How the UN is finding local grassroots innovators

For a long time, as I’ve kept finding stories about frugal inventors who are creating practical solutions to problems in their rural communities, I’ve thought that international development needed to develop a way to find these creative people and share their ideas and work more widely.

And I have just discovered an institution that is set up to do just that – UNDP’s Accelerator Labs – using techniques called ‘solutions mapping’ and ‘user-led innovation’.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) created Accelerator Labs in 2019 to help it find these frugal, but often invisible, innovators. It now has 92 labs across 116 countries, allowing it to learn from women and men who live in poverty but have a lot to contribute to putting the planet on a more sustainable path.

“We are part of UNDP’s drive to be an incubator for the future,” they say. ‘To accelerate progress towards the 2030 Agenda, we need to be fast and curious. The Accelerator Labs are designed to close the gap between the current practices of international development in an accelerated pace of change. They model a new capability to make breakthroughs on the future of development: inequality, decarbonization, the 4th industrial revolution and new forms of governance.”

“Through the Labs, we are promoting grassroots-led solutions as a tool to move beyond the business-as-usual top-down development programs. We have brought onboard 92 solutions mappers, now embedded inside the organization.” Solutions mapping means finding things that work and expanding on them. 

“Innovations don’t just happen in shiny labs and Silicon Valley and all that,” says Fatima Farouta, head of solutions mapping at UNDP’s Ghana Accelerator Lab. “[W]e recognize that innovation occurs all around us, in villages and farming communities, to name a few.”

Like Anil Gupta’s ‘shodhyatra’ pilgrimages to rural areas of India to find innovation, the Accelerator Labs are sending people out to find the people Anil calls the ‘oddballs’, the ones who see solutions others don’t. In Congo, there was a caravan. In other places, they have held solutions safaris. Here’s how UNDP Congo described their caravan:

Here in the Republic of Congo, where we launched one of 60 Labs, we have been asking ourselves: Can we be more creative around the concerns of our country, and find solutions to help a country with a burgeoning young population and emerging industries?

From the get-go, we knew that any solution we designed would need to be more inclusive, involving young people and private entreprises. But in a country with limited communication channels, how do you go beyond simple brainstorming, to reach out to those with brightest ideas, and hear as many voices as possible?

That’s where the idea for Caravane de l’Innovation came in. In close collaboration with the government of Congo, and two youth advocacy organisation called Fongwama and PRATIC, we decided to go on the road with a caravan — including hard-to-reach rural areas and meet as many actors as possible.

After all, citizens live daily with the challenges we are trying to solve — so not only do they know these problems best, but they already have many of the solutions.

Here’s our theory of change: If we can tour the country with our special Caravan of Innovation, we can, for the first time in the Congo, create a database of local driven solutions developed by citizens to meet the needs of their communities. This database will help us not only draw attention to local innovators who are taking up the challenges of development. It can also help highlight solutions, currently disconnected from one another, be improved as needed and scaled up to help communities at large or inspire further solutions across the country and Africa at large.”

Unlike top-down program design, user-led innovation “comes from people who develop solutions to serve their own needs after facing a specific problem”. And when “innovations come up from experiences on the ground, these local solutions tend to be unique, creative, and open a larger solution space of possibilities,” UNDP says.

While grassroots innovations might seem small, they can, as a whole, have a huge impact on progress towards development goals. “We embarked on our solutions mapping journey together with Ministry of Environment to find out what solutions are out there,” says Fatima Farouta of the Ghana lab. “We were flummoxed by the number of solutions we found. There were about 50 local innovators in Ghana who were all creating value out of the waste that they saw.”

YouTube Oct. 20, 2020

In September 2020, UNDP launched for Tomorrow, a global initiative for grassroots solutions in partnership with Hyundai Motor Company. This platform is dedicated to “celebrate and accelerate grassroots innovation, connect local innovators who are creating solutions for a more sustainable future, and advance these solutions to reach the ambitious goals set out in Agenda 2030.”

The agreement will enable Hyundai Motor and UNDP to celebrate and crowdsource local innovations from the public and help these solutions scale, a much-needed response to the world’s escalating environmental and socio-economic challenges.

They also are working with other UN agencies, such as UNICEF and UNHCR, to advance how the UN amplifies frugal innovations.

Cover image:

Sustainable Development Goals, Lima, Peru. By Marco Carrasco – Wikimedia Commons.