Azerbaijan, a resource rich economy, experienced an explosion in growth at the beginning of the millennium as a result of rising commodity prices. This growth translated into development as poverty fell and median incomes rose, making it one of the most prosperous economies in the former Soviet Bloc.
But commodity prices plummeted in 2014, exposing the vulnerability of an economy over-reliant on oil production. The vulnerability is driving a new vigor for a reform-driven agenda and leadership for economic diversification and transformation.
It is against this backdrop that UNDP is engaging with the government to identify the leverage points within existing policies and strategies to use the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for growth and development: identifying emergent trends, leveraging bottom up solutions and gathering expertise and insights.
We at UNDP in Azerbaijan find ourselves in a position to start driving economic diversification. We are connecting the dots between the problems we are trying to address and unusual outfits/local innovators, helping us rethink how and what we do in development.
By applying the methods of the Accelerator Labs, we opened the pathway for a US$6 million commitment of the Ministry of Transport, Communication and High Technologies to work with us on putting innovation at the forefront of economic and social development.
We are witnessing firsthand how much progress Azerbaijan has made in moving innovation to centre-stage of its policymaking. The results speak for themselves.
ASAN (which translates as ‘easy’ in Azerbaijani) is the country’s one-stop shop for effective and transparent public service delivery, receiving the prestigious UN Public Service Award. A state-of-the-art InnoLand Innovation and Incubation centre,it supports the private sector in development and is expanding the startup movement in the country through prototyping and design.
A new Innovation Agency is also being established in Azerbaijan under the Ministry of Transport, Communications & High Technologies. It will merge the State Fund for Development of Information Technologies and Azerbaijan’s first Hi-Tech Park, assisting local businesses as they design technological solutions and supporting research, innovation and startups through grants, subsidised loans and investments.
DOST is Azerbaijan’s first Centre for Sustainable and Operational Social Security. It will serve as a one-stop shop to shorten time, improve efficiency and expand access to the country’s social services system - including social security, disability and unemployment benefits, pension funds, social insurance and other services - through substantially simplified and innovative procedures that benefit and are inclusive to all.
All of these progressive developments are, in fact, clear examples of the broader ecosystem where innovation and technology are more and more embraced by the country.
Wednesday is the new Friday in Baku
On a more grassroot level, a handful of enthusiasts, innovators and inventors are operating across a big spectrum of industries, from the energy sector to banking and telecom. We hosted UNDP’s first informal coffee meetup with innovators, startuppers, blockchain experts and cryptocurrency gurus. The gathering gave us a chance to meet so many incredible people who innovate every day, for a good cause. From an inventor of the new Braille Teach interactive handheld learning device to a brilliant writer, public speaker and mentor who has authored in four crowdfunded books –KVAN, UBUNTU, ALAMO13 and ONQAKU –all of these individuals are the kind of unusual talent that we want to blend into broader development work through the Acceleration Lab to re-imagine development for the 21st century together.
New partners and an emerging portfolio
As we find new partners, our learning curve grows. Our collaboration with the Social Innovation Lab opened up opportunities for rethinking innovation for sustainable development and tackling everything from energy waste and biofuels to wellness, healthcare, infrastructure and e-governance. UNDP launched two flagship initiatives on innovation with SiL last year –the 2nd National Innovation Challenge on the Sustainable Development Goals and the first ever Cleantech Ideation Bootcamp dedicated to climate change action.`
A new portfolio of interventions feeds experience into strategy and policy. The new “Robopark” — robot technology labs will build on the successful UNDP pilot of the first robotics lab for children. Nationwide I2B (From Idea to Business) tours will be organised throughout our regions to encourage young enthusiasts to improve their entrepreneurial thinking and design new business solutions.
The idea is to transform the innovation community into an innovation movement in the country. At the same time — we are working with local governments to design new smart city solutions that sit on the intersection of technologies, approaches and sectors — reframing the smart city debate to be more human-centered.
Leveraging the 4th industrial revolution for diversification will require both policy and infrastructure interventions. We will support the government to build the new Data Centre that offers a greater level of data protection while significantly improving the safety and accessibility of fast and reliable information for people, governments and companies in Azerbaijan and beyond. Based on these experiences, UNDP will be leading the preparation of the vision for the National Strategy on High Technology (2020–2025) helping the country to unlock the development potential of digital technologies for the country and its people.
We feel the moment is right for UNDP’s global groundbreaking Accelerator Lab network in Azerbaijan. We look forward to a new generation of innovators joining our team to bring expertise, creativity and collective intelligence to help us re-imagine development together with our partners in the country.
A longer version of this piece is published here.