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From troublemakers to transformation leads

Benjamin Kumpf
Policy Specialist & Project Manager, UNDP Innovation Facility

In this guest blog, Benjamin Kumpf discusses the UNDP innovation champion programmes that are helping to create a new normal.


Image of Kolba Lab workshop
A co-design event at UNDP’s Kolba Lab in Armenia


“If you want to achieve greatness, stop asking for permission.” This credo has long been a leading maxim for innovation champions at UNDP. But today, tides are shifting in more and more offices and questioning business as usual is becoming a new norm. Change often starts with a few dedicated, passionate individuals who are driven to have greater impact on the prevailing social norms around them.


Upon beginning of our strategic investments in innovation at UNDP in 2012, we realised that innovation champions in our Country Offices were the most important players for making change happen. These champions are women and men that come from all levels of the organisation with different professional backgrounds. Most work on programmes, and some work on operations. All of them are curious, passionate and driven. Most report that they had to bend the rules, or work under the radar to make early successes happen.


As we move into a new phase of our innovation journey, we are working on strengthening innovation competencies in UNDP, on embedding innovation in our business processes and further scaling our work. Here is a brief description of some of the different approaches we are taking to empower innovators.


Building skills across the innovation spectrum

In 2015 we launched the “Innovation Ambassadors” programme in the Asia-Pacific region and appointed colleagues from 14 countries as ambassadors. They have all pushed innovation in their Country Offices over the last two years by testing new ideas and technologies, creating new partnerships and inspiring other colleagues to take up innovative approaches. Among the many innovation champions across the Asia-Pacific region, we chose these 14 colleagues based on their past successes, their support systems – the composition of their teams and the level of buy-in from management – and of course, their keen interest to learn more and engage.


These ambassadors spent one week with our partners from Nesta to learn the fundamentals of social innovation, and how to conduct portfolio scans of programmes and advise colleagues on innovation. The last two days were hands-on, enabling the ambassadors to work with programme teams from the UNDP Sri Lanka office on embedding innovation in new and ongoing programmes across all thematic areas.


UNDP innovation journey workshop
UNDP’s innovation journey, showing how the agency’s innovation work has evolved

Building T-shape skills

In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, we invested in colleagues to develop deep expertise in several innovative approaches through deploying them for several months to our Regional Hub to work alongside the Innovation Lead in the Regional Hub, shadowing external experts and simply learning-by doing. Our innovation experts now provide advice on behavioural insights, data innovation, crowdsourcing, public sector innovation labs and other areas to Country Offices in the region and beyond. External evaluations have shown that Country Offices that embraced innovation developed a new set of skills, developed new service lines and mobilised additional funding for human development. These innovation experts play an important role in providing peer-support and by running annual R&D events that present emerging trends to UNDP and inspire colleagues to test new ways of working.


Forming innovation fellows networks

We launched the Innovation peer-to-peer programme in Africa in 2016. Innovation champions are already dotted across the continent, with expertise in approaches such as innovation labs, real-time information systems, challenge prizes and strategic foresight, as well as the ins-and-outs of developing an innovation culture in one’s office. The programme was created to facilitate order tramadol online usa peer-support within Africa based on clear demand from Country Offices to learn from colleagues’ prior experiences when experimenting with new methods. The initiative pairs fellows – Country Officers who have applied innovative methods to their work – with peers in other Country Offices who are facing similar challenges or using similar approaches. The initial results are inspiring: more countries have succeeded in accelerating their innovation journeys, fellows have further developed their own skills and understanding of diverse contexts, and peers have better navigated their ambiguous and uncertain paths thanks to coaching and mentoring.


In the Arab States, we have an informal network of innovation champions representing many of the region’s 18 Country Offices. The Innovation Facility has been supporting these champions in identifying emerging methodologies and then hosting hands-on learning events in partnership with international experts and with UNDP offices from other regions. This approach was inspired by the Innovation Facility’s SHIFT: Week of Action in September 2014, when the Egypt Country Office hosted a “Games for Social Change” event with colleagues from Arab States, ECIS and Asia-Pacific. Since then, we have invested in events on topics including design thinking, foresight, behavioural insights and crowdfunding. The practical nature of the learning events enables colleagues to better understand these methodologies and deepen their skills in applying them in their own programmes.  At the same time, this series of in-person events among innovation champions has strengthened the network, creating a group of people able to support each other as they experiment and push the boundaries.


The new normal

Making innovation the new normal requires a variety of interventions. We drive innovation through a decentralised fund with support from the Governments of Denmark and the Slovak Republic, and UNDP’s own funds. The investments in more than 130 experiments since 2014 have resulted in better development solutions and new service lines. Our report, ‘Innovation for 2030’, presents our innovations that are scaling along with the early-stage initiatives.


To drive innovation, we work with our Talent Management Team on providing managers with support to enable innovation. The UNDP Leadership Development Pathway entails a pillar on innovation and provided more than 300 managers in the organisation with skills in human-centred design and social innovation. We drive innovation by providing tools that help colleagues and partners in their endeavours to change business as usual. Examples include the DIY Toolkit produced by our partner Nesta, the Toolkit for Troublemakers, and the soon to be launched UNDP Project Hacker Kit – a collection of our very own customised tools for UNDP, integrated within the organisation’s corporate programme guidance to enable innovation.


Our innovation champions are the main drivers of new approaches across UNDP. They have contributed to major changes in their offices and regions, and continue to push the boundaries and question business as usual. From flying under the radar and being seen primarily as troublemakers, these amazing women and men have proved that UNDP and our partners can achieve better results when we leverage social innovation approaches, data innovation, behavioural insights and other emerging fields.


As we assess the results of our different models, we continue to scan the horizon for inspiring models – for example the UNHCR Innovation Fellowship, and the Innovation Accelerator of the World Food Programme – and look at lessons from intrapreneur programmes in the private sector. Moving forward, we will keep learning from partners on how to best empower change-makers. What is your methodology for building innovation competencies and supporting intrapreneurs? Let us know and get in touch!


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  1. Kathy Vaughan

    I would love to connect with the innovation champions in Nairobi. There may be synergies!