Launch of Bhutan Accelerator Lab: Walking the talk on innovation

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis is reshaping our volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, in short the VUCA environment that we have been living in for quite some time now. Others say that we may have moved into a new emerging state termed BANI-brittle, anxious, non-linear, and incomprehensible. Both describe the world as overly complex, constantly confronted with stubborn economic, social, and environmental problems which are becoming increasingly unpredictable. So, how do we then reorganize ourselves for these uncertainties? More notably, what kind of new approaches should we use to solve the problems facing the 21st century?

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Reimagining development for the 21st century

Cognizant of these challenges, UNDP in 2019 built a global alliance of 60 accelerator labs covering 78 countries to firstly adopt a systems thinking approach towards understanding the complex problems of the 21st century, and secondly, to find innovative solutions through rapid testing, and experimenting processes. In October 2020, UNDP Bhutan joined the network along with 29 other labs, increasing the count to 92 labs now serving 116 countries. This has been made possible thanks to the continued support from our investors, the Qatar Fund for Development and German Development Cooperation.

Efforts on innovation front are not new to Bhutan. The landing strip for the Accelerator Lab was made back in 2019 with the institution of an innovation unit in the country office. The unit kickstarted the innovation conversation in partnership with the Regional Innovation Centre, Bangkok. A two-day workshop facilitated by Giulio Quaggiotto, now the Director of the Strategic Innovation Unit, UNDP Global, set up the initial footing for the innovation unit. Initial discussions on public sector innovation also began then with the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC).

Building upon the foundation set by the innovation unit, the Accelerator Lab will focus on three frontier challenges:

  1. To bring about a systems approach to overcoming barriers in the youth unemployment landscape.

2. Apply behavioral insights interventions in waste management.

3. Work with wider stakeholders, including grassroots innovators to build an inclusive innovation ecosystem in the country.

Adapting to the current lockdown situation in the country, a virtual launch was opted for the Accelerator Lab. We went live on UNDP Bhutan Facebook page 12th January. The hour-and-a-half virtual event brought together officials from the government, Civil Society Organizations, Non-Governmental Organizations, entrepreneurs, youths, academia, artists, startups, and development partners.

It was a deliberate attempt to open pathways for future collaborations. We wanted to use the launch as a platform to connect with unusual partners who would have otherwise not fallen under our radar.

Setting aspirations

Outlining the goals of the Lab, the Resident Representative (RR) of UNDP, Azusa Kubota stressed that it would serve as a platform for doing things differently and ensuring that experimentation is at the forefront of operations and practices.

“For innovation to thrive, there is a need for policies and incentives that encourage fail safe culture where ideas are tested and experimented before significant resources are invested in a solution. This type of risk-sharing and experimental approach has become even more relevant and important in the wake of fast-shrinking fiscal space faced by public institutions during the COVID-19 crisis. One of the challenges for the lab will be to ensure that ideas do not remain as ideas. Ideas that are tested and experimented must be scalable to ensure the attainment of a truly transformational change.”- Azusa Kubota, RR, UNDP

The Minister of Economic Affairs, Loknath Sharma, in his opening remarks, emphasized the importance of innovation in strengthening existing systems and structures for a better post-COVID era. He suggested partnerships in integrating innovation to accelerate greener recovery pathways for the country.

“We are witnessing heavier strain on our health providers. Mental health issues and gender-based violence cases are also on the rise. Unemployment is increasing. Our economies are at stake. In such an environment, we have come to learn that for us to survive and prosper, innovation is pivotal.”- Loknath Sharma, Minister for Economic Affairs

Thinley Namgyel, the Secretary of Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) welcomed the lab to co-create agility and adaptiveness in planning and policymaking processes through innovation and experimentation.

“We look forward to partnering with UNDP to use the accelerator lab facility in experimenting ways to accelerate progress in the country.”- Thinley Namgyel, Secretary, GNHC

Karma Hamu Dorjee, the Chairperson of the RCSC emphasized the need for public servants to innovate and invent solutions to the intractable problems faced by society and hoped that the lab would help bring in capabilities and ideas for public sector innovation.

“Innovative civil servants need to be: curious to search out opportunities to expand their own knowledge and understanding; storytellers, ready to use a range of tools to communicate with various stakeholders in ways that they can understand and engage with; and insurgents capable of effecting change in the systems within which they work, able to know when to push, how to negotiate, fight and/or compromise. We need to shift our outlook from “people as a workforce to people as a competitive force.” - Karma Hamu Dorjee, Chairperson, RCSC

How does Accelerator Lab work?

As part of a globally integrated network, each lab connects, co-creates and collaborates, drawing ideas and practices from one another in real-time. We have principles that we aspire to follow, such as embracing uncertainties by anticipating various kind of futures, accelerating learning through working out loud, and learning collectively, that is, moving from siloed approaches to solving these complex social challenges together collaboratively with unusual partners.

We also try to increase the diversity of information that we tap into. For instance, many of the solutions are often driven by existing institutional perspectives. The lab instead, tries to gain a deeper understanding of the challenge from user’s perspectives by administering human centric tools and approaches.

Based on these principles, we will be venturing on a 100-day learning cycle allowing us to experiment solutions and learn on a small scale before making expensive large-scale mistakes.

So, what is the lab working on now?

1. Using portfolio logic to select experiments from the systems map solution space for youth unemployment: Using portfolio logic, the lab aims to design a portfolio of solutions together with individual youths, youth groups, employers, innovators and experts, as interventions to affect change in the system.

2. Designing an experiment around digitizing agriculture: To support farmers, the lab is working with Cultivate team in UNDP Singapore and Ministry of Agriculture and Forests on designing an experiment around a digital platform.

3. Use of Behavioral Insights in understanding household waste segregation behavior: In partnership with the National Environment Commission Secretariat (NECS), the Lab is undertaking a social experiment on waste segregation in the capital. The social experiment which is centered around Randomized Control Trial (RCT) method, will aim to enhance the effectiveness of the distribution of three-colored bins to households.

4. Public sector innovation: Here, the lab aims to work with RCSC in designing experiments around innovating public service delivery.

5. Youth engagement platform: The lab is also working towards developing a youth participation platform, a digital space to encourage civic engagement where the youths can express their views and concerns as well as crowdsource ideas and challenges faced by them in real time.

Showcasing local innovation

The launch pad was also used to display to the wider audience what innovation in action looks like in practice. The second half of the session, therefore, focused on the local innovators. We invited two innovation champions to shed light on localizing innovation in the country.

Dr. Tshering Penjor, Principal Research Officer with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests talked about the design of his innovative platform for remotely running a SMART drip irrigation system and controlling when, how frequent to irrigate and to optimize water use and improve the production yields. Kesang Om, the Founder of Innovate Bhutan and an aspiring entrepreneur delved into her experiences working with young social ‘inno-prenuers’ in prototyping and testing their ideas.

To unlock the innovation potential in the country, we organized a weeklong Open Innovation Idea Challenge, an online ideathon leading up to the event. The challenge attracted 62 ideas in just seven days! Majority of the applicants were young adults aged 20 to 30 years.

The top three entries received an opportunity to pitch their ideas at the event. The winning ideas are an electronic voting system for persons with disabilities that would help make voting easier for them, a student tracking system to assess continuous process of learning, and a transport app to share information on navigation and timing for urban mobility rides.

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We had applicants from a range of occupation groups from business to unemployed, civil service and students. Ideas ranged from smart irrigation to drones for delivering medicines and design thinking platform for farmers. The youngest participant of the challenge was a 12-year-old student who wants to set up a cycling gym machine to generate electricity.

The engagement of the team with the grassroot innovators for the launch did revalidate the wise words of Anil Gupta, the founder of the Honeybee Network and a grassroots innovations devotee, “Minds at the Margin are not Marginal Minds.”

The journey of the grassroot innovators does not end there though. We understand that there is more to success than the idea itself and taking a product or service from the idea stage to the reality stage takes experience, foresight, and an effective approach towards development. Hence, for their ideas to flourish, the Accelerator Lab is planning to co-create a platform to map grassroot solutions and to set up network of such innovators, and most importantly, explore ways to prototype and experiment few of these solutions with relevant partners.

Summing it up

Overall, the Accelerator Lab will help country office and partners close the gap between current international developmental practices and an accelerated pace of change, by creating new service lines of innovation, co-creation and collaboration. The lab involves a core team of five, working together to apply and experiment grassroot solutions to demonstrate their value and relevance.

We are designed to operate in a dynamic, open, and flexible way within the UNDP framework. Our learning by doing and learning with others methods employ citizen centered tools to accelerate the 2030 Agenda. Do join us in our journey to walk the talk on innovation in Bhutan!

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Watch the recording of our virtual launch of Accelerator Lab here.

Blog by UNDP Bhutan Accelerator Lab team

Empowering lives and building resilient communities to leave no one behind.

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