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.