Zainab Kakal, Head of Experimentation, UNDP Accelerator Lab Pacific

By Yun Xuan Poon Joy Lim

Women in UNDP Special Report 2021.

How do you use tech/data to tackle important issues? Tell us about your work.

The data we have heavily used in our work in climate resilience is traditional knowledge. In the Pacific, 90 per cent of our population lives under 5 kms of the coastline. Climate change is a lived existential threat for us. As we began to explore the expanse of our work, we noticed that traditional knowledge which historically guided communities to cope with climate change is largely undocumented and is being forgotten with urban migration and modernisation. We focused on codification of traditional practices to be used alongside scientific knowledge to improve community and climate resilience.

Our first experiment was reviving the traditional practice of salt making in Vusama Village in Fiji where the community had not made salt in 50 years. Through the process of revival, we could see how the community came together, intergenerational dialogue improved and people’s relationship with their natural resources deepened. (More here.)

The other data I am very interested in is warm data which captures the interconnections and interdependencies of systems. It is the highly contextualised data understood across domains which can help us understand complex issues.

In the light of Covid-19, we brought together multiple several UN agencies for sensemaking. We used structured discussions to generate warm data which allowed us to deeply understand problems, map relationships and sense check energy and momentum. This helped break down silos and accelerate collaboration so that we could use our collective might as the UN on emerging challenges. (More here.)

What was the most impactful project you worked on in the past year?

In response to growing food insecurity, we partnered with UN Habitat and a local entrepreneur to test the use and adoption of hydroponics in informal settlements. Several informal settlements have little to no arable land in Fiji. With increasing unemployment, people’s interest in growing food has increased. We tested this in multiple settlements across Fiji and saw a sharp adoption in two settlements particularly. More than 95 per cent of our participants have been women and for many this was the first exposure to farming. We mapped their user journeys over the course of the project and could see how ordinary people transformed to become farmers. With hydroponics, women no longer had to spend time on getting water or weeding which saved a lot of time. Many expressed an interest in setting up their own farms for feeding their communities. It has been really rewarding!

What are some innovations from the pandemic that have caught your eye?

In Fiji, in response to the Covid-19 lockdown, it was incredible to witness the re-emergence of barter. People began to use Facebook groups to exchange food and essential items. These were really difficult times with decline in tourism and several large companies letting go of people. Despite the uncertainty, people adapted age old bartering to help people when they needed it the most.

Another trend we have seen in the rise of the backyard gardener. Loss of jobs and increase in food prices took several people into their gardens to plant basic vegetables. The Government responded immediately with seedlings and trainings to ensure basic needs were met. Now we see the emergence of a new breed of social entrepreneurs with food and agri-related businesses!

What is one unexpected learning from 2020?

I was introduced to Cynefin, a sensemaking framework in 2019. Cynefin helps you navigate complexity and aid decision making. It suggests that disorder can be a powerful lever for change. Disorder is usually assumed to be a negative thing but Cynefin presents several cases where it was constructively leveraged. I saw that in action in 2020, in the light of Covid-19.

While several negative consequences did occur across the world, some governments and community leaders used this time to dismantle dysfunctional systems and bring in more positive approaches. From experiments with universal basic income to bringing marginalised groups back into the workplace through remote learning and working, it has been inspiring to witness that.

What are your priorities for 2021?

Using sensemaking as a way of punctuation – stop and reflect – will be my key priority. With the quantum of data that is emerging and the way the world is shifting, sensemaking is a critical way to process and respond to our changing environment in an agile and humble manner.

Another priority is to continue our exploration of traditional knowledge by engaging youth and encouraging intergenerational dialogue.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2021?

I love using Liberating Structures as an alternative way to design how people work together. It includes 33+ ways to replace or complement conventional practices of meetings and discussions. They are seriously fun and make it simpler and easier to navigate complexity. In my work, we have a lot of meetings. How we meet has a huge influence. Innovation is all about feeling the stones while crossing the river and Liberating Structures principle of ‘confusiasm’ (confusion + enthusiasm) really operates on the same idea.

Which other countries inspire you and why?

More than countries, communities continue to inspire me. Small groups of people continue to come and work together to help themselves. People are not just waiting for governments to act. Across the world, from the United States to India, we see people working with shared commitment on mutual aid projects. With Covid-19 now and the continued climate crisis, it's essential to invest in solidarity projects so that people’s social fabric can help improve their resilience.

Who do you admire? Who is your hero?

So many! In recent times, I really admire the work of Adrienne Marie Brown especially her narrative on emergent strategy, Brenda Zimmerman and Nora Bateson for their perspectives of complexity and Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze for their work on systems and social change. All their work is intersectional and multidisciplinary and so applicable to all different parts of life.