Irina Velasco, Head of Exploration, UNDP Accelerator Lab, Philippines

By Yun Xuan Poon

Women in GovTech Special Report 2021.

How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation. 

As Head of Exploration in the UNDP Accelerator Lab Philippines Team, I am responsible for emerging trends, developments, and unusual actors that can be harnessed to accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. This includes being at the nexus of various themes to understand and anticipate implications, as well as identify entry points for pipeline development. In terms of digitalisation and society, this can mean backstopping a digital cash transfer pilot to support financial inclusion, resilience, and transparency, while interrogating efficiency, ownership, and an enabling ecosystem. Drawing upon emerging signals on the shortage for personal protective gear, rising morbidity among healthcare professionals, and the momentum shown by Filipinos (from fashion houses to sewing groups), I also initiated pipeline development for the EMPOWER PH platform which serves as a matching platform and knowledge hub for open source designs to improve standards.

What was the most impactful project you worked on this year?

Being positioned to tackle complexity means accepting that the impact of my work can be non-linear, while working at a systemic level means that its impact may only be felt with time. With this caveat in mind I recently had the opportunity to extend foresight support to the planning ministry as part of the SDG voluntary national review target setting process. Although still early in the process, it provided the avenue for participants to unpack various aspects of increasing digital innovations – from its potential for better monitoring and accountability mechanisms, but also implications on interoperability, data sharing/security, demand for minerals, increasing digital emissions, and the human resource capacity needed to address these. While there is no shortage of technological innovations in the country, some of the issues that were surfaced touch upon crucial elements for governance needed so we can maximise the opportunities and minimise the risks that the fourth industrial revolution presents.

What is one unexpected learning from 2021?

This year brought about uncomfortable situations that challenged me to confront and assess how persistent systemic issues resonate for myself. For something that was primarily driven by emotional depletion, it has ironically felt emboldening to land on the other side of leaning into my audacity and claiming space. It bears lessons in developing the muscle to tackle “wicked problems” that persist even past the adrenaline of last year’s pandemic response and the innovations it brought about. I am grateful for these as I further explore where and how I could contribute most meaningfully.

What’s your favourite memory from the past year?

As part of a scoping mission on the informal economy in Metro Marawi area, I got to engage a sewing cooperative participating in the scale out of the EMPOWER initiative in the Bangsamoro region. This served as my first physical evidence of how the digital project can translate to real impact on the ground. It was heartening to hear their appreciation for the opportunity to contribute to their community, which aligns with the spirit of this initiative even in its original inception – leveraging digitalisation to support the momentum of local actors’ drive to address issues in their community, while facilitating demand-driven production. It’s also exciting since a team dream we have is to scale the platform so it can support market access for grassroots innovations by providing information and matching it with demand for inclusive and sustainable value chains.

What’s a tool or technique you’re excited to explore in 2022?

I look forward to exploring more avenues to strengthen the way we incorporate and interrogate culture into the work that we do, building on this year’s initial opportunities to do so via the application of a stencil for a portfolio design on heritage, or the inclusive imaginaries strand of foresight. Very excited to see the level of creativity that bolder interdisciplinary approaches can incite, while striving for a deeper and more refined take when we speak of context, and perhaps looking into how indigenous biomimicry can be applied towards socioeconomic development.

What are your priorities for 2022?

Consolidation to make sense of various cycles of my work going full circle, as different parts of the system make themselves known and the linkages emerge. Documentation to process these and capture for information sharing, as well as nurturing capacities to drive institutionalisation – “after all, we do it for the culture”, as the late Mr Virgil Abloh would say.

Who are the mentors and heroes that inspire you?

I have been incredibly fortunate to have had mentors throughout my career, whether as direct supervisors or otherwise. Reflecting on their common thread, ultimately I find that they can shape the wisdom of their experience through a balance of their technical expertise by staying grounded in their humanity. These are people who keep it real as creative, multi-dimensional characters in themselves who likewise extend genuine respect to others beyond ranks, keeping their minds open for synergies and fresh for synthesis. Of course this list would not be complete without my original mentors and source of inspiration for my vocation, my parents.

What gets you up in the morning?

Things that bring me joy (big and small), the potential to facilitate these for others, and the idea that there’s still a world of latent synergies waiting to be realised.