Accelerator Labs Network
Qatar Fund for Development (
UNDP Accelerator Labs is the world's largest and fastest learning network on sustainable development challenges. Embedded in UNDP’s global policy teams and country offices, the Accelerator Labs are designed to close the gap between the current practices of international development and the 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. The Acc Labs have powered UNDP for faster learning about today’s toughest development challenges, supported governments with actionable insights, and acted as a catalyst for COVID-19 recovery. The Labs bring bright, unusual talent into the development sector and work in partnership with a growing range of partners at the global, national, and local levels from government, academia, private sector, social innovators, UN System, and NGOs. The Labs search and experiment with solutions developed at local level by those dealing with the problems and consider them solutions providers, other than passive beneficiaries.
The UNDP Accelerator Labs embrace the complexity of development and commit to helping countries find faster, more durable solutions to achieve the goals set by the Agenda 2030. The Labs introduce new protocols, backed by evidence and practice, to accelerate the testing and dissemination of solutions within and across countries. This enables the global community to learn from local knowledge and ingenuity at speed and at a scale needed to achieve the SDGs. The UNDP Accelerator Labs support SDG achievement by making the invisible data points visible, bringing in ethnographic methods that help understand cultural practices on people’s own terms and by mapping systems needed to transforme in order to move towards SDG achievement. The project has three objectives: • Increase UNDP Country Offices and partners capability for scanning, sensemaking, and experimentation for sustainable development solutions • Scale new sustainable development solutions at country level through UNDP’s country programme and operations, national policy and/or local markets • Establish a Global learning and scaling network
The initiative responds to the widespread recognition that business-as-usual will not take us to the world we want in 2030 and beyond. The core assumption driving the project's design is that complex, multi-sector problems such as those related to the Sustainable Development Goals are more likely to be solved by people who face these problems in their daily life – many of them finding solutions on grassroots level with an innovative mind set. The Labs Network surfaces and reinforces locally sourced solutions at scale while mobilizing a wide and dynamic partnership of actors contributing knowledge, resources, and experience. Besides, they introduce a new way to work within UNDP that identifies crucial learning questions and a roadmap of activities (e.g., experiments, explorations, mapping grassroots solutions, and partnerships) to better understand sustainable development challenges and generate learnings faster.
UNDP Accelerator Labs is a joint venture of USD 81,200,000 made possible thanks to its Founding Investors -the Governments of Germany and Qatar through Qatar Fund for Development- and UNDP, with the support of the Government of Italy and prestigious knowledge partners such as Harvard Business School, Nesta and Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network, among others. The three Lab’s members - Head of Solutions Mapping, Exploration, and Experimentation- are embedded in UNDP Country Offices generating a virtuous circle, absorbing the existing knowledge and experience while bringing and infusing new skills, innovative methodologies, and untapped partners to the table. The Labs’ approach has been designed to be sensitive to emerging signals of changes and react in a short period of time, experimenting and proposing tested solutions to address complex and interconnected challenges, with the potential to be scaled either through UNDP programmes and operations, Governments, and/or private sector. After scanning new data sources and in consultation with a network of local partners, the Labs decide which challenge(s) and SDG(s) to focus on at the beginning of each Action Learning Plan, which lasts approximately 100 days. During the cycle, Labs apply the following protocols to generate breakthroughs and accelerate learning towards what works and what doesn’t to achieve the Agenda 2030: SENSE-MAKING: this helps assess whether there is a fit between current investments and the changing environment. COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE: The Labs use the power of various sources of intelligence, including the crowd and machine learning to understand problems, develop new solutions, promote more inclusive decision making, and provide better oversight of what is done. SOLUTIONS MAPPING: The Labs identify local solutions that have the potential to accelerate development. PORTFOLIOS OF EXPERIMENTS: Experimentation helps the network learn whether assumptions are accurate before deploying solutions at scale, especially in uncertain or volatile conditions that often dominate development progress. Finally, a global team oversees the Network, monitors the progress, consolidats results and aggregates learnings, helping to generate an enabling and conducive environment to facilitate cross-pollination, while supporting dissemination of knowledge to the broader development ecosystem.
In only two years, the initiative has set up a fully operational global knowledge network, bringing new talent and skills into UNDP. 72% of the Labs team members were new to the UN system, 65% brought experience from the private and non-profit sectors, academia, and government, and 24% of them returned to their home countries to take up their new positions. The Labs introduced a new way to work within UNDP to better understand sustainable development challenges and generate learnings faster. It also initiated changes of practices in Country Office and UNDP as a whole. In 2020 alone, the Labs: • Addressed 147 development challenges, covering all 17 SDGs. • Documented over 1,700 grassroots solutions and used 48 different innovation methods and approaches. • Published 360 blog pieces – one a day – on critical development challenges and learning processes. • Eighteen government counterparts adopted a selection of Accelerator Lab's tools and methods. • Established 520 partnerships with the government, private sector, civil society organizations, academia, and the UN system.
A key enabling factor that explains the initiative's success is the early support from its Founding Investors and UNDP at the highest level to set up the Labs for three initial years, embracing risk and betting for a revolutionary approach, implemented at scale from the outset. Another critical factor is the addition of new local talents with a different set of skills and the Labs' power to attract and convene multiple stakeholders and unusual partners while testing new ways of working. Some of the constraints the project continues to deal with is the tension between standard development practices and the introduction of different methodologies, agility and human resources, as well as a funding gap to secure operations of all 90 Labs for three years.
The Accelerator Labs was designed to scale from the beginning. Within each of the country Labs, scale is targeted in three ways for experiments, local solutions, and insights from collective intelligence: 1. Ability to penetrate the UNDP Country Office programming: i.e.local solutions would inform and alter UNDP programming to advance system change 2. Ability to influence national policy to create opportunities for acceleration: i.e. changes in the regulatory environment to make space for new data and/or experiments that are ahead of the curve. 3. Ability to spin off into independent ventures: i.e. the commercialization of local methods through purchase and/or sale of patents The project is currently designing a sustainability plan not limited to the Labs' continuation as structures, but rather of the ways of working (protocols) that the Accelerator Labs employ. The Accelerator Labs' work may continue either through a) through nationally raised resources and remain in UNDP to hand over the lab capabilities to government either at national or sub-national level.
The pandemic was a testament to the Lab’s ability to react in time and efficiently to the crises' new challenges. In response to the COVID-19 shock, most Accelerator Labs rapidly pivoted to agile socio-economic response and created, in a matter of a few weeks, 70 new Action Learning plans. The aim was to drive forward UNDP’s Integrated Response to mitigate the crisis, protect people, and encourage socio-economic recovery. In so doing, the Accelerator Labs boosted UNDP's capacity to deliver on its mandate of leading socio-economy recovery across the UN system and enable governments to respond more effectively to citizens’ needs during the crisis.
SDGS & Targets
Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
Deliverables & Timeline
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