“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”, said the Red Queen to Alice in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass.
As it happens with the Red Queen's land inhabitants, continuous improvement and innovation have also become a necessity -more than a desirable aim- in our dynamic world, where technological, demographic, and environmental changes are constant. But how can we advance at a faster pace than our environment? Can we reframe and accelerate the way we face development challenges? Where are we moving to?
Everything started on Monday 9th, November 2020, when the UNDP Uruguay Accelerator Lab gathered all its three members. In our story, the first page triggers the question, "Ultimately, what is innovation?"— what is that concept that prominently appears on the supermarket shelves and even in the advertisements that we see every day? To start answering the question we did a quick survey on what people understand by innovation: the concepts of “change” and “new” where the most mentioned ones.
But we had to go deeper into the question, "What is innovation for us, and how does it link to development challenges?" After a discussion with colleagues from the UNDP office, a little enlightening and provocative video, some diagrams on a sheet of paper, and even a collaborative building bridges game; we arose with the following definition: to innovate is to influence in the present to expand the possible and desirable futures. But because “a picture is worth a thousand words”, we share the first sketch that represented it in a simple sheet that triggered the definition.
Located in the present, through our actions, we build different scenarios for the future, both those that we project as possible ("futuribles") and those that we wish to achieve as a society ("futurables"). An example of this is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to which we direct our efforts today. However, if something we have learned in recent times, especially in a pandemic, is that nothing is as linear as it seems, and new scenarios emerge over time.
Surprisingly, three weeks later, Bas Leurs, Learning Designer for UNDP's global Accelerator Labs network, presented a similar diagram illustrating adjacent, possible and distant futures. The coincidence between the two diagrams made us realize that we are not alone on this journey. Collective intelligence and innovation know no borders. In fact, Uruguay joins this global network of 92 Laboratories in 116 countries, the largest learning network in the world.
Through the UNDP Uruguay’s Accelerator Lab, we seek to expand the options for possible futures and accelerate towards desirable futures, but ... how to achieve it? Creating protected spaces to fail and learn quickly in a process that includes: 1) identifying initiatives that arise from people or communities promoting existing innovations, 2) exploring new forms of collaboration, 3) accelerating development through experimentation testing solutions.
We have also a lot to learn from our communities, and even from nature. We must allow ourselves to map and explore beyond what is known, such as the "deviants ants" do.
“If some ants persist in foraging at random and ignoring the rule, they (..)will keep alive the prospect of discovering alternative new paths for the anthill, particularly once the present source of food runs out. By ignoring the rules, the deviant ants will ensure that there is enough wobble in the collective behavior to provide for adaptation to new situations when they arise” Why Think? Evolution and the Rational Mind (de Sousa, 2007)
In Uruguay, we intend to learn from "deviant ants," exploring unknown scenarios and detecting emerging futures in a rapidly changing world. However, before deviating, ants must walk the path that others have already built and are building. In this sense, in the first two months, we have met and experimented with each UNDP’s country office staff in Uruguay, managing to end 2020 with the first session of Collective Intelligence. The first of several that we have planned to learn together with our colleagues and society.
At the end of the first chapter of our story, we managed to push our first portfolio of experiments, carried out between Christmas and New Year's Eve, behaving like “deviant ants,” feeling, exploring, and testing new scenarios that we will relate in our next blog.
The invitation is to be part of the process that begins with the UNDP Uruguay Acceleration Laboratory to discover, propose, learn and co-create in 2021.
Carroll, Lewis (2002), Through the Looking-Glass, Mexico, Ed. Tomo (adaptation of the original written in 1871).
De Sousa, R. (2007). Why think?: evolution and the rational mind. Oxford University Press.