Fighting the innovation antibodies: Three years of exploration at UNDP Asia-Pacific

For most bureaucratic organisations, innovation is not always synonymous with the way we work. Unyielding work processes, nonfungible budgets and long project cycles are not exactly conducive to being agile and innovative. So when UNDP in the Asia Pacific region decided to invest in this much hyped and scary word a little over three years ago, scepticism reigned. We faced many ‘whys’ but decided to proceed with cautious optimism.

Looking back now, it is astonishing how much we have gained. The investment has paid off, and the reward is the journey itself. So for our fellow rebels in bureaucratic organisations – it is possible, there is hope. Here is how we did it, and what we have achieved so far.

Iterating and evolving our engagement model

Often when we begin an innovation training session we ask colleagues to tell us what motivates them to be innovative, or to explore what innovation means. Looking at ourselves, the answer was obvious and no one captures it better than Jack Welch. “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, then the end is near.” And it’s this rate of change eclipsing us that became the motivational factor.

Based on feedback from our staff, we kicked off our first year with an innovation fund supported by the Government of Denmark – small resources to seed ideas backed by a “safe to fail” space. And we matched it with our own funds to demonstrate our resolve.

We engaged teams with the best ideas, helped refine their ideas and mentored them through the rapid prototyping period.

We ran the innovation fund as a campaign – where everyone worked out loud. We celebrated our successes and we also celebrated our failures.

Recognition of brave champions is an important incentive to create interest and keep staff engaged, and in our second year of the fund engagement tripled! We also invested in a scaling component and in an innovation ambassador programme in partnership with Nesta: the idea was to help our champions broaden their innovation experience and build skills forward to help others on the journey.

We discovered that ambassadors thrived in converting staff outside their own host offices rather than at home. We turned this potential weakness into a strength and designed a programme that helped institutionalise innovation and build a distributed capacity for the region.

While we iterated on the design every year, we realised that one challenge remained - moving innovation from the fringe to the core of programmes. It was still perceived as an “add on”. We also realised that while we had a good horizontal exposure to various innovation concepts, we needed to build specialised skill sets that dig deeper and give staff new areas of expertise.

So in our third year, we did away with a fund and a call for proposals. We instead conducted portfolio diagnostics at country level, identified entry points for innovation in the programmes, and invested in developing a portfolio of experiments around specialised areas: Innovative Finance in Indonesia and Big Data in China. More recently, following the success of Sri Lanka’s first national innovation and foresight summit, we are exploring advancing investments in youth engagements and innovation through a Policy Innovation Lab.

What we gained

In short, a network of innovation champions, new solutions, many firsts, a whole host of new and non-traditional partners, awards and media recognition. This helped position us as a go to partner for innovation in the region, underpinned by an increasing revenue generation model.

From partnering with Baidu to tackle e-waste in China, to working with Mobimedia to tackle corruption in Papa New Guinea, and from joining with DJI to use drones to collect CDRR data in Maldives, to creating our first virtual reality film following the quake in Nepal, we have tried to infuse innovation into everything we do.

We launched challenge prizes recognising that citizens’ ideas and insights are crucial to addressing problems; we partnered with Makassar city government and used design thinking to identify solutions to transport systems. And we partnered with Seoul – a leader in innovation – to use reverse engineering to support innovation exchanges in cities across Asia and the Pacific.

We believe that our ability to provide innovative services is critical to our value proposition in an increasingly middle-income region like Asia-Pacific.

Emerging principles

That is the short story of our three-year dive into innovation – but here are some of the insights that emerged from practice:

  1. Knowing the unknown – we don’t know what we don’t know, so nurture intellectual curiosity. Let the geek in you gain the upper hand, spot the trends and get to know what we can work with and where the opportunity is. This doesn’t mean becoming a big data, alternative finance or design thinking expert overnight, but rather being at one degree of proximity to the ones who are, and exploring collaboratively applications for development.
  2. Embracing the development mutants – traditional development is long gone. Today we see a whole host of new players, a new mutation of species in development that straddle both the public and private sector. This is an incongruent mix that we could either deny exists or figure out how best to work with them and learn from them. It’s this network of partners outside our usual suspects that have helped us innovate. Speaking to new people helps generate new ideas.
  3. Innovation by leadership – where innovation is positioned on the corporate ladder is indicative of how well it thrives, and this is the distinguishing factor between offices that do well versus those that struggle. Yes, leadership matters, and exposure to innovation and not being risk averse are key to advance the agenda.
  4. Testing the hypothesis – we often design projects by what was, rather than by what can be. Imagine drawing a line in the sand and saying no more of the usual. What else would, could you do? Designing project documents as testable hypotheses and developing prototypes helps in managing risks upfront through multiple parallel experiments, and demonstrating proof of concept.
  5. Exercising the innovation muscle – often people we meet talk about innovation as a state of mind, an inherent skill that one naturally possesses that helps you come up with good ideas. False! Probably the most over-rated myth. It’s much less about the ‘lightbulb’ moment than it is about a muscle that needs to be continually exercised – identify the bottlenecks, spot the trends, scan the horizon, fan your curiosity, find your partner, talk to your users, co-design, test, fail, iterate and so on.
  6. Establishing your digital footprint – we often do great work but forget to talk about it. We also forget that most of us relate to individuals rather than an impersonal organisation, so telling the story and putting yourself out there is key to gaining willing partners. After all, if you don’t sound interesting how would you attract interesting ideas or people?

What’s ahead?

As the cliché, goes we have miles to go before we sleep. While we celebrate our successes we also know we cannot rest on them. Opportunities emerge, clients’ needs evolve, huge development challenges remain and our capacity across the region is uneven. Coming up, we are organising an iData studio that allows staff to get inspired by data innovations but also work hands-on in designing them and building their capacity through data deep dives. We are also teaming up with AID:Tech on the use of blockchain technology applications for India.

We are advising our partner agency, the Islamic Development Bank, on their innovation strategy and working with them on exploring innovations in Islamic finance and fintech services. We are also exploring establishing a lab in China where technology advancements can meet the test bed of development and proven solutions can be promoted at scale.

Finally, while we have moved innovation from the periphery to the centre of the organisation, we recognise that to break the mould and create a new norm we need to not just focus on the front end but also the back office. So how might we reimagine the future of an office for UNDP? What will be its structure, processes, staff that can drive innovation forward? So that innovation is an intrinsic principle that embodies the organisation as a whole rather than simply a part of it?

Stay tuned for our revelations this and a lot more… and if you are interested in working with us, we are here, we are listening!


Ramya Gopalan

Ramya leads UNDP's innovation practice in Asia Pacific, focusing on helping UNDP develop the next generation of its services based on approaches and methodologies mediated from differe…

Haoliang Xu

Mr. Haoliang Xu is UN Assistant Secretary-General and Assistant Administrator and Regional Director for the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific at UNDP. Mr. Xu joined UNDP in 1995…