When Government + Innovation become a #futureofwork Lab- insights from Singapore 2.0

By Courtney Savie Lawrence

Yes, it’s true- we didn’t dissolve from our Hanoi prototype (backstory here), but in fact we dug our heels in and ramped up sharpened efforts to focus on systemic change at the intersection between the future of work and youth economic empowerment. A cogent space to tackle as this is an experimental collaboration among the UNDP Youth Co:Lab, our Regional Innovation Centre, and our co-organizer, the Commonwealth Secretariat. Although we see ourselves as a one-year time boxed lab, recently launched and co-creating for the next several months, we have only been up for about 3 months. Since our kickoff we have run two labs, with our latest one held with 40 participants, this past June 11–14 in Singapore.

I want to share what we are discovering along the way as we build this ‘Government Innovation Lab’- a space designed on purpose to bring public sector influencers, decision makers and visionaries together — to induce next level, and arguably, necessary change in practical policy arenas across the Asia Pacific. In an attempt to be helpful and evoke meaningful conversations with you, below I’ll map out foundational elements of our big ‘why’, parts of our internal process and insights that could have only been sparked by ‘experiencing the experience’.

Outdated Operating Systems?

This story begins with one of the greatest institutional quests of the moment: how do organizations and systems evolve at the required pace to match the exponential change that has come to define our chaotic era of complexity? This is not a new question per se, in fact, Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations is comprised of several thought provoking arguments for why institutions mirror the societal state of consciousness; yet paradoxically, we have simultaneously been shackled by outdated constructs and bureaucracies as collective intelligence evolves overtime. In short, it takes self-awareness and action oriented agency to intentionally re-engineer the mechanics and mindsets of companies, organizations or governments that run on outdated operating systems. And this gap is what we are trying to address. Below you can see a visual representation that has been idea networked among some of our teams as we strive to concisely articulate the real issue lurking in the backdrop: there is an inability to respond to the needs and demands of our time. So what are we doing about it?

How to ‘change the chip’?

Well, as by now you know, we are on the topic of labs- a subject that is no stranger to debate nor curiosity in many innovation oriented circles. In fact, as pointed out in a previous post, you could say that we are at ‘peak lab’ indeed — so what merits the continued investment into this sugar high known for embracing risk in the face of uncertainty (nevermind what behavior scientists or systems thinking experts would tell us)? In terms of our evolving pop-up lab, we acknowledge that demand/interest and timing have been key: there is momentum and opportunity to galvanize the collective goodwill of the government stakeholders who are unified by the UNDP Youth Co:Lab agenda. A critical distinction however, is related to ‘fit’ — there was a clear ask from our government counterparts to learn and apply the systems changing skills that allow them to bridge the gaps across silos. Zooming out, at the same time, we see ourselves as one experiment within a complex dynamic that has unique influence, connectivity to the grassroots at large, plus the proxy doorways to influencers with decision making powers. Holding this in mind, we are exploring what change could look like among the many nodes and networks within the public policy ecosystem (focused on future of work and youth empowerment in earnest). Gabriela Gómez-Mont, founder of Laboratorio para la Ciudad, illuminates the high level in one of her most recent talks:

‘One needs to work with emerging strategy- you need to be awake to how alive urban and social challenges are… you need to get feedback loops of how things are going… the place of a lab is to fill in the gaps — based on experiments where you don’t know the results.’

— Gabriela Gómez-Mont, founder of Laboratorio para la Ciudad

Our (non-perfect) process highlights from April-June

From what we have found to-date these government ecosystem drivers are sincerely ‘awake’ and eager to transition towards systems change- not single point or siloed solutions. Based, again, on what we learned from our 1.0 Gov Lab, plus creation of a post Hanoi working advisory group “listening tour” (an intentionally crafted feedback loop), we found that our participants also wanted less theory and more hands on, action oriented exposure to the tools, mindsets and capabilities that underpin systemic transition design and making. We felt we were on to something, somewhat embodying the ‘uncertainty/patterns/insights’ part of the infamous design squiggle.

In short, our team decided to synthesize hours of conversations and move on our hunch, and this is when we chose to (re)frame our 2.0 as a 3 day experience focused on Making Policy Future Ready — exploring new approaches and experimenting with solutions to enable #nextgen work, jobs, entrepreneurship (context for the curious here). After even more conversations with in-house colleagues, and calls with teams at Nesta, The Australian Centre for Social Innovation and Zeroth Labs — we then started working on program and experience design. The goal was to explore, envisionand experiment, with 70% of programming time dedicated to action learning pedagogies and eventually ending with a diverse set of micro-experiments that could be run in lieu of conventional ‘next steps plans’.

What We Discovered

Soft Skills, the Built Micro-Environment and Mindsets — sometimes I am surprised by how much we are still trying to emphasize the importance of the following:

To move ‘systems change’ from theory to an embodied and integrated experience we ran an action learning method called ‘Viral Triangles’
  • Reflection is critical and the spaces in between matter. In a recent conversation with Emilia Saarelainen, who runs the UNHCR Innovation Fellowship Program, she hit the nail on the head of why we find typical collegial hallways thirsty for connection among the ironic backdrops of conventional workplace and space, as she expressed: It’s like the communities are there and then we build all of these structures and systems in place, but [these very things] take away “the community”… and then we try to re-build the communities within the structures we have built ourselves. For me, this point evolved further in my reflection on our Singapore lab- not only did we flip the model- such that there were more spaces for organic exchange, but we managed them on purpose with various micro-conversation structures lifted from Liberating Structures(‘Shift and Share’ — or what we called ‘Elephants and Dolphins’ and ‘Troika Consulting’ to unlock adjacent innovation). Importantly, we also tried to integrate somatic learning methods, inspired by a few I picked up at the THNK School of Creative Leadership (‘Viral Triangles’ to illustrate systems change). The take-away: the amount of wisdom in a room that can surface when you stop having ‘sages on stages’ and allow for bottom up conversations to rise. Can we (re)imagine a world where this becomes the norm for public sector leaders to operate from? If you are curious for more on how all of this connects more deeply to public sector innovation, you will definitely want to see this from States of Change.
  • Diving into the messiness and playfulness is effective if safe space is established and vulnerability is embraced. Thanks to the brilliant guidance and tone set by TACSI CEO Carolyn Curtis in the opening Systems Design 101 workshop on Day 1, our sense of community evolved relatively quickly- especially in this cross sector group with mostly government officials. By the end of the first micro-workshop, teams were connecting in smaller groups based on shared interests and exchanging their core value drivers. Carolyn then used ‘rich picture’ as the anchor activity to grasp what systems change looks like and means. Although the directive was to have groups draw out their pictures, one group broke the rules (!) and developed an interactive short play to showcase their point of view. Fast forward to the end of day two. At this point we had already tackled more policy/systems oriented dynamics, practiced building future scenarios and made connecting as humans a key priority. We started on our feet and ended 8 hours later with 50 people sitting in a circle expressing what impacted them that day, why it mattered and what curiosities still played in the shadows. It was powerful to see ‘government’ in this humanized light- open to not knowing all of the answers, open to vulnerable moments and most importantly, courageous enough to humbly listen to one another.
  • Tech is a blessing and a #fobo curse in terms of productivity versus presence- and literal space design impacts the experience. Before joining the UNDP and shifting from an ecosystem entrepreneur to an innovation intrapraneur, I had also spent several years teaching innovation and design at the university level. I bring this up to say, 1) I sincerely thought I had become attuned to the many tips and tactics needed to command attention as a MC or facilitator- which in the case of the lab I played dual roles. And 2) I also thought myself to be aware of the latest in abbreviated speech /social-media friendly acronyms or memes. From #fomo (fear of missing out) to #jomo (joy of missing out) to now #fobo (fear of being offline)- the latest one is new to me, but quite a significant clue to the state of our society, and what manifests when you put a lot of busy and important people in a room together for a few `days. It was a government official who dropped this #fobo on us in fact. At the cost of 100% genuine and consistent ‘presence in the room’, tech did get in the way, not a lot, but a little. It’s natural that participants needed to be on their phones or screens at different times, yet luckily the unspoken rule of self-monitored engagement was relatively upheld. I noticed myself trying to strike the right balance between live tweeting and actively listening towards a generative space. All this to say, when we went through the participant evaluations, a few mentioned that perhaps next time we could have certain ‘no screen sessions’ or even not use the round conference tables that are a part of the built environment. These suggests reflect our participants experience of the experience- and what was helpful or hindering.

Hard Skills and Approaches — in the year 2019 what are the emergent provocations and frameworks to facilitate catalytic change and impact acceleration? We tried to meet participants where they are on this journey with the following:

A systems mapping exercise of Bhutan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem was one of the many cases workshopped to drive home various tools shared by the talented Singapore based Zeroth Labs
  • Provocation and framing the #futureofwork was important — as our theory of change is located at this nexus. Anshul Sonak, Senior Director (Education & Innovation Initiatives) at Intel, was our keynote that was brought in for being both a UNDP Youth Co:Lab Champion, but ultimately fearlessly up to the challenge to make us uncomfortable. By driving home a sense of urgency with quotes like this one from Mark Bonchek: “Ours is the first generation in history with a need to update our mental maps within a single generation. The old models are rapidly becoming obsolete. This creates a challenge of not only learning, but rather unlearning. For example, this may be the last generation that needs to learn how to drive a car.” — to — deconstructing the fusion skills required for AI readiness, and the leadership mindset shifts to brace for the quantum shift in global culture. On a related note, in many ways, I found that participants are already working on many anticipatory facets related to the ‘future of work’, yet they are not necessarily classifying their set of actions and activities under this banner. As we explore more deeply the power of narratives in sensemaking and intentionally inducing a set of effects in terms of public policy — such as what our labs intend, I am curious to know how much more powerful could our collective work be in the aggregate if we did see more of these connections?
  • Futures and systems orientation tools are challenging to fully experience in a regional workshop setting: Although we curated a ‘Welcome Package and Reader’ with handpicked articles to help us hit the ground running, including the excellent The Water of Systems Change, which highlights the nuance of mental models and context, we still had significant basics to cover. Zeroth Labs, driven by Bernise Ang and Shaun Koh, a brilliant duo with the unique ability to hybridize complex content with high-energy engagement recipes led the groups through a few different learning experiences focused on questions like: How do we model a system, especially if it is complex and dynamic? What are future scenarios and how do you craft them to become compelling leverage points for influencing decision making? They also provided the basic building blocks of systems thinking, and showed examples of patterns that already exist in nature (for example) that we can learn from. Every few hours we touched base to recalibrate and adjust where needed based on energy levels and questions from the floor. Although the learning objectives included exploring the basic architecture of system dynamics (stocks, flows, etc), systems archetypes, and leverage points, we measured true success by how much participants were inspired to take these frames back to their local country level context. This has been part of the intention all along, in the sense that we need to space to go more granular if this lab is to ignite more sincere shifts in the governance and public policy arenas around the region- from structural to transformative.
  • Last but not least, we played with running a live horizon scan and ecosystem mapping using KUMU to map perceptions. When doing program design prior to the lab, I had a call with Bas Leurs- previously Nesta’s Head of Learning Experience Design, now with the UNDP Accelerator Lab’s team. He took a look at our rough cut draft and challenged us to become evermore interactive at the top of the mornings. And so we did. On Day 1, in this morning session, we focused on crowdsourcing with this live R+D Kumu Map the perceptions and points of view around the future of work- in terms of #nextgen work, jobs, entrepreneurship. During this mini- workshop we ask participants to share their top challenges, opportunities and ideas on ‘virtual post-it notes’ (which was technically a short googleform) as we wanted to scan the nuance around perceived challenges, opportunities, trends, initiatives, and map solutions found in their local and regional context. What’s interesting is that by far most of the post-it’s pointed to problems. Maybe this is indeed the stand out case, yet perhaps this also represents status quo default thinking. As we move towards strategic innovation, how might we strive to re-frame more cogently so that new solution avenues may emerge?

What is Next?

We are continuing. In fact our participants will be continuing on Zoom calls for cross checks and our working advisory group is moving ideas to action. As I mentioned, our game plan is set for a year and we have new experiments to run- with several countries in the Asia Pacific Region on the radar. Curious to engage, share your stories and lessons learned? Let me know @ricap_undp or @cocosavie

A million thanks to Beniam Gebrezghi, Giulio Quaggiotto, Sushil Ram, Karuna Kumar, Tina Jabeen, Senen Perlada, Fasieh Mehta, Anshul Sonak, Carolyn Curtis, Bas Leurs, Bernise Ang, Shaun Koh, Emilia Saarelainen, Shumin Lui, Alex Oprunenco, Stephanie Arrowsmith, Liu Yan, Laurie Smith and our incredible working advisory group who have all contributed in their own ways to this lab in beta.




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

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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.

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