Embedding innovation within UNDP- SIX speaks with Milica Begovic

As part of our work to demystify innovation within international development, we spoke with Milica Begovic, Innovation Specialist at UNDP’s Regional Hub for Europe and CIS. We asked her how UNDP has been able to embed innovation within the organisation and position themselves within the sector.

Prototyping is key

‘We’ve created innovation funds for staff within the organisation to encourage people take risks and experiment and a licence to do things differently.  Through these funds, we’ve been able to get people prototyping within 4-6 weeks, which is huge for such a large organization.

Prototyping allows us to test assumptions quickly and cheaply before a team commits more money into the idea. It’s really simple but something that is too often ignored in large organisations, which means projects continue even when they’re not working because there’s too much time and money already invested in the initial idea.

In the first phase of our innovation policy in 2012, we went for some early wins and empowered people who had new ideas and were willing to do things differently and had some great successes, helping us to move our innovation portfolio to the next phase. 

A team in Kosovo translated the ‘I paid a bribe app’ from India into the Kosovo context to combat corruption. The prototype only cost about $9000 to develop and later received almost $3 million in investment helping to grow the prototype into a proper citizen-led outfit (Kallxo), which has emerged into one of the most trusted institution in the country.

Constant communication

Creating constant communication around our different projects has been vital to our success. It’s so simple, but blogging has been really critical for brining more people on board and get feedback to validate our work as we’re doing it as opposed to having done it, at the end of the process.

UNDP office in Albania  ran a social experiment around  fighting gender violence.  We shared the link with the related blogpost and within 40 minutes we had about 20 different offices contacting us to have a Skype call asking about how they had done it so they can do it in their own offices.

We also have a big google document that colleagues across the region have access to and can add to highlight what they’re working on, helping us to have an overview of our innovation pipeline and to check in. At the end of year, we work with the staff to see where innovation has helped them with their work. This helps us to create stories around the innovation work and engage more people.

Creatively change policy

One of our early experiments led to a change in policy for UNDP, which is huge for such a large bureaucracy. We wanted to trial a challenge prize in Bosnia and Herzegovina to find different innovators in the community to find better and cheaper off grid energy solutions. Our typical procurement policies, much like those in other organizations, don’t allow for challenge prizes where a client defines a problem and solicits a community to come up with a solution. We got lucky as the challenge prize was a success and ultimately it led to a design of a challenge prize policy in UNDP.  As a result of many quick wins like this one, the innovation framework that has grown out of our experience has been endorsed organizationally in 2013 and it provides a useful starting point for our work especially with the teams we haven’t worked with before. 

This also opened the door for us to start looking at how do we make innovation more of an integral part of the organization’s business, from a weekend sport to a daily practice in a way, signaling a big mindset and policy shift for the organization.  This type of work now allows us to start having some really interesting discussions with various units in UNDP on doing development differently.

Horizon scanning

Once a year, we run an R&D event around a particularly trendy topic (see here for an example on alternative funding mechanisms for development). Our assumption here is that there is usually someone out there who has already solved a problem we’re looking at and so our intention is to connect our staff with those who have actually applied the new trend in their work in hope that we can start experimenting with it in the UNDP context.  This has been a very effective way for us to identify and design new services for our clients, from running randomized control trials for supporting SMEs to designing real-time monitoring systems for development interventions.

Our focus for the future

We’re currently in a risky but exciting phase within the organisation. Innovation has arrived in the organisation and our current priority is to mainstream it within the organisation. At the moment, around 20% if the staff ‘get’ innovation- spread from senior levels down to the project staff. That’s really exciting because it means that 1 in 5 people believe that they can create change in the organisation, no matter where they sit- which has really flattened the organisation. However, it also means that 4 out of 5 people don’t quite understand what innovation is and believe that it’s an add on feature but not essential.

Our focus for the future is scaling our current efforts and approaches throughout the organization and making innovation more of a DNA of UNDP’s work, which is quite challenging for such as a small lab and such a big organisation. We’re also interested innovation in the business process and alternative financing mechanisms.’

You can see more about Milica and the UNDP Innovation work here. This interview was conducted as part of our work with Bond and Oxfam to demystify social innovation in international development. You can read the report here.