Marina Mkhitaryan, Lead at Kolba Lab, UNDP Armenia

By Medha Basu

Women in GovTech 2018 Special Report.

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

I'm leading the Social Innovation Lab, called Kolba Lab in Armenia, which is a project implemented inside the United Nations Development Programme.

This is not a startup or a venture accelerator. It's an initiative which started inside the development programme. The idea of the programme was to incubate seed ideas which are, in a sense, social ventures: they are not startups in the classical meaning but they're more of social initiatives which are using startup technologies.

The idea was that usually the classical incubators and venture funds are not investing in high-risk initiatives which have potential for social impact, but they would rather be quite cautious in the projects which we usually are supporting now. So we created this niche to support projects which have potential for using technologies and new means of entrepreneurship in achieving better impact.

The project is working through crowdsourcing by collecting ideas from the citizenry, from experts and civic groups. And then we use the methodology of incubation, which involves co-design, seed investment, reaching up to the point of a minimal viable product and acceleration.

I have been leading the project for the last five years, since its beginning. And at some point, we realised that those projects are quite weak if we leave them as they are now, because the idea was the social impact. They would be fragmented; they won't have a potential for sustainability and they are not usually easy to deploy in the social ecosystem.

So we started connecting them with the government in a framework which is called Open Government Partnership (OGP), injecting some of our startup tools and technologies.

We did the first OGP action plan design through crowdsourcing. Usually, you would consult the government agencies and the ministries when you're developing the action plan, and the best thing you do is you go further and talk to the civil society organizations to validate some of the priorities. Why don't you go straight to the citizens not only for the validation, but also for the insights, content, and the next steps for the action plan?
"Why don't you go straight to the citizens not only for the validation, but also for the insights, content, and the next steps?"
We did this experiment - which was amazing. The government was quite happy and one-third of the action plan was designed with direct input from the citizenry, and that was quite a progressive action plan. And since then, we have become the main partner - the academic and institutional partner - for the OGP programme in Armenia. We went further and said, why don't we directly deploy the methodologies of startup incubation in the government too? So we went to a couple of agencies - the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Education - and started doing internal crowdsourcing.

There are a lot of bureaucrats inside the system who have enough education and they have enough motivation to do the change from inside out. But they don't have any channels and any mechanisms to do that. They don't have any channels to suggest some innovations inside the system. The bureaucracy is quite rigid in Armenia. You don't have a lot of chances to be vocal, even if you're a well educated and progressive bureaucrat inside the system.

So we did internal idea challenges and we started collecting ideas. It was difficult in the beginning, because there was a lot of resistance, there was some skepticism - it was a new tool. But then it started snowballing.

We're getting hundreds of ideas and many of them are now incubated and implemented inside the government. We call them policy startups but they're eventually becoming like new e-governance tools, new system changes, and new business process changes inside the government. It's getting a lot of buy-in from the very senior management. We had the Deputy Prime Minister and ministers in the jury panels of those competitions.

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2018?

I think it was the Smart City Initiative. We started in 2018 to work with municipalities in the capital Yerevan. We managed to create a plan for not only the municipality, but a lot of private sector organisation are engaged.

And this new approach of becoming a platform rather than becoming outsourcers of some services to private sector organisations was an interesting one. We had some of the largest IT companies in Armenia, business associations and trade unions, and their heads being represented in the Smart City Commission, created now in the municipality of Yerevan.

UNDP Armenia is leading in the international relations and thought for management and engagement, direction of this platform. We managed to create a new smart city foundation and to hold a number of smart city hackathons inside the building of the municipality. You can imagine how it works: it's quite a bureaucratic system and then we bring about 80 programmers, hackers and developers in the building of the municipality for 24 hours.

They're taking all of the data sets that the municipality is collecting, like the garbage management, telecom data, data on lighting of the city, aerial images. And we gave a task to the developers to come up with solutions on how to analyse this data to inform better the decision makers on the municipal level.

And the second task is how to visualise this data so that the users are more informed on some of the things that are happening in the municipality. It was quite amazing. We did it twice. It was for the first time that the data was being used in such a way to inform the policy and to keep the ready-made solutions to the municipality. That was one of the innovations of 2018. It was quite a challenging task because the municipality was not that easy to work with, we managed to change some of the stereotypes.

We had some recent changes in Armenia in the political scene. We had a revolution this year, the power holders have changed, including in the municipality. We had for 20 years the Republican Party - the majority party - ruling in the country. We had a non-violent revolution - the Velvet Revolution - in the country, which brought a totally new marginal power in the government. So we have to build some of the things anew - some of the relations - but some of the basis are already there. And we're meeting now with the new management to enforce the relationship in the platform.

We will have a new government and parliament with absolutely new approaches, and hopefully, with much more people-oriented strategies. This new force is also in the municipality. The mayors have changed; the Community Council has totally changed. This is now much more civil society driven, and much more user-driven. So we're really looking forward to the new developments in the last few days of this year to formulate some new strategies for the next four years.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2018, what would it be?

We have learned that investing in people is much more rewarding than investing in ideas. And when you emancipate an innovator and give them a chance to create, they are a force that cannot be stopped anymore.

Meanwhile, by investing in ideas, you're blocking the whole approach and the whole path into only one idea. So we're trying to shift from idea incubation to more Ashoka type, fellowship type of an approach, because investing in human beings and innovators, building up the capacity to constantly innovate seems to be much more interesting, at least in our context.

Even in terms of pragmatic assessment and evaluation: if you have to report to the donor very pragmatically, it's quite difficult, because ideas take a lot of time to be incubated. They're not always agile because the ecosystem is not always ready for this kind of disruptive innovations. But when you invest in a human being, you give a chance to hundreds of ideas to be born.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2019?

We will be looking very much into foresight and modeling of the future for small countries like ours with a very unpredictable context. We will be looking into building scenarios of development, trying to mitigate the future as much as possible.

We have already our strategy for the next few years. It includes the classical foresight, which is modeling of the future, predictive analysis, the whole conventional types of foresight. But it also has irrational foresight as we call it, it's called dream lab. We will be going to a segment of the population - the teenage group of population. They're the ones that will be building the future in 50 years. We will be asking for their dreams, collecting the dreams with a specific methodology, of course, and trying to understand what is missing today for some of the best scenarios to happen.

As a response to that, we will be creating curriculums for better formal education. We will be creating new incubation opportunities for some of the most disruptive and crazy ideas.
"We will be creating new incubation opportunities for some of the most disruptive and crazy ideas."
What are your priorities for 2019?

We want to continue what we're doing now. It's acceleration in specific domains for the country, like environment, education, healthcare. It's the smart city which is relatively new. We have started it this year and we hope to build up some really strong foundations for this.

But the most exciting thing is really the foresight. We are looking for many discoveries.

What is one skill that has helped you the most throughout the course of your career?

Negotiating, probably - the ability to find solutions and to be always open for solutions, even if it takes compromising some of the initial thinking that you had. Of course, it takes a lot of communication skills. Negotiation and communication, I believe, would be the best talent and skills.

What advancements do you predict will happen in your field in the next ten years?

I'm thinking that foresight will become one of the major directions at least for the domain that I am working in. Because the future is becoming more and more unpredictable. The number of scenarios and the range of scenarios for possible futures is becoming huge. And the ones who will be managing the future will be the ones who are really influencing the present.

We're looking forward to building that skill as an institution and as individuals too. I believe that, for at least the next decade, this is going to be an important skill.

Coffee, yoga, music… what powers you through your day?

I think personal relations. I'm the type of person who values a lot of personal relations - in the team, the family, the society, with the government, the private sector. All of the personal relations are inspiring. Discovering new people is inspiring me for to start new things.