‘Access of Light’ credit: Douglas Stratton Photography

Navigating the New Abnormal in the Asia Pacific- from Signals, Scans, to the Spaces in Between

By the Heads of Exploration, UNDP Asia Pacific Region

Observation and inference

New spaces to watch range from nascent geo-political positioning narratives, to the ways in which social safety nets are being digitalised, to education delivery. In our co-created Kumu Map, you will find a high-level synthesis of our session notes. We took elements from our internal meetings (our 8th one since kicking off in February) and mapped them across a radar plot with the following buckets: policy shifts, public sector capabilities, innovations, paradigm shifts, and cascading effects.

Click to see the high-level synthesis of our session notes. From the Pacific, to Timor Leste, to Vietnam and beyond, several snapshots are documented. Double click to see the notes in detail- https://bit.ly/RADARSCANKUMU

Provocations and sticky inquiry

Each time we meet we typically shift a little of our attention to what strikes us in terms of relevance or outliers. These conversations usually invite more questions to surface. Here are a few of the contradictions and provocations that we notice:

New normal vs. old — competing narratives and bias

While futurists may be having a field day painting possible scenarios, we can observe several different frames offered depending upon the sector, geo-political leaning or philosophical underpinnings of the ‘story teller’. Are we in the midst of a climate disaster or opportunity? As headlines suggest grand opportunities for a green recovery, we also note, for example, that China has since surpassed pre-COVID-19 emission levels, with regulation that has been rolled back in the past few months. Yet, as pointed out by Purnima Bajracharya of the Nepal A Lab, the extended lockdown has shown improved air quality particularly in Urban centers like Kathmandu.

Digital dividend vs. digital divide

The technology and social justice and development intersection is full of complexity. If you look (and double click on the notes) parked on our Kumu radar, you will see the powerful and dynamic role that accelerated experiments are having in terms of the digitalisation of safety nets, commerce, education and public services. In fact, the Regional Innovation Centre has been running a podcast series dedicated to capturing the raw learnings of public sector’s leveraging of technology. Yet all of this comes quickly, and often with an invisible cost that must be confronted at a later stage.

Politicization of the response and exacerbation of inequalities

Several of us noted that in our region, on a positive note, many countries are seeing a decline in the number of new cases, and now several governments are working towards the post-COVID-19 phase by relaxing lockdowns to stimulate the economy and get ‘back to normal’. Yet, it is also a time of emergency politics and maneuvering- where decision making is done to win votes or protect the status quo. On a tangential note, there is then the exacerbation of inequalities- fault lines are visibly emergent (globally, yet certainly in Asia) in terms of gender, race, economic, migrant and educational disparities.

FYI — our (imperfect) process notes

Over the past several months our team has met bi-monthly to exchange- we usually start with digital mapping on MURAL in advance of our calls. When we first started we followed the STEEP frame- mapping weak signals along social, technological, economic, environment and political frames. Over time we have evolved depending on what seems ripe for a deep dive. For our last session, for example, we also took a closer look at the policy and responses emerging in regards to MSMEs, Supply Chains, Migration, Jobs/Employment, Healthcare, Digitalization/e-gov transitions across the region. The objective is to download intel, among the many Accelerator Labs in the Asia Pacific Region, in real time, yet with the purpose of providing information that may support strategic decision making for post pandemic policy and programmes. Building on Policy Lab’s futures thinking framework, most of our sessions are dedicated with Trends, Signals and Drivers, with the intent to help our teams cast future scenarios in tandem with anticipated UNDP interventions.

Policy Lab’s futures thinking framework, adapted from Anna Roumiansteva’s model, The Fourth Way: Design Thinking Meets Futures Thinking. Source here
Our ‘team of teams’ meets virtually every other week- we capture various signals with different frames across the region. In our latest board we took stock of policy emerging and COVID response trends.

How to Build Back Better?

Policymakers, Intermediaries and the Citizen Sector are accountable to work together. The COVID-19 outbreak is changing each and every aspect of our lives- and in the past few months we are noting the ‘evidence’ that rises to the surface, or “reactions” to the pandemic. As Ash Buchanan, rightly points out in his post How holding space transforms our ability to respond:

“In this moment of great uncertainty, many of our leaders and space holders are facing complexities they have never had to face before. This includes parents holding space at home, organisers of community and interest groups, and leaders holding space at a school, organisation or national level. So, in the face of great uncertainty, how can we as leaders and space holders, host this complexity and activate our ability to respond.”

source: Ash Buchanan, The Benefit Mindset

In the Asia-Pacific region, we are interpreting the renewed mandate for innovation as an opportunity to reframe: follow us and contribute as we explore