The UNDP’s new Accelerator Labs program aims to “reimagine development for the 21st century.”
Development cooperation is evolving fast towards locally aware and place-based initiatives so the United Nations Development Programme has decided to take it one step further by turning developing countries into innovation centers of their own.
The UNDP’s new Accelerator Labs program aims to “reimagine development for the 21st century”, building on grassroots innovation and experimentation at its core. The labs are the UN agency’s response to emerging sustainability challenges and the growing demand for local solutions that come from the bottom-up instead of top-down.
Using experimentation as a key strategy, the labs study local challenges and test solutions, as well as explore the potential for the upscaling of already available local innovations. This allows for backing up initiatives with evidence, building on collective intelligence and avoiding common pitfalls.
To date, there are more than 60 labs serving 78 countries in Africa, South America, Asia, and Eastern Europe. Each lab has an interdisciplinary team of three people with distributed responsibilities for exploration, experimentation and solutions mapping, aiming for an agile yet systemic approach.
The labs aim to bring together scientists, designers, entrepreneurs, engineers and other citizens, providing them with access to the most up-to-date technologies, knowledge and sufficient resources. Meanwhile, they don’t aim to become purely analytical, technological or startup centers.
A few months have passed since the official launch, and the labs have already held hundreds of workshops, field visits, and other events, with many sharing their first achievements.
For example, in Ukraine, the local lab uses grassroots innovation to support urban renewal through nature-based solutions and promotes digital literacy among elderly people with the help of informal learning. It is also experimenting with various approaches to promote composting among the population. The lab has also been successful at mapping local community initiatives that deliver greater benefits, such as Propmprylad in Ivano-Frankivsk and Urban Space 500 in Kyiv.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, meanwhile, a local team is creating an atlas of local innovators to serve as a “comprehensive database of solutions developed by citizens to meet their needs or those of their communities”. The atlas already includes innovations like portable fish freezers, fire bricks from organic waste, and traffic robots that are “immune to bribery”.
Recently, eight Accelerator Labs gathered to explore behavioral barriers to sustainability transitions, sharing both the knowledge of facilitating behavior change, along with occasions when encouraging sustainable behaviors can be counterproductive.
While none of these initiatives are entirely new, it is new for a global organization of this kind to adopt them. As one of the first official articles about these labs suggests, it is also a move by the UN to show that it hasn’t “reached its use-by date” and to bring the organization “closer to its roots”.
Hopefully, with the commitment to grassroots innovation and the potential to support the sharing of best practices, Accelerator Labs will actually be able to speed up global progress towards sustainability.