FRIDAYS AT THE LAB

In the autumn of 2020, the Accelerator Lab within the UNDP’s office in Skopje was created, joining the world’s largest and fastest learning network on sustainable development challenges. Our three-member team (responsible for exploring, experimenting and mapping solutions for the development challenges in our country) is composed of people with very different skill sets that complement each other and aim to accelerate the development work in the country and beyond. However, we arrived at our new job positions amid a global pandemic that severely disrupted business as usual for everyone, so as the newbies in the team, we wanted to make sure that we could still familiarize ourselves with the work of our colleagues, and  have a platform for substantial discussions that will continuously inform our work, contribute to greater horizontal integration in the office while feeding into our efforts to design new, and enrich and accelerate existing development initiatives in our country office. 

After some research, several design sessions and few Zoom meetings that lasted longer than we would like to admit, we came up with the “Fridays at the Lab” idea. The idea was to set aside a time and place to harness the synergies between the different teams and initiatives in the office, but also to help us “work out load” within the organization while engaging with a wider audience. We wanted to provide brief but intense moments for participants to exchange ideas and information that would help break the silos and utilize collective intelligence at all stages of our work. 

DESIGN OF THE EXPERIMENT

When designing the “Fridays at the Lab” experiment we wanted to test one major hypothesis: Could we successfully create a common space where every week colleagues from our country office would come together, put their portfolios, projects, events and reports aside, and have an engaging discussion on a topic that is relevant for the country, inspiring and hopefully sufficiently interdisciplinary to inspire working across silos? 

With this guiding question in mind, we started designing the sessions and embedded several traits at the core of the experiment - consistency, diversity, interdisciplinarity of the format, all wrapped in a 30-minute time slot, every Friday until the end of the year.  

Consistency. We were determined that once we launched this common space for deliberations, learning and idea generations we would have to be very consistent with our sessions and host them every Friday for 30 minutes, from 13:00 to 13:30, until the end of the year. No excuses, no postponing! We wanted to create the expectation among our colleagues that this is something that happens regularly, and that they are always welcomed to participate without the need for significant preparation on their end, aside from their enthusiasm to discuss, share ideas and learn

Diversity. The second trait we wanted to see in every session was diversity. We wanted these get togethers to include a wide variety of “session types”, so we designed sessions around guest speakers, some focused on UNDP’s recent findings and exciting work, but also sessions when we would discuss a good movie, podcast, book or an article we read. We believe that this approach can help us learn what types of activities mobilize the attendance, interest and enthusiasm of most colleagues in our country office. We also wanted to make sure that our approach is diverse enough so that it didn't become too predictable after week four of our experiment. 

Interdisciplinarity. The final core trait we wanted to embed was interdisciplinarity. The topics we are initiating discussions on are meant to be applicable for all the different development portfolios within our country office. We wanted to attract an audience of colleagues with varied backgrounds, to encourage cross-sectoral debates and cross-pollination of ideas and initiatives that can feed diverse development interventions.

 

SPACE FOR EXPLORING THEMES AND TOPICS 

Gamification for environmentally friendly behavior change. Designed around these traits, we hosted our first “Fridays at the Lab” sessions with a presentation by a young entrepreneur and startup founder Stefan Aleksik. The Challenger mobile app Mr. Aleksik and his team developed is designed to encourage people in N. Macedonia to get out of their cars and switch to walking and cycling as their primary methods of transport. The app awards its users with points for walking, biking or running a certain distance and allows them to redeem those points for discounts at local stores and businesses. Mr. Aleksik talked about the impact the application is having on promoting local business and members of the informal economy, as well as the impact the app is having on changing the behavior of its users. Our colleagues were particularly interested in learning how young people were responding to the app, but also if any organizations, municipalities or businesses showed interest in using the app internally for their employees or members. However, the core of the session was dedicated to the environment impact of the app and the idea of how gamification can be used to encourage environmentally friendly behavior.

The format of 15-minute presentations accompanied by 15 minutes of discussion and debate proved to work quite well for our country team. But this was only the beginning. The regular sessions that followed opened up valuable conversations and initiated generation of new ideas within our office. Here we will highlight some of the sessions that gained the most traction.

Blockchain. The problem with blockchain is that almost everybody knows it exists, (thank you cryptocurrencies!), but few understands how it works and how it can be applied to development work. We wanted to help change that by creating a learning opportunity on this new technology and its potential uses in the development sector. Martin Mihajlov, a professor of Blockchain Economics at the University of Ljubljana, was kind enough to accept our speaking invitation and explain the ins and outs of blockchain technology and how it is being integrated into different fileds of work. Though the session lasted only 30 minutes, the conversation didn’t end that Friday. It was carried forward by one of our colleagues who showed great interest in exploring how the technology could be used in his portfolio of environmental projects.

Uberization of the workforce. During this session we learned that in North Macedonia there are thousands of people that work as freelancers. The AccLab team presented the global developments pertaining the uberization of the workforce, the challenges that different countries have had in this realm and how this relates to our local context. We ended up debating the merits of this idea with our fellow colleagues and investigated comparative examples from other countries and how they can improve the situation in our society and within our context. Once again, the theme connected with every portfolio in our office, but particularly with colleagues that worked on improving social inclusion and promoting good governance. 

MAPPING SOLUTIONS

The key for us was to try and set the foundations for important conversations, but also to make sure that we listened and learned about the activities and processes our colleagues are a part of, and how that can inform our work. Our guiding principle was that solutions can come in all forms and from different places. We trust that solutions to the complex problems and challenges our society is facing are aften already out there, though they might not be very visible. Part of our job is to find them. An equally important part of that process was to identify the attempted solutions that failed and learn why that was the case.

One initiative that is being led by our Accelerator Lab is a City Experiment Fund project that aims to develop a portfolio of options to tackle Skopje's development challenges. During our investigation phase, we conducted numerous interviews that helped us identify successful local solutions that neighborhoods applied for the challenges they were facing. As part of our investigation, we also identified attempted solutions that showed themselves to be unsustainable. One example revealed itself in our exploration of the country’s biowaste ecosystem and a discussion on how to repurpose materials before it becomes waste. As part of one “Fridays at the Lab” discussion we explored if and how the concept of freegaism would work in North Macedonia, going over issues of local culture, practices and legal issues. A couple of specific freeganist initiatives were discussed with colleagues who are familiar with the country’s waste ecosystem helping to point out issues that hindered such initiatives, which helped us to refine our approach to the biowaste issue.

We also discussed existing local solutions that had shown results but were not well known or widely adopted. In one “Fridays at the Lab” discussions our colleagues shared examples of successful sorting at source projects, social enterprise solutions to recycling and reuse, as well as sustainable business with waste separation. This showed that there are many successful local initiatives that we could learn from, but it also indicated a need to map all interventions/solutions and understand how synergies can be enhanced and sustainability ensured.

 

PATH FORWARD

“Fridays at the Lab” started with only one person from our office joining the first call and has now grown into a regular activity that almost half of our colleagues follow every week. What comes next for our team are two key activities. We will move towards opening these sessions for our colleagues in other UN agencies, and then to our partners in the government, academia, private sector, civil society, and possible others. In doing so we will be “working out loud” not only within our teams but also with all interested enthusiasts, creative thinkers, decision-makers and enablers in our society. We will hopefully be able to reframe some important conversations on development in the public discourse, but also learn about the solutions, activities and ideas that exist in our ecosystem. We will continue to track the interest and impact of our “Fridays at the Lab” sessions and with that insight revisit the experiment to eventually design and launch the improved “Fridays at the Lab 2.0”. 

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