As the new year gets off to an exciting start, the United Nations Development Programme’s 60 Accelerator Labs across the world are ready to unleash the full force of their intellectual capacity, protocols, tools and at some of the most intractable problems governments across the worlds face. The task for each lab is not a small one: To explore opportunities and solutions with regards to a particular frontier challenge (a challenge that is emerging, complex in nature and for which no obvious solutions exist yet) and turn these into a portfolio of parallel experiments that together have a chance to move the needle at the systems level. Like magnifying glasses that all focus on one spot where they have a chance to ignite a fire that shines brighter and farther than each of the magnifying glasses (aka UNDP projects) could on their own. It has been exciting to see ideas for new approaches, unusual partnerships and novel experiments pop up across different Labs in the last few months. And frankly, it is exhilarating for me personally to be part of a network of so many capable and motivated professionals all willing to learn from each other and our partners and throwing their excellence at problems that matter.

Within our own Lab in the Pacific, we are focusing on Climate Security for Low-lying Coastal Areas/Atolls. As per the portfolio approach, we are exploring different angles to increase resilience of coastal communities and start designing experiments for each of them that can complement each other. We are looking at both technology-based approaches (land reclamation and sustainable development of newly reclaimed land) and nature-based solutions (growing Juncao grass to prevent coastal erosion) that might strengthen islands physically. We are spending time in local villages to identify Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) practices that can boost social resilience and economic livelihoods of communities (read about our recent support to reviving the practice of saltmaking in Vusama village). And we are exploring pathways to how we can start talking openly about realistic governance options for islands that are in danger of disappearing.

Learning itself can’t be an end goal

Photo: UNDP


So, the work for 2020 is cut out for us. The question then is, what comes after the experiments? The Accelerator Lab Network is designed as “the world’s largest and fastest learning network” in development. It uses solutions mapping and collective intelligence with the aim to run experiments and rapidly learn what works and what doesn’t across the 60 labs. But learning in itself is not an end-all. Unlike academia, which derives its purpose and satisfaction from the pursuit of knowledge and insight itself, UNDP works at the frontlines of policy implementation. Learnings and insights gained from initiatives alone remain moot if they are not translated into viable changes to society. Which usually happens in the form of new policies, laws, guidelines, regulations, budgeting or collaborations that turn lessons from a project into changes to the system.

Path to scale for experiments

Photo: UNDP


But how does that happen? Successful prototypes don’t by themselves turn into to national scale-ups (the impressive line-up of exciting prototypes from UNDP’s Innovation Facility that were successful in themselves, but didn’t lead to scaled-up adoption, are testament to that). And the fact that UNDP is now focusing its innovation efforts on a frontier challenge, and in context of a coordinated and complementary portfolio rather than a dispersed set of unconnected prototypes, will not automatically result in systemic change.

The question of how to scale up development initiatives has been discussed in-depth in the past by development practitioners, including in UNDP’s own Guidance Note on Scaling up Development Programmes. But beyond that, which practical approaches and tools can help the Accelerator Labs on their journey after they’ve implemented first prototypes and learned from them? UNDP’s own toolbox might be able to lead the way. In its excellent Project Hacker’s Toolkit, the global UNDP innovation team features three tools that might help Accelerator Lab teams tackle the issue of what how to turn a successful experiment into something that has impact at a systems level: (1) Explore leverage mechanisms for scaling up, (2) Scaling up a pathway, and (3) Make your solution sustainable. So I encourage everyone struggling with this same question to take a look at them.

A Theory of Change for a path from learning to systemic transformation

However, looking into these resources can only be a start. As global Accelerator Lab network, we need to look at our Theory of Change which outlines what we expect our results to be (beyond mere learning!), how we anticipate achieving them, and how we intend to measure that. Gina Lucarelli initiated the discussion on the latter question in her excellent post aptly titled “What does success look like for UNDP’s Accelerator labs?”, and it is crucial that we continue this discussion. What results are we looking for beyond the learning points we capture after each experiment? And what is our Theory of Change about how we will turn learning into systemic transformation? It is critical that we find answers to this question, lest we (the network of Labs) find ourselves in a place where we concluded lots of relevant experiments that generated fantastic insights, yet we haven’t planned for a path to scale that would achieve the systemic change we are looking for in our frontier challenges.

On a final note, considering all the above, what is becoming increasingly clear to me, is that an exclusive focus on rapid short-term learning cycles that try to generate learning about a particular frontier challenge within a few weeks or months, only to then move on to the next frontier challenge, cannot be our only modus operandi. It will not be sufficient for crossing the bridge from experimental learning to scale. By definition, the AccLab network’s frontier challenges are vast, complex and overwhelming. Our Pacific challenge of Climate Security for low-lying Coastal Areas/Atolls certainly is. These types of challenges require a long-term commitment to become knowledgeable in the thematic space, explore solutions and test a multitude of approaches that tackle the underlying system from different angles at the same time. And while the learning cycles for some solutions might be short (under a 100 days), others will require a longer engagement. Combining some quick wins with some bold bets that take a swing at results that might take longer to materialize, appears to be necessary in order to craft a balanced portfolio that has a chance at tackling a frontier challenge in a meaningful way. So here at the Accelerator Lab Pacific, security for coastal communities is our gig, and we are in it for the long haul. After all, if we don’t get coastal zones right, we won’t get development right in the Pacific.

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