The art of portfolio development: building a movement

Authors: Luong Nguyen, Brent Wellsch, Alex Oprunenco, Shumin Liu, and Ida Uusikyla

This is the second blog in the series documenting our learnings as part of our regional initiative around plastic pollution and transition to a circular economy. In the first blog we looked at the role of portfolio in supporting policy coherence and decision-making. This one looks at the portfolio’s role in building movement for change.

Movement-Building- What does it Mean in our Context?

Have you ever seen this video? Chances are you have. It became a cult-hit sensation early in the past decade. It depicts a gentleman enjoying himself at an outdoor music festival. His joy is genuine: he is first seen dancing alone, simply finding a way to express his feelings in that moment through impromptu dancing. Before long, his energy and actions become infectious leading to at first a small “following” and then, almost with a snap of one’s fingers, a large snowballing mob begins to emerge, all replicating the behavior that this gentleman first begins…alone.

This video became a sensation because of its powerful demonstration in the power of movements, and what it takes to start one. A movement is never the by-product of mainstream activity. It starts in spite of some predominant presence, in response to something. For those embedded in “system-change” work, this can be quite difficult. It takes vision, courage, and conviction, particularly at the outset. Sometimes these movements begin in response to a ground-breaking event and challenge the predominant system, as we saw last year with the tragic death of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement. However, other times they require the conviction of one or a few people willing to put themselves out there to start something new. It is this latter case where we have found our role to be of particular importance.

Our previous blogs have attempted to demonstrate how we seek to break with the traditional approaches to “problem solving”. Leveraging social energy for this work is insufficient if it is not part of a consistent effort being put forth to build relationships within the community, we are supporting in affecting change.

Self-Understanding: The state of the intervener

When we began working in Da Nang in 2019, (while we didn’t realize it) we lacked self-understanding and credibility within the local ecosystem. We assumed the value of UNDP’s support and effort was obvious and would be immediately welcomed by local government officials. While we secured some high-level interest via a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), we learned quite quickly that the reception by low to mid-level officials was quite different from the top leadership: they were tentative and perhaps even skeptical of our presence. In Viet Nam, there is a saying of “trên nóng, dưới lạnh”, literally “hot top, cold under.” This refers to the disconnect that is pervasive between high-level/central leadership levels and lower/local officials. In large organizations, often the urgency and priorities of top leadership don’t translate to implementation and priorities at local levels — which often leads to lackluster implementation during projects.

At the same time, we often are bound by a hierarchical and narrow engagement approach of working with a single government department in isolation from one another. But in our increasingly complex and interconnected world, issues such as tackling the linear economy and mitigating waste pollution is anything but simple and for this project, one with an ambitious vision and mission we had to do things differently. As such we pursued an engagement model that embraced elements of the “relational state”, recognizing the relational networks consisting of histories, friendships and grudges that were alive and present in Da Nang. In this project this meant engaging with actors from the local ecosystem, ranging from potentially enthusiastic public sector officials to community organizers, startups founders or informal waste-pickers.

A critical mind-set shift has helped better position us in this work: from ‘portfolio’ implementers to portfolio shapers and facilitators. Put another way, we realized early that if we were to be successful, we could not be taskmasters, delegators, or implementers of this work in the long term (or perceived to be). Rather, “the work” would have to be owned and driven by the local ecosystems that occupy the places and spaces we were looking to influence. This may sound trivial or obvious, but for an organization that is typically focused on project delivery from the outside this has been a foray into uncharted waters.

Storytelling and dialogue are essential for the meaning-making and creating ownership in a community

Four Key Principles on Movement Building in Da Nang

Our reflections on this experience have surfaced for us the power of movements and systems work. This approach to engagement has helped us to build relational/social capital around our portfolio. As such, we outline four key principles for supporting movements around portfolio work:

1. Establish a local presence and show value.

  • Establish credibility (i.e., show short-term value) for the value of applying an innovation approach to address time-sensitive development challenges (waste management). To do this we ran a quick experiment and research to unearth important insights for the local stakeholders. Importantly, we not only ran this experiment with the local government’s interests in mind but included them in running the experiment so they could “learn by doing”.
  • Articulate a vision and accompanying pathways for responding to pain points of the local community that would enable these stakeholders to look at the challenge-space with “fresh eyes” and be open to new promising practices and interventions without being overwhelmed by complexity or underwhelmed by lack of progress until now. This was achieved through our system-based challenge reframing and development of sequence of initial probing portfolios.

2. Include right people (a combination of those showing an openness to invest time and resources, have local credibility, and have an open mindset and not vested in the status quo) who could effectively “be the face” of this work locally providing both credibility and sustainability to our efforts. All our time seeking to learn about the local conditions in Da Nang (through conversations, meetings, and workshops) paid off nicely as it was through these relationship building endeavors that we were able to identify these integral local champions.

In particular, our connection with DNES, a local innovation hub, provided us with a solid foundation to begin to seed circular efforts. These include the development of a circular economy business model incubation program and the Da Nang Circular Economy Hub (DCEH): a community centered initiative designed to curate locally driven circular initiatives to address current environmental challenges.

Observing the growth of local seeds in Da Nang, Mr. Vo Duy Khuong — Chairman of Da Nang Business Incubator (DNES) former Vice-Chairman of Danang People’s Committee (Municipal government) shared:

“Realizing the need for community mobilization and finding synchronous solutions in the spirit of social innovation, Da Nang welcomes the cooperation with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to build the Da Nang Circular Economy Hub (DCEH), which supports talented people with innovative projects to promote the improvement of solid waste treatment system and sustainable consumption/green consumption in the community in the region.”

The MoU signing ceremony between DNES, DISED HUST, IECD, VNUK to collaborate on Circular Economy

3. Stir the movement (not just shake!), here we decided to play the incubation game differently. As opposed to a more traditional approach, we sought to implement local pilot projects with a portfolio logic in mind: pilots that are aligned and share complementarity but are also co-owned and shared across a network of actors, with teams working together and learning from each other through curated sessions.

For instance, with the DCEH we engaged an initial 35 local ambassadors to serve as circular economy champions for the community. From this group we crowdsourced 12 circular economy proposals in Danang and finally selected 5 of these to incubate over a period of half a year. These innovators were at the forefront and were the “face of this program.” For us, this linkage was again critical for legitimacy, credibility and sustainability of the Hub and our overall portfolio. With modest seed-funding provided by UNDP, many of these champions were able to make connections with government and business partners that were previously inaccessible.

Mr. Hoang Song Tung — Founder of Green Run Series project and one of the ambassadors shared:

“The circular economy model not only brings value or finance, but also helps guide business activities to become more responsible and have less [negative impact] for the environment — In the past 6 months, most of the ideas were still in the learning phase of the model. After 6 months, through many workshops, training courses and the connection of experts from UNDP, DNES and different organizations, the picture of the business model of each project and of the Green Run Series has been completed.”

Connecting the dots: Department of Natural Resource with Circular Economy Hub innovators

4. Letting go of control. While this may seem easy, it was not. This required us to challenge ourselves to let go of the “command and control” mentality. For example, instead of creating a perfect 5-year plan and strategy to enforce local stakeholders to follow. We opened ourselves up to serendipity by being ok with the uncertainty that comes with not having a strict plan, with all the answers, rather have a major outcome area to act as north stars and adapt to the situation as we go. We made space for adaptation by the local partners and were happy to see some of the ideas sparked by our initiative taken to scale elsewhere.

This can be counterintuitive, chicken and the egg, after all how can you implement activities if you don’t have a plan? In a sense, plans are essential, but also limiting when it comes to working in complexity. No plan survives entirely intact the first contact with reality. Centrally made plans are basically a group of elite people coming to a conclusion from outside the system, coming in and saying what a community lacks and needs. Coming to a conclusion before having the full picture, then forcing the community to comply. Ideally, a plan needs to arise from a community commitment to that plan with allocated resources to carry out.

Conclusion

System change does not exist without people: this is so central to our experience to date. To initiate a movement, you need someone who is willing to initially “dance by themselves” but also create space for others to join. This is not science, much more like art, and we are learning as we go. But the experience in Da Nang has been transformational for us as conveners of systems change work.

Мost public sector organizations are not designed to engender this relational approach — their structural, cultural, and mindset realities simply prevent it. To this point, we are using this work to discover, (un)learn organizational values, assumptions, and competencies required to catalyze and sustain this effort in the long-term. This is what our next blog in this series will focus on…stay tuned!

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