Jennifer Colville: “Innovative development calls for a collision of ideas”

UNDP Knowledge, Innovation and Capacity Group policy advisor on why she’s looking to Salzburg Academy students to help address development challenges

At this year’s Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, the 71 students from 23 countries across five continents are helping the UN agency address real-life challenges in advancing the MDG and SDG agenda. Led by Jennifer Colville, policy advisor in the UNDP’s Knowledge, Innovation and Capacity Group (KICG), the students will be examining and making proposals on how media can be used to address the challenges around youth unemployment and livelihoods, climate change, human rights, and corruption.

 

As 2015 draws ever closer, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is supporting partner countries in moving beyond the 15-year old “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs) and towards a post-2015 development agenda, as embodied in the still-to-be-agreed-upon “sustainable development goals” (SDGs) – and they’re looking to Millennials to help.

KICG is UNDP’s in-house resource for “innovation for development” policy advice and technical support to partner countries around the world. Colville leads the Group’s effort to explore “next generation” capacities needed to manage the complex, dynamic, and unpredictable nature of development today, with a specific focus on innovative approaches to collaboration, participation, and inclusion. In her role, Colville also manages UNDP’s newly launched Innovation Facility, a $10 million fund to support innovation for development around the world. 

In a full-day program in the first week of the three-week Academy, Colville set the stage for the students’ efforts over the coming weeks by giving an overview of the development landscape, citing facts and figures and underscoring the importance of multi-dimensional responses – at the societal, organization and individual levels. To bring development challenges to life, UNDP colleagues from around the globe presented via video Skype a number of innovative programs already in place; from “Micro Narratives”, collecting and sharing stories to address intolerance in Georgia, and “Pistaljka”, a whistleblowing website launched in Serbia to uncover corruption, to “The Road to Zero Youth Unemployment”, a game being designed to build empathy and ultimately tackle the high rate of unemployment among highly-educated youth in Bhutan. 

The Bhutanese example is an area in which UNDP’s KICG is developing a growing interest: the emerging field of “gamification” – the use of games to raise awareness and engage citizens on a pressing development issue, build empathy among those who might have differing opinions, and ultimately change people’s behavior with regard to the issue.

“UNDP is trying to be more innovative. One of the things we’re looking at is gamification. We’re also looking a whole host of other things like behavioral science, foresighting, social innovation camps, labs, hubs, challenges… A key piece of the innovation agenda is the communications aspect of it. We’re trying to “work out loud” or communicate more frequently throughout the entire process of development for a variety of reasons: so that more actors are aware of and become involved in the process, so that feedback can heard as early on in the process as possible, and so that information and knowledge are shared more broadly across projects. Better communications can help us design and deliver more effective projects with our partners,” explained Colville.

As part of their innovative approach, the UNDP hosts regular research and development events, and it was through such an event that Colville and the UNDP became involved in the Salzburg Academy thanks to the Emerson Engagement Lab, led by Salzburg Academy faculty member Eric Gordon at Emerson College, Boston, USA. 

“Last year our regional [R&D] event in Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (ECIS) was on behavioral science and gamification, and Eric with the Emerson Engagement Lab was invited to that. Then we had him come and speak to colleagues in New York and he started to work with a number of our country offices as well. And he said ‘We’ve got this [Academy] going – it would be great for you to come and give the development perspective!’,” Colville explained.

The 2014 Academy’s group work builds on Gordon’s Ithiel de Sola Pool lecture on the Impact of Communications Technology on Society and Politics at the 2013 Academy. In his lecture, Gordon laid out how by playing learning games, such as 1990s school hit, Oregon Trail, and direct impact games like Darfur is Dying (where one must keep their refugee camp functioning in the face of possible attacks by Janjaweed militias), opportunities for learning and empathy can be realized in a much more accessible manner than simply reading books or listening to lectures.

It is this sort of innovative thinking that Colville is hoping to harness from this year’s cohort of Salzburg Academy students. 

“There is a tendency to go towards the new kinds of media but one of the groups I was speaking to basically felt that even that was old hat. ‘An app is so 2013!’” laughed Colville. “And so that’s great because they want to push [innovation] even further, and that’s what we at UNDP hope to get from our interaction with young people. As we develop programs for young people, it’s really important for us to work with them to push boundaries.

“I think what it would be great to have from them is that out-of-the-box thinking. There is the new and the ‘out there’ thinking that I’m looking for – the different perspective they bring is invaluable,” she added.

The 2014 Academy students also took part in the UN’s “MY World” survey, providing the UN insight into what the students consider to be the most important issues for them. Colville and her colleagues might be turning to Millennials to help find solutions to the world’s development challenges, but that’s not to say that they are no longer listening to the older generation.

“The demographic shift is calling for a response and an engagement with youth – we cannot ignore it and we don’t want to ignore it. But we’re not only engaging the youth; it’s part of a broader effort that the UNDP is trying to undertake with our international partners to reach out to a variety of voices that we haven’t traditionally heard from. It is about hearing all these different voices – that’s where this collision of ideas happens and where the great ideas can emerge,” said Colville. 

Whilst Colville’s busy schedule unfortunately meant that she could not stay in Salzburg for the full three-week program, she remains keen to hear what the students propose in their final presentations next week. As the students delve into their projects, many are interacting with UNDP Country Offices around the world, including UNDP Iraq on a citizen journalism project; UNDP Armenia and Serbia on a corruption in education initiative; and UNDP Mexico on a water access project.

At at dinner with the students ahead of her departure last week, Colville told the international cohort of students: “I can’t wait to dial in on August 7!”