Notes from Behind the Scenes: Preparing the landing strip for our #NextGen Accelerator Labs (2/2)

This is a 2-part post from the series sharing the the Regional Innovation Teams’ experimental journey socializing portfolio approaches and systems transformation work across the Asia Pacific UNDP Country Offices (CO). We’ll be focusing here on some of our most recent work supporting the rollout of the second generation of Accelerators Labs in the region.

Part 2— Introducing new methods

“If uncertainty is indeed ‘unmeasurable,’ visual representation of issues might help uncover emergent properties of the system that allow for perpetual learning.”

Milica Begovic, UNDP Global Innovation Advisor, ‘Strategic innovating funding in times of radical uncertainty

As described in Part 1, a more guided onboarding of the next generation of Accelerator Labs started with country offices agreeing the best use of the labs would be to help tackle “frontier challenges” in their respective countries. With COVID-19 having surfaced our widespread systemic fragilities, this was a signal of commitment to moving away from single point solutions to system level transformation work. Of the eight countries in Asia-Pacific launching an Accelerator lab in 2020, seven chose to go “deep”, and we worked with CHÔRA Foundation to design a guided multi-week process that would support them — especially in terms of approaching their chosen frontier challenge from a system perspective.

The work

In addition to identifying and researching a frontier challenge, offices prepared for the working sessions by engaging, where possible, with external stakeholders (government, and beyond) to broaden their perspective and understanding. The frontier challenge areas proposed by offices varied broadly; from the need to tackle waste management to unpacking what sustainable and inclusive tourism can be post COVID-19.

The intention of the pre-work and sessions was not to have teams do for the work for the labs, but to test using this process to make the initial challenge articulation stronger and clearer for the incoming team (i.e. prepare a better “landing strip”), and to also use this opportunity to expose more colleagues to an emergent inquiry and systems driven process which if they found helpful could be applied with their other streams of work.

The guided sessions had country office teams explore:

  • Unpacking as a team various sub-issues under the challenge areas, and their root causes using a number of simple tools including the 5 Why’s and the Iceberg model — an effort to make teams pause and reflect on causality. To have us reflect at what levels of ‘why’ do we tend to operate/intervene as an organization? Surface and symptomatic levels, or deeper paradigms?
  • Using a systems map framework to capture known (initial) stakeholders, elements and interactions (and as shared in the lessons learnt from Post #1, with an emphasis on building a shared initial vocabulary and clear collective understanding of the system over developing a “perfect” or even “correct” map)
  • Articulating a statement of intent of what we want to achieve (our North Star), including some key transformative effects UNDP would want to generate in their chosen system:
  • Using visualize frames (such as one below) to understand potential interactions in that system among key elements to start to surface potential systems levers — asking ourselves:

“How do the experiences of different stakeholders play out when they interact with the resources in the system? Where do they even interact in the system?”

“How is decision making happening for different stakeholders or for different resources? At what level in the system do they even get to make decisions?” (e.g. at the collection of data, interpreting of information, or at the deeper levels of acting on intelligence)

“What kinds of interventions already exist in the system? At what level are they even taking place?” (e.g. at the flow of information, or at a deeper mindset/paradigm level)

These layered sessions were designed to go deeper each time in fleshing out the system of the frontier challenge, and supporting the teams in discerning at each stage the difference between what they thought they knew, actually know, and still need to learn about.

Based on the limited work to date, some country offices came out being more assured that they want the new lab to continue on the initial direction their pre-work had led them to, with others realizing a need to either reframe or pivot within the broader challenge area, with at least one acknowledging the possibility they would benefit going back to the drawing board.

Did we ultimately succeed in setting a stronger and wider landing strips for the labs?

As the new labs are still being onboarded, the jury is still out, but there is more work already being planned on the challenge areas, which we interpret as a positive sign.

What’s next? Many things, beginning with a need to figure out…

  • How can the new labs engage more country office colleagues to build on the collective intelligence and systems knowledge that already exists internally within the office as a first step to go deeper and wider? Harness the knowledge (tapped and latent) that already exists within our organization.
  • How can more office colleagues feel supported in experimenting with #DoingDifferently with their other projects and streams of work? Shifting this perception of innovation sitting with only a particular team to one that is a shared practice.
  • How to take this UNDP understanding of a system and test it with external stakeholders, both deepening our understanding, creating shared knowledge, and taking this practice outside the walls of UNDP to our partners?

This is just the beginning, and we look forward to using the frontier challenge to deepen our experiments to ‘do differently’, with more colleagues and country offices by our side. Thank you for being a part of this journey with us! Look forward to sharing as we continue on, and hearing from all of you who are also on a similar journey within your own offices and organizations.

By Prateeksha Singh, Head of Experimentation at the Regional Innovation Center of the UNDP Asia Pacific, with support and co-writing from Bishnu Chettri (Innovation-Solution Mapper and Explorer, Bhutan), Sohara Mehroze Shachi (Team Lead of Research Facility, Bangladesh), Aphinya Siranart (Social Impact Investment Consultant, Thailand) and Courtney Savie Lawrence, Head of Exploration at the Regional Innovation Center of the UNDP Asia Pacific.

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