Developing countries face complex needs, including multidimensional poverty as well as global phenomena such as climate change, pollution, energy, and rising extremism, which can only be addressed through a local lens.
Over the last 10-15 years, the number of social enterprises, impact hubs and innovation labs from the public, private and philanthropic sectors have increased. Individual innovators are a largely untapped resource. Nationally representative household innovation surveys show that many individuals innovate to solve their own problems- at their own expense. We are also seeing iterative approaches including design thinking and adaptive management become more widely adopted in the business and social spheres. While these efforts have generated learning and networks, their collective impact has been hampered by the lack of scale and limited uptake in the places that need them the most – such as local communities in least developed countries (LDCs), including conflict-prone or climate-vulnerable regions. Although data are sparse, innovation labs, impact hubs and social enterprises seem to involve and benefit women less than men.
It will take new solutions that are locally relevant and locally driven, and crucially that can be adapted, sustained, and replicated to address these complex needs.
Towards a Solution
The Accelerator Labs Network is the world's largest and fastest growing learning network on sustainable development challenges, powered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany and the Qatar Fund for Development (QFFD) as founding investors. The Labs aim to address the toughest development challenges, supporting governments with actionable insights. The Labs work in partnership with partners at the global and local levels from governments, academia, private sector, social innovators, UN System, and NGOs, capitalizing on the power of grassroots and youth, empowering them to search and experiment with solutions developed as those dealing with the problems. The Accelerator Labs are designed to close the gap between the current practices of international development and the accelerated pace of change.
The Initiative has three objectives:
- Increase UNDP Country Offices and partners capability for scanning, sense making, and experimentation for sustainable development solutions
- Scale new sustainable development solutions at country level through UNDP’s country programme and operations, national policy and/or local markets
- Establish a global learning and scaling network
In terms of the methodology, each Lab has three members - Head of Solutions Mapping, Exploration, and Experimentation which are embedded in UNDP Country Offices generating a virtuous circle, absorbing the existing knowledge and experience while bringing and infusing new skills, innovative methodologies, and untapped partners to the table. The Labs’ approach has been designed to be sensitive to emerging signals of changes and react in a short period of time, experimenting and proposing tested solutions to address complex and interconnected challenges, with the potential to be scaled either through UNDP programmes and operations, governments, and/or private sector. After scanning new data sources and in consultation with a network of local partners, the Labs decide which challenge(s) and SDG(s) to focus on at the beginning of each Action Learning Plan, which lasts approximately 100 days.
During the cycle, Labs apply the following protocols to generate breakthroughs and accelerate learning towards what works and what does not to achieve the Agenda 2030: SENSE-MAKING: this helps assess whether there is a fit between current investments and the changing environment. COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE: The Labs use the power of various sources of intelligence, including the crowd and machine learning to understand problems, develop new solutions, promote more inclusive decision making, and provide better oversight of what is done. SOLUTIONS MAPPING: The Labs identify local solutions that have the potential to accelerate development. PORTFOLIOS OF EXPERIMENTS: Experimentation helps the network learn whether assumptions are accurate before deploying solutions at scale, especially in uncertain or volatile conditions that often dominate development progress. Finally, a global team oversees the Network, monitors the progress, consolidates results and aggregates learnings, helping to generate an enabling and conducive environment to facilitate cross-pollination, while supporting dissemination of knowledge to the broader development ecosystem.
The Labs Network brings to the fore and reinforces locally sourced solutions on a large scale while mobilizing a wide and dynamic partnership of actors contributing knowledge, resources, and experience. Besides, they introduce a new way of working within UNDP that identifies crucial learning questions and a roadmap of activities (e.g., experiments, explorations, mapping grassroots solutions, and partnerships) to better understand sustainable development challenges and generate learning faster.
The initiative started in 2019 with 60 Lab teams covering 78 countries and is currently expanding to 90 Labs covering 114 countries. With a concentration in the Africa region, the initiative covers 79 per cent of all LDCs and 66 per cent of small island developing states (SIDS).
For example, in Lao PDR and the United Republic of Tanzania, the labs are using big data to improve and address waste management issues. In Guinea-Bissau, the lab has mapped out grassroots innovations to identify gaps and coordinate COVID-19 response.
In 2020 alone, the Labs:
- Addressed 147 development challenges, covering all 17 SDGs.
- Documented over 1,700 grassroots solutions and used 48 different innovation methods and approaches.
- Published 360 blog pieces – one a day – on critical development challenges and learning processes.
- Eighteen government counterparts adopted a selection of Accelerator Lab's tools and methods.
- Established 520 partnerships with the government, private sector, civil society organizations, academia, and the UN system.
The application of the labs has ensured the correlation between current investment and the changing environment that allows decision-makers to discover, build and grow portfolios of multi-reinforcing answers to tackle complex challenges from multiple angles.