UNDP and Nesta: Environmental Innovation and Collective Intelligence

In 2019 the UNDP established Accelerator Labs and hired teams in 60 countries – “the world’s largest and fastest learning network on sustainable development challenges.” They approached Nesta’s Collective Intelligence Design Studio, who invited my colleague Aviv Katz and I to help develop a learning and innovation programme to help upskill the teams.

Collective Intelligence

Former CEO of Nesta Geoff Mulgan shaped the concept of Collective Intelligence in his 2018 book Big Mind. From the outset he describes collaborations of people, data and technology as “Nothing inherently new,” but it is the unprecedented scale, speed and ways to tackle complex change and development challenges afforded to us by our world today that distinguishes this field. An increasingly closely connected world of knowledge, politics and policy and the proliferation of systems and platforms for mass collaboration, and the conceptual and technological tools to implement enable us to tackle bigger problems in more ambitious ways.

Much of the Collective Intelligence Design Playbook tools, tactics and methods are gathered from fields and disciplines such as service design, design thinking, management consultancy, big data management and organisational / entrepreneurial startup and transformation. It’s a very large toolkit of toolkits. Part of our remit was to curate and test drive some of these tools and ways of thinking, and present our refinements back to the Nesta team. The Playbook is online and currently is framed as ‘in Beta’ – so if you feel moved to suggest improvements, the door is open on the site.

With such a wealth of tools and approaches and disciplines referenced, one of the distinguishing elements that helped us clarify the USP of putting Collective Intelligence into practice are its core principles, summarised in the video below. They sound simple, but consider just how much you can push the boundaries of each of these in your everyday work.

1. Increase the diversity of people involved and opinions listened to

2. Enable people to contribute views independently and freely

3. Integrate different types of data to unlock fresh ideas

4. Be citizen-centred: Data empowerment, not data extraction

The Contexts / Project

Thirteen teams were selected to participate in this pilot programme, who are all currently focused towards UNDP Sustainable Development Goal #12 – Responsible Consumption & Production (with overlap into others of course).

Even with a more specific focus on reducing or managing urban waste, there was a wide variety of contexts and challenges between each country. All thirteen countries were driven to learn and do, from Cabo Verde’s challenge to maintain pristine marine ecosystems that support the country’s economy through tourism, to Ukraine’s problems with citizens burning waste in their back yards causing pollution and wildfires (see the title picture), to Turkey’s quest for existing, unused, municipal data containing a treasure trove of problems to solve, patterns to identify and evidence to build more efficient and effective services and systems for the public (if only they could access it, which thankfully now they can).

Through a four-day intensive workshop in Istanbul, the teams defined their plans and objectives, and were introduced to and trialled many of the tools they would come to rely upon for working with citizens, gathering and processing data, prioritising and deciding on what actions to take, and how they would measure impact. We had guest speakers in person and virtually, including Dietmar Offenhuber of Northeastern & Princeton Universities, Geoff Mulgan, and practical sessions ranging from Yves Barthélemy of the World Bank presenting Open Cities Africa and running a collaborative mapping session, and a great presentation but near-miss citizen science expedition with Anne Bowser from the Woodrow Wilson Centre / Earth Challenge 2020 (the new app was glitchy on the big day).

After heading home from the workshop, plans changed…

The Pandemic, and Working Remotely Across 14 Countries

Initially, the four-month process would feature a ‘big bang’ workshop at the beginning and end, book-ending a wealth of effort and activity which encouraged collaboration, critique and ideas sharing between the Accelerator Labs, and mentoring from Aviv and I on how to keep moving their projects forward. But in our Istanbul workshop in February, there were growing murmurs of the emergence of a pandemic.

Mentoring sessions became increasingly focused on the risks of engaging citizens through workshops, meeting them in context and working with informal waste collectors and pickers, sanitation workers, community organisations, schools and government institutions. As lockdowns, curfews and government guidelines appeared (and the variations in implementing and communicating those to citizens across each country is a fascinating study in itself), we needed to change approach.

We outlined a 10-week online webinar series in which we would invite guest speakers, introduce approaches and explain the theory behind some of the Collective Intelligence ways of working. We would encourage teams to do and share what they could to increase the proliferation of ideas and comparisons, and present regularly in the webinars to raise the profile and visibility of their challenges and discoveries amongst their peers, which led inevitably to closer collaborations and richer results.

Guest expert speakers presented on areas including data ethics, digital tools for public engagement and crowdsourcing ideas. Miro was used extensively to provide a repository for each week’s expert presentations and CI tools, and to set weekly challenges for the teams to complete. Teams posted their thoughts and completed exercises on a comprehensive Miro Board – a space for everyone to work ‘out in the open’. 

Working weekly, we were able to course correct and incrementally curate upcoming sessions in response to what we were hearing in feedback, mentoring and webinar discussions. The initial ‘big bang workshop’ plan for the learning programme is tried and tested and has many benefits besides the qualitative and human elements of working in the same room. But we discovered, like many people around the world shifting to online right now, that there are other new benefits to working in these ways.

The screen grab below shows a zoomed-out view of the 10 weeks of the webinar series and final presentations, made online to the wider UNDP. Each column is a different country, and each row is a different week. At the left of each row we would post presentation decks from our guest speakers and the webinar decks and relevant tools, videos and resources. Each ‘cell’ would contain a challenge and worksheets for each country, and a space to post their responses through the week, and comment on each other’s efforts.

The structure and thinking behind this pilot, plus findings and recommendations for delivering this programme again were documented for Nesta and UNDP, including the feedback and impact reported by each country Accelerator Lab. These recommendations were mindful of the range of realities we may be returning to in the near future as the pandemic subsides. The reflections above are a summary of just a part of this, and I’ll update this article should some of those be published as CIDS version 2.0 is developed.


There’s an obvious caveat here. Working collaboratively with citizens when you’re not allowed to leave your home or go to the office is a skewed testing environment, to put it lightly. But we were amazed and heartened by how much ground was covered, and how much the teams in more severe lockdown were able to to create robust, inclusive, flexible plans for progressing as and when conditions ease, and still forge ahead on other fronts.

Some highlights are listed here, but I encourage you to follow the UNDP Accelerator Labs Instagram feed and Twitter feed if only for the uplifting effect of being informed about all the amazing work currently happening all over the world to “Close the gap between the current practices of international development in an accelerated pace of change.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina have launched a number of initiatives, including a successful open ideation challenge to solve issues around waste reduction, sorting, education, single use plastic, food waste and potentially biohazardous waste emerging as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. They demonstrated an excellent ethnographic work-around for Covid conditions which featured researchers tailing city refuse collection trucks in their car and videoing and interviewing along the collection route.

Cabo Verde are transforming their ways of working with the public to ensure the cleanliness of beaches and marine ecosystems to support a sustainable tourist industry. Key to this is focusing on coastal neighbourhoods as much as the beaches themselves, and shifting their team’s mentality from being experts to becoming listeners.

The Dominican Republic team is working in Los Tres Brazos district of Santo Domingo to reduce waste that pollutes waterways. They developed an app for schools that gamifies ideation and education, and a mapathon engaging local mothers in particular to highlight hotspots of waste dumping, while building social capital and agency within the community.

Ghana recognised the potential for most rapid change in waste issues would be to map and survey slums in Korle Klotte in Accra which have little infrastructure and services to manage waste collection, and enable locals to become ambassadors for change.

The Lao team worked in several locations in Sikhottabong district to highlight the drivers and barriers that cause many citizens to burn their waste in the open. Through developing an app to collect data on open burning, combined with satellite imagery and GIS, they were able to re-align top-down perspectives of the problem with citizens and realities on the ground.

In extreme conditions of working during civil conflict, the Libya team showed incredible energy to map and measure waste collection in the Janzour district of Triploi. They created a participatory and inclusive intelligence-gathering process with a diverse group of stakeholders, citizens and community activists.

Malawi worked in the Area 25 neighbourhood of Lilongwe to support the community in minimising illegal waste dumping and helping recyclers gain access to raw materials. By bringing different sources and types of data together, they were able to paint a clear, evidenced picture of the challenge and opportunities for the local government and citizens.

The Paraguay team combined environmental concerns with social welfare and economic rights for waste pickers in the San Francisco neighbourhood of Asunción. They are working towards their vision of Asunción as the ‘Green City of the Americas’ through participatory design and constellations of diverse stakeholder groups.

Tanzania worked with in a semi-urbanised and unplanned area of Dar es Salaam with an estimated population of 38,000 to establish clear and precise data about the number of buildings, citizen viewpoints and possible illegal trash site locations. This also served broader purposes for managing issues such as flooding, deforestation and identifying unplanned roadways that could serve the area.

In Turkey, the team now has access to the huge store of previously unused data from citizens highlighting issues across Çankaya in Ankara. They can now harvest this data to design responses to that will improve the efficiency and efficacy of new and existing waste services and initiatives.

In Ukraine, the team used overlays of illegal fires, large wildfires and population densities to focus their invitation to support communities to shift from burning to composting. 50,000 fires occur within recognised ecosystems each year, which is now monitored with real-time data, satellite imagery and empowering citizens with data contribution and access.

The Viet Nam team mapped the dominant informal systems of waste collection in Danang. This included inviting informal waste collectors to carry GPS devices to track their routes and compare with other waste pickers, which were then overlaid on maps of socioeconomic, demographic and waste-related behavioural data.

The Zambia team is working in the Lilanda district of Lusaka to raise awareness and change behaviours amongst the public to sort recycling that otherwise ends up in landfill. They are deftly balancing online, mobile, community word-of-mouth and in-context communications and dialogue to organise and educate.