Contested spaces, disconnected communities

Malaysia, like many countries in Southeast Asia, is witnessing rapid growth and development. This is especially visible in the rise of cities outside the capital, Kuala Lumpur. As village turns into town, and town to city, wealth is accumulated along with questions about equitable distribution. Enter a common frontier challenge across the nation: unsustainable urbanization and spatio-social development.

Indeed, we are witnessing:

  • A disregard for ecology and ecosystem services
  • Gentrification and displacement of local identity, character and culture through the establishment of functional but soulless cities
  • Poor legacy planning: entrenchment of power disparities and low empowerment of youth
  • A systemic failure to protect and empower the vulnerable

The Malaysian government has made a bold move in announcing the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030, which shares common themes with UNDP’s Strategic Plan 2018-2021, especially around the principle of leaving no one behind. But much work needs to be done if this is to be achieved alongside the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Indeed, we have seen the problems outlined above in places where UNDP has, or will have, a strong portfolio presence: the states of Sarawak, Johor (Iskandar Malaysia), Sabah and Kedah, to name a few.

Balancing people, planet, prosperity and peace as human settlements go from no-rise, to low-rise, to high-rise, is a tricky act.

To be fair: more and more city councils and local municipal authorities are formulating well-intended “master plans” and “sustainability agendas.” However, the reality is that few depart the concept stage. End users, in particular, often do not see the realization of ideals contained in these documents. Delivery channels are fragmented and silo-ed. Understanding of system design is poor at best and absent at worst, with point solutions frequently deployed to address complex systemic issues. Above all, learning is slow as these planning documents seldom draw upon real-time data.

On the community end, there is a disproportionate dependence on government authorities: local civil society movements are often disorganized, fragmented and unsustainable. As an upper-middle-income developing country we have a variety of resources—financial and otherwise—for sustainable development, but these resources are often mismatched to needs and ineffectively delivered.

As for the innovation space, there is no shortage of ideas flowing from hackathons and higher education institutions alike, the latter also recipients of considerable government grants to generate intellectual property. However, few of these ideas ever get tested to either failure or fruition. Problems range from lack of political will and collective intelligence (ideas generated in silos), to poor systemic connections and enabling conditions.

Turning the tables on how policy is formed and used

In Malaysia, UNDP’s core business is shaping policy, strengthening institutional capacity, and connecting and empowering stakeholders.

To this end, the UNDP Accelerator Lab Malaysia is asking if it is possible to turn the tables on—to put users, not policy makers, at the heart of—policy creation and implementation processes. Several innovations come to mind: the strengthening of grassroots movements (in terms of structure, sustainability and constructive systemic contribution); the reinvention of government agencies to be open and receptive towards stakeholder communities; the addressing of data and delivery gaps; and the integration of more systems- and design-based thinking into policy creation and implementation.

Central to this will be experiments informed by, and based on, the living lab model. The living lab introduces three novelties to the way we are currently “doing government”:

  • It addresses data and information gaps by employing methods that allows real-time, current, close-to-issue data to be collected;
  • It addresses ecosystem gaps by bringing together diverse stakeholders, empowering and engaging them actively in ways that go beyond boardroom discussions;
  • It addresses policy implementation issues by rolling out and testing multi-pronged solutions, instead of starting with costly, large-scale point solutions.

On top of these, beneficiary stakeholder communities will typically be engaged and participate throughout the entire process. All in all, this not only spreads risk, but also creates more community buy-in for problem solving, making them an integral part of the solution rather than just the end-recipient of government plans or programmes developed in isolation.

Living lab in action: Water Warriors engages stakeholders by promoting community participation in the management of local sustainability issues.

There is evidence that this approach may be a significant part of a new wave of policy making. Recently, UNDP participated in the Malaysian Water Association’s Stakeholders Dialogue on the 12th Malaysia Plan: Water Sector Transformation. In the same room were representatives from Water Warriors, a community-based living lab for integrated watershed management. We may consider Water Warriors an example of positive deviance—the most unlikely, yet most revolutionary, people sitting at the policy table, bringing a fresh approach to tired problems.

Still, let’s be honest: not everyone will want this. We expect an uphill journey as we try to sell what is undeniably a messy, open-ended and maybe even scary methodology. It’s not as sexy as, say, a Tesla Flood-o-matic. But the parts and elements needed in society are there; all we need is to find brave takers. For if the Accelerator Lab’s mission is innovation, then it must go where the masses dare not. Because it can, it must: for if not us, who will?

From community classroom to insights-and-learning space

As the UNDP Country Office (CO) for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam charts a new course towards integrated, localized, area-based projects that produce lessons and learnings for policy, the Accelerator Lab—AccLab, in short—is expected to help bridge silos across programme portfolios. The AccLab sits within an “insights-and-learning space” that will serve the CO in mapping and driving innovation, exploring new approaches to data, and laying a strong foundation for the #NextGenUNDP.

Perhaps the most striking innovation is that we want to integrate learning cycles—with more room for reflection and agility—into the way we do things. We want to turn our projects into learning spaces with outputs serving not only as ends in and of themselves, but as indicators and input for strategic foresight. We know the future is in flux, as AccLab global team leader Gina Lucarelli has eloquently put—and she finds herself in good company, as Jedi Master Yoda has also said, “Always in motion the future is.” Therefore, outcomes become less the end of a journey, and more nudges that push us in the direction of one future or another.

Early “machine room” concept drafts of the insights-and-learning space.

The insights-and-learning space is thus a vision for crafting living, breathing policy. As policy advisers, we ourselves will learn to be more iterative and less linear, cognizant of multiple futures. We will become more flexible and resilient. New data will enrich the system in which we operate (we are elastic), rather than scare or throw us off because we’ve choreographed everything. These strategic challenges are timely. As Malaysia progresses towards becoming a high-income country and Net Contributor Country (NCC) to UNDP, we must stop working in closed-loop project cycles, and start moving towards strategic interventions and thought leadership. This ranges from tackling problems in infrastructure design all the way to influencing citizen behaviour—metaphorically, transitioning from the “emergency” log-frame response mode of sending aid to flooded cities, to creating systems that prevent floods in the first place.

In all of this the greatest challenge may well be reconciling the expectations for “acceleration” with the fact that real foresight for long-term change takes time. Real exploration is open ended and may have to endure long periods of frustration before a cascade of breakthroughs. The CO will, therefore, support the AccLab as it explores unpopular spaces. As it walks down seemingly dead-end roads. As it helps us figure out how we can make room for failure, and learning therefrom, making the case for this in a very performance- and delivery-driven CO environment. Perhaps part of the answer lies in the humble realization that we are works in progress, just as all that we create are also works in progress.

When was the last time you thought of UNDP as revolutionary, not just evolutionary? With the AccLab, we are slowly but surely turning the tables. As the curtain closes on 2019, the year the AccLab announced its arrival, we look forward to the start of 2020, when the Lab will start flexing its muscles, showing everyone the extent of its ambition and capabilities. We can hardly wait.

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