting movement in Ho Chi Minh City towards developing an innovation district as an economic driver for the city and region, connecting research, entrepreneurship, academia, industry, and the local community to create a diverse innovation ecosystem.

Let us know your thoughts — you can follow UNDP Vietnam, the Regional Innovation Centre, Ida, Lan, Courtney for the latest—and 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 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.



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Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

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