What innovation looks like in a pandemic

By Yun Xuan Poon

Interview with Giulio Quaggiotto, Head of Strategic Innovation, UNDP.

Image: The Press Trust of India.

It has become clear during this pandemic that innovation cannot be rewarded only with large profits. There must be a focus on social good, else unprofitable causes will be neglected at the expense of the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, the needy.

The Silicon Valley model of “moving fast and breaking things doesn't really work very well when it comes to social issues,” warns Giulio Quaggiotto, newly-appointed Head of Strategic Innovation at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Quaggiotto led the launch of the UN Pulse Lab Jakarta and was Innovation Advisor to the UAE Prime Minister’s Office. He shares how governments and international institutions are pressing for innovation to support those most at need.

Focus on the vulnerable

Too often, Quaggiotto believes, governments are focused on building high profile tech startups rather than achieving economic or social benefits through innovation. They should “look at overall societal outcomes, which is not simply saying we generated 20 unicorns, but to actually say we reduced inequality, or we increased the level of environmental performance,” he explains.

This is particularly acute as Covid-19 hits economies hard. “If you are putting in place stimulus packages that do not put a premium on the most vulnerable, it actually reinforces existing inequality dynamics,” he says.

Nations should start thinking about long-term transformation as they design innovation policies, he believes. For instance, New Zealand set aside funding for cities to adapt to the lifestyle changes introduced by Covid-19. Pedestrian walkways and cycle paths were extended where people used less public transport. “The interesting thing would be to see how a temporary intervention turns into something more long term,” Quaggiotto says.

Citizen-driven initiatives

Governments should launch innovations that engage citizens and ask them for help. “The fact is there is much more expertise outside than there is inside”, he says. “In a condition of a pandemic, you work with what you have”.

Bologna in Italy set up a unique system to connect resources from the government with energy from people. Citizens can bring their ideas for improving public spaces to the Civic Imagination Office in city hall, and work with public officials to realise them. These are formalised through “citizen-municipality collaboration pacts”.

The Office has signed more than 400 pacts to date. Citizens have helped to repaint the walls of a kindergarten, repaired benches and even created an “objects library” to share underused items from home.

The Office also engaged citizens in reimagining food delivery post-Covid.  The collaboration will work towards moving away from gig economy platforms (that did a poor job at protecting their workers during the pandemic) towards “ethical deliveries”.

One of Asia’s largest slums, Dharavi in Mumbai, presents another example of the difference citizen initiatives can make. As officials fought the spread of Covid-19 with aggressive screening and isolating, volunteers distributed free meals to homes during the strict national lockdown. This made sure the containment measures worked, while helping those who had no income.

Governments should also be willing to change their minds. Quaggiotto points to West Java, Indonesia, where a team of 800 data and health experts convinced the government to go into lockdown with a data model they had built. It predicted that there could be 50,000 more deaths in the province by July if they did not impose tough movement restrictions.

The open-mindedness of the Governor of West Java in accepting this proposal is quite “remarkable”, notes Quaggiotto. Often, citizen-driven initiatives are not recognised or welcomed by authorities. Public officials may perceive these efforts as being less credible, or they may not want to show weakness.

Under the leadership of Achim Steiner, UNDP has launched a network of 60 global accelerator labs - with another 30 on the way - that are helping governments trial new approaches and partnerships. The labs support governments by looking for existing innovations developed by citizens and mapping them to challenges that governments face.

Leadership in a pandemic

Some countries have responded to the pandemic better than others. A big success factor, says Quaggiotto, is whether governments have the capacity to bring together different sectors to work towards a common goal.

Vietnam, for instance, activated research centers, public procurement and the private sector to develop low-cost test kits very quickly. This success allowed them to commercialise these test kits, even exporting them to Europe, he notes.

Another crucial element in an effective crisis response is how much a government has invested in its core digital infrastructure. Pakistan built on its existing social safety net programme to distribute relief packages to citizens struggling financially in the pandemic, he explained. “Governments who were able to invest in core capabilities, under the condition of a pandemic, had just more options in their hands,” says Quaggiotto.

The narrative that governments adopt also influences the effectiveness of their pandemic response. New Zealand emphasised protecting citizen health as top priority with its ‘health first, economy second’ message. “Constructing this compelling narrative in conditions of uncertainty becomes paramount, because all you have is really that narrative and the trust that you're able to build with your citizens,” he explains.

New skills for a new age

By definition, the future is unpredictable, Quaggiotto says, and so governments should be experimental and adaptable. Quoting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, he says: “You have to make 100 per cent of the decisions with 50 per cent of the knowledge.”

Futures thinking will be particularly useful, he believes, and UNDP is supporting this with new programmes on anticipatory government. It has a flagship programme, NextGenGov, which pulls together innovators across the region to share their perspectives, inspire country offices, and build new partnerships to drive change.

With the overwhelming speed of change in the pandemic, leaders are turning to one another for ideas and strategies. A flagship summit creates space for leaders to reflect on what has happened. “Reflection is a luxury, if you're working in a pandemic response,” Quaggiotto says.

With its accelerator labs and a new digital transformation strategy, the UNDP has made “bold moves” to embrace innovation, Quaggiotto says. His work now will be to distill lessons from the innovations and experimentations they’re seeing, and share those with governments. “Now it's time to ask, ‘Can this experimentation be put to use to change the trajectory of sectors and countries?’,” he says.

The undercurrents of innovation are shifting. The models governments have grown used to have been rocked to the core. Perhaps now is the time to rethink the direction and method of innovation.