At UNDP, a SHIFT toward business unusual

The UNDP Haiti’s SHIFT team, which has an initiative for a Roving Innovation Lab that will turn a bus into an innovation lab for youth entrepreneurs. Photo by: UNDP Haiti

A pair of unusual buses could soon move around disadvantaged communities of Port-au-Prince. Instead of vehicles, the buses would serve as mobile innovation labs designed to promote entrepreneurship among the local youth.

From Sept. 20 to 24, the U.N. Development Program’s Haiti office will host a gathering of students, government representatives, youth from the community and other stakeholders to design “le Bus LIDE” — or the idea bus — and develop applications for young entrepreneurs. It’s part of SHIFT: UNDP Week of Innovation Action, a series of learning events on new concepts and techniques to address global development challenges such as storytelling, crowdfunding and gamification, running from Sept. 22 to Sept. 27. Several country offices are hosting the learning events, with each SHIFT focusing on a particular technique.

“It's kind of a tactical shift where we're moving people from one office to another for a week to gather people together who are working on similar projects but need to try some new approaches … but it's also kind of a mental shift, a shift away from kind of the old way of doing things,” Mitchell Toomey, senior adviser at the UNDP Knowledge, Innovation and Capacity Group, said when asked about the reason behind the event name.

Coinciding with the 69th session of the U.N. General Assembly, SHIFT: UNDP Week of Innovation Action aims to complement the Social Good Summit, where UNDP is a co-organizer. As global figures discuss in New York how technology can help improve aid delivery, UNDP field staff members will already be working together to come up with novel development solutions, noted Toomey.

UNDP headquarters in New York, however, won’t host a SHIFT event to focus on providing support, such as subsidizing travel expenses of those personally attending the workshops and engaging experts who will facilitate them.

“Now, we will be making the point that SHIFT is happening in New York but there won't be a SHIFT activity in New York,” Toomey told Devex. “So in speeches, in side events, in the Social Good Summit and elsewhere, our executives will be making note that as we speak here in New York there are labs and sessions around the world diving into the challenges of our day — that's a very important piece of the puzzle for us.”

Although catering to UNDP country staff, the event welcomes public participation. UNDP will broadcast each SHIFT on its innovation community page, and everyone interested in a particular topic can submit questions to experts and offer advice.

The weeklong occasion is expected to yield a number of prototypes and a pipeline of projects to be funded in 2015 by the recently launched UNDP Innovation Facility. Afterward, Toomey said UNDP intends to do a careful analysis of related data to determine, for instance, the potential audience for similar events.

UNDP likewise plans to hold more SHIFT-type gatherings in the future. The question is how to organize them, whether it should aim for concurrent, “big bang” sessions like the one it is holding next week, or spread them out over a longer period.

“Hopefully, we'll make SHIFT a new model of how we do many different things in UNDP,” Toomey said. “That mentality of helping each other is the new frontier that will allow us to capitalize on all the distributed knowledge and understanding we have across our offices in new ways, and once we start the ball rolling with this idea that we are the ones we've been waiting for, we can help each other.”

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About the author

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    Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Currently based in New York City, Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.