Rethinking innovation labs could lead to development breakthrough: new report by UNDP and FutureGov

Oct 25, 2017

Innovation labs are considered essential for testing solutions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) globally (Photo: ThoughtWorks).

Istanbul - New approaches are needed to turn public sector innovation labs into a force for change, according to new report by UNDP's Istanbul Regional Hub and FutureGov, an outfit that works to improve public services through a combination of technology and design.

Having started in long-established democracies, labs have become increasingly popular in developing countries and are now considered essential for testing solutions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) globally.

Following recent discussions as to whether innovation labs have actually delivered on their promise, the report, based on feedback from practicioners themselves, argues their work in developing countries continues to be essential, but their impact could increase. Critiques argue the labs continue to introduce groundbreaking solutions, but their work often fails to make it into mainstream development and policy work.

The document examines the conditions under which these creative hubs can trigger wider cultural change, create new ways of doing business and drive extensive digital transformation in developing countries.

It draws lessons from four of six innovation labs established with UNDP support in Europe and Central Asia. These include Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and each has successfully shaped policy-making and extensively redesigned public services.

First, the authors argue, unlike labs in developed context often compared to “grenades inside bureaucracies,”  those supported by UNDP in the CIS region have been characterized as a source of stability that played a big role in focus on building trusted relationships, consolidate development progress and strengthen the relationship between citizens and the State.

Second, while labs in the United States or the United Kingdom focus on improving existing services, their counterparts in Europe and Central Asia have worked on creating new services that leapfrog existing systems. In Moldova, for instance, household energy consumption is serving as a more affordable alternative for gathering demographic data.

Third, labs often focus on ‘selling’ single methods such as design thinking, data innovation or behavioural change and use these as starting points for discussions with partners. The report shows that  when this is complemented by links to system-level change, the labs could have a more meaningful impact.

“It´s easy to get sidetracked and become concerned with self-preservation”, said Giulio Quaggiotto of Nesta, an innovation foundation. “Instead, labs should focus on how to enable others to make better decisions. After all, their aim should be to close down because they aren’t needed anymore.”

In this context, one of the most fundamental implications for the labs is our finding that these units ought to decouple their size from the impact they create or in other, slightly more nebulous term, kick start movements around key priority issues society faces.  

As the community itself echoes here, this among others suggests rethinking the entry points for intervention (from individual, citizen level to system-wide models of distributed innovation), changing the focus from problem definition to understanding existing dynamics and assets in the system, and redefining the type of evidence that underpins the common action. 

Ultimately, if labs become movements, governments would develop their own dynamics, independent of the work of public innovation labs, but feed back into the movement.

Growing government innovation labs: an insider's guide” was jointly produced by UNDP’s Istanbul Regional Hub and FutureGov, with thanks to the UNDP offices in Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and to Kit Lykketoft (Senior Consultant Workz.dk), Giulio Quaggiotto (Nesta), Alex Ryan (MaRS Solution Lab), Susana Nascimento (EU Policy Lab), Indy Johar (00 and Dark Matter Laboratories, Dominic Campbell (FutureGov)

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