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A United Nations agency with a sweeping mission and sprawling global presence may not appear to be the most likely place where companies can learn new techniques for accelerating innovation — but appearances can be deceiving. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), an organization of 17,000 employees spanning 170 countries, focuses on solving the world’s most complex problems — ending poverty, ensuring healthy lives and well-being, providing affordable and clean energy, reducing inequalities, and more — through local, regional, and global initiatives and an annual budget of $5 billion.1 In our exploratory research,2 we have found that this organization is making exceptionally progressive innovation moves both at its headquarters and in the field by building and sustaining one of the world’s largest networks of accelerator labs — 60 of them, serving 78 countries.3
That’s why the agency provides such an instructive example for businesses. Usually, managers think about building an ecosystem for innovation, and most research-based advice focuses on challenges and opportunities that arise in that setting.4 But UNDP has gone much further, creating a large network of ecosystems that revolve around its labs, and building connections with local partners while also helping the labs coordinate with one another. In short, it’s solving the acceleration problem with a portfolio mindset, employing the power of the collective, and it’s doing so at an unprecedented scale.
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Business leaders can take a similar approach to address innovation challenges across teams, units, and regions — and to tackle projects that would benefit from both local and global expertise. For inspiration, we’ll consider a few examples of multinational companies that have recently deployed their own networks of ecosystems. But first, let’s look at how the UNDP model evolved into what it is today and what it’s been able to accomplish so far. People tend to assume that all large government-related organizations are highly centralized, under-resourced, and sluggish, especially when it comes to trying anything new. However, over the past few years, under fresh leadership, UNDP has been learning from early mistakes and creating a new organizational structure to more effectively and efficiently ramp up its efforts in the area of sustainable development.
It’s a story of major change, to be sure.
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1. “Sustainable Development Goals,” UNDP, accessed Dec. 21, 2019, www.undp.org, and “UNDP Strategic Plan, 2018-2021,” United Nations, Oct. 17, 2017, https://undocs.org.
2. We have met with leaders of UNDP, participated in a UNDP networked-learning workshop, and reviewed UNDP and third-party reports, articles, and blog posts to understand the agency’s recent efforts.
4. See, for example, this classic article: R. Adner and R. Kapoor, “Value Creation in Innovation Ecosystems: How the Structure of Technological Interdependence Affects Firm Performance in New Technology Generations,” Strategic Management Journal 31, no. 3 (March 2010): 306-333. For a more recent review of the subject, see R. Kapoor, “Ecosystems: Broadening the Locus of Value Creation,” Journal of Organization Design 7, no. 1 (2018): 1-16.
5. C.M. Christensen, “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1997).
6. G. Filipovic, “Serbia Tackles the Plunging Population Plaguing the Balkans,” Bloomberg, Feb. 26, 2019, www.bloomberg.com; and A. Kiersz, “The 20 Countries Facing Population Collapse,” Business Insider, Jan. 17, 2020, www.businessinsider.com.
7. F. Pickup, “How to Address a Shrinking Population,” UNDP, Oct. 22, 2019, www.undp.org; and I. Cerovic, “Depopulation: What’s It All About?” UNDP Serbia, Dec. 31, 2019, www.rs.undp.org.
8. D. Draskovic, “A Glimpse Into LinkedIn Data to Understand Serbian Labour Out-Migration,” UNDP Serbia, Oct. 8, 2019, www.rs.undp.org.
9. “Mitigation of Medical Plastic Waste in Health Sector in Viet Nam,” UNDP Viet Nam, Aug. 16, 2019, www.vn.undp.org.
10. For a sample Accelerator Labs job posting, see https://uncareer.net/vacancy/head-exploration-211130, accessed Jan. 2, 2020.
11. See, for example, C. Baldwin and E. von Hippel, “Modeling a Paradigm Shift: From Producer Innovation to User and Open Collaborative Innovation,” Organization Science 22, no. 6 (November-December 2011): 1399-1417; M. Bogers, H. Chesbrough, and C. Moedas, “Open Innovation: Research, Practices, and Policies,” California Management Review 60, no. 2 (winter 2018): 5-16; and E.J. Altman, F. Nagle, and M.L. Tushman, “Innovating Without Information Constraints: Organizations, Communities, and Innovation When Information Costs Approach Zero,” in “Oxford Handbook of Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship,” eds. C. Shalley, M. Hitt, and J. Zhou (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
12. A. Soh, “Syngenta Opens Digital Innovation Lab in Singapore,” The Business Times, April 18, 2018, www.businesstimes.com.sg.
13. “Research & Development Facilities,” Cargill, accessed Dec. 27, 2019, www.cargill.com.
14. “Substantiating the Safety of a New Sweetener: Regulatory & Scientific Affairs Case Study,” Cargill, accessed Jan. 17, 2019, www.cargill.com.
15. For example, it took nearly 50 years after the discovery that citrus fruits helped prevent scurvy for the solution to start diffusing widely. See M. White, “James Lind: The Man Who Helped to Cure Scurvy With Lemons,” BBC News, Oct. 4, 2016, www.bbc.com.
16. “Who We Are,” AT&T Foundry, accessed Dec. 27, 2019, https://foundry.att.com.
17. “Startup Nation: Accelerating Innovation,” AT&T Foundry, accessed Feb. 7, 2020, https://foundry.att.com.
i. See post explaining three new roles: “UNDP Is Hiring Creative Talent to Join a Groundbreaking Network of Accelerator Labs in 60 Countries to Re-imagine Development,” UNDP Azerbaijan, March 4, 2019, www.az.undp.org.