UNDP and UNICEF in Montenegro: Putting Innovation in the Center

30 May 2014

 Blog post by Benjamin Perks, UNICEF Representative and Rastislav Vrbensky, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative to Montenegro

What does the future hold for Montenegro, with its trajectory from being influenced by conflict and sanctions in the 90s to becoming an upper middle income country on a rapid paced EU integration process in 2014? Delayed transition has unleashed many previously unknown opportunities and challenges without experienced institutions ready to address them. Undoubtedly, social cohesion and economic development in 21st century Montenegro will be increasingly dependent on innovation.

UNDP and UNICEF in Montenegro have jointly committed to harness the spirit of innovation to support government and civil society in driving through reforms for development and human rights. But “the spirit of innovation” cannot be developed through a matrix or an online UN learning programme. Rather it requires a shift in mindset, and indeed values and modelling leadership that embraces what global innovation experts identify as the key pre-requisites for innovation: collaboration across sectors and change in organizational cultures, empowering staff and rewarding proactive approach, open sourcing, curiosity and creativity, grit and willingness and ability to fail and be wrong. It also requires a shift from a culture of carefully planned risk-averse projects to agile and adaptable trial and error interventions and learning while doing.

For us, innovation in Montenegro is not about widgets and gadgets, but rather about harnessing creativity to help national institutions to ensure dignity and quality of life for the families struggling to raise a child with disability in an environment that excludes them, or the lonely pensioner trying to make sense of a rapidly changing world or the youth group trying to convince rural communities to take better care of the environment. Contributing to human rights and development is rarely business as usual. It seeks continuous improvement and that requires innovation.

UNDP Montenegro has started following the logic of social innovation approach: scan what is out there, start with a few cheap prototypes, see what is working and scale up as quickly as you can. In 2011 we have become one of the three pilots for ‘knowledge and innovation’ in Europe & CIS region. With the support from our Regional Center we have created the space for the colleagues to test various innovative approaches seen elsewhere. The pilots varied from:

-    Community engagement -  how can new technologies, social media and latest advances in science and research increase citizens’ influence on policy development, lead to a more open and collaborative formulation of policies, monitoring and feedback on service delivery and development priorities;
-    Service delivery - how can technology, science and research improve delivery of public services through more targeted information and incorporation of user-perspective in delivery;
-    Leveraging the very best international knowledge for development - how it can help connect to and use the best international expertise for solving Montenegro’s development problems;
-    Skill development (internally and externally) - building skills of our staff and our national partners in order to make the best use of new technologies, citizen engagement and new media in above categories.

More on the concrete examples and results you can read here. As you will see, most if not all the initiatives were embedded in existing development interventions, which is another very important lesson learned – innovation cannot be done on the margin, it has to be embedded in on-going interventions. For staff to leave their comfort zone, it also takes a bit of encouragement and nudging – in Montenegro, we managed to create a safe space for colleagues to experiment with various approaches, while consistently providing ideas, resources and support. The conscious decision to embark on the path of innovation led to tangible results. For instance, we are now creating a new hybrid system of governance where citizen reporters, equipped with mobile apps, scan the country for instances of informal economy, feeding competent authorities with real time data. The force of civic activism amounted to over 1400 reports and over 440.000 EUR of generated public income, half of which was allocated to community projects identified by the citizens themselves.   

In UNICEF Montenegro, behavioural insights have been used to develop alternative ways of recruiting foster parents as part of an effort to eradicate the devastating practice of placing young children in institutional care. New technologies and innovative partnerships between actors, the drama school and educationalists to provide audiobook format textbooks for children with visual impairment-replacing the prohibitively expensive braille books and enabling children to learn within their own communities and not to be ghettoized in special schools.

Bringing together these experiences Montenegro hosted the first ever global UNDP meeting on innovation resulting in the Budva Declaration setting out key principles on innovation for the organization globally. Creative design and participation of top-notch innovators (Nesta, Edgeryders, UK Government Nudge Unit, Mind Lab, Future GovUK, UNICEF to name just few) attracted more than 60 colleagues from 29 countries and 16 country offices. UNICEF is hoping to launch one of the world’s first innovation labs on education in Montenegro in the near future.

Yet we agreed this is only the beginning, so in April UNICEF and UNDP, along with colleagues from UNHCR and in collaboration with leading global innovations foundation NESTA UK, we organized a joint retreat to map out a strategy and framework for mainstreaming innovation principles in all aspects of the work of our offices. For the first time a group of UN agencies were introduced to Nesta’s cutting-edge ‘Development Impact&You’ toolkit. A set of tools to promote innovation from the level of analysis through to intervention, to evaluation and to adaption. This is really critical in terms of ensuring across- the- board office wide, agency wide and UN wide paradigm shifting and enabling those staff who are most distant from the core skills or knowledge, and most importantly, mindset of innovation to be empowered to catch up.

After two days of running through human rights and development gaps and possible solutions through the lens of the toolkit, a common language was developed on innovation and will serve as a departure point to further mainstream a culture of innovation throughout the UNICEF and UNDP offices in Montenegro. Tony Wagner, in his recent book 'Creating Innovators - The making of Young People Who Will Change the World' identifies the three keys components of innovation as creativity, motivation and expertise. We have expertise in abundance, but what about motivation and creativity? Maybe not as much as we would like, but neuroscience and cognitive psychology tells us now that creativity and motivation can be coached, mentored and nurtured. Promoting motivation and creativity is a key component of both our efforts to deliver results in Montenegro, but also for the future ability of our organisations and new generations of our staff to harness innovation for global development and human rights fulfilment.

Here in Montenegro we have committed to continue to drive the agenda forward! Through a joint innovation roadmap with clear milestones and ongoing technical collaboration with Nesta we continue on our path of mainstreaming how to build on the discussion around real-time issues discussed during the retreat and benefit from Nesta’s experience even more.  We will update you in a few months on the progress.

Ben and Rasto  

Benjamin Perks is UNICEF Representative and Rastislav Vrbensky is UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, both in Montenegro.