What happens when you get passion, energy and diversity in the same room? 

Photo: UNDP India

We got some answers on 28 November 2019 at the launch of UNDP Accelerator Lab India! We introduced speed dating as the format for engagement between innovators and seasoned and accomplished professionals in the development sector in India through our launch activity ‘Date for Development’. We invited a diverse group of 60 innovators at mature stage of proof-of-concept to interact with 20 mentors who are renowned development practitioners, with the aim of providing a matchmaking platform for them to find their perfect match(es) to ‘accelerate’ the growth of their innovations. 

Innovative ideas were pitched and discussed across diverse themes like air pollution, agriculture, food and nutrition, health, smart cities, youth and development. Innovators came from diverse geographies, educational backgrounds and age groups. Be it a teenager developing innovative products to create wealth from waste or a baby boomer working on groundwater disinfectant device or a rickshaw puller turned innovator of multipurpose food processing machine or an Ivy League grad working on Artificial Intelligence enabled solutions to fight air pollution - all were provided level playing field to pitch their ideas and receive suggestions from mentors. The fast-paced interactions enabled 200 meaningful conversations in a short span of 75 minutes.

During the reflection session , innovator from Pehel said “I got to know solution to my problem is within my own institute!”, young innovator from Foodshala was excited about “innovative marketing ideas for products in health & nutrition”, innovator from Agsmartic shared her Aha! moment was on “how to troubleshoot anomalies before it happens on field”, teenage innovator from Uneako received investment advice “if you already have profitable business then loan is better than equity”.

Towards the end of the event, there was lot of energy, enthusiasm, followed by curiosity on what next?! Is the Accelerator Lab going to incubate startups? The stereotypes of accelerators started playing in as people asked, will you provide physical space, mentorship and funding support to the startups? What does the Accelerator Lab stand for?

The terms "acceleration" and "innovation" in the context of "startups" (and vice versa) feed into interesting stereotypes in India. And why not, when India is witnessing the rise of startups at unprecedented rate with more than 1,300 tech startups in 2019 alone (bringing the total count to 9,300) and 24 unicorns (companies with valuation of over $1 billion). India is the third largest startup ecosystem in the world, according to IT industry body Nasscom. In addition to this, most innovation policies at state and national level in the past few years also focused on creating enabling environment for startups to flourish. So it is no surprise that the moment we used the word “innovation” with internal and external stakeholders, almost everybody started thinking of us as an incubator. But that’s not what we do. The Accelerator Lab Network was established to answer questions of relevance and coherence. Questions like: Can we achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by doing more of the same? Or do we need to change our toolbox altogether and move away from business as usual to  doing development differently? This is what we stand for: accelerating progress in the SDGs through cycles of exploring, mapping and testing innovative solutions.

Innovations for the SDGs are not only desirable but essential, because without innovations, the world is less likely to achieve SDGs by 2030. The path towards the SDGs is a complex one, with several actors and problems that are intertwined. We engage with such interconnected complex development challenges and design innovative approaches to tackle them. These include multisectoral issues and wicked challenges like the Air pollution; climate resilient livelihoods; gender equity issues etc., where solutions may not necessarily emerge from a single direction or from an organization working in isolation. We understand there are no silver bullets to tackle these challenges - but rather a ‘portfolio of solutions’ that are tested and proven to tackle these wicked problems from multiple dimensions. We experiment with several innovative approaches to design such portfolios.

We do so with the help of unusual partnerships. We will scout for solutions, collaborate and co-create with multiple stakeholders be it the public sector, startups, private sector, students and research community, academic institutes, civil society-based organizations, including lead user or community-led innovations. Thankfully we are not alone in this and we have found our perfect match in terms of a partner. We are teaming up with Niti Aayog’s (Government of India) Atal Innovation Mission to identify and nurture innovative ideas from schools, communities, student and research bodies (Tinkering Lab and Atal Incubation Centres) to develop, test and scale transformative solutions. We are also partnering with research labs, government departments, multinational corporations, civil society organizations and startups to accelerate innovations. Stay tuned for learning and insights from our work in air (air pollution), land (agriculture) and water – the three pillars of sustainability. 

In this exciting journey, as we stumble upon many questions, navigate through many unknowns, we will continue to seek answers collectively and keep in mind the words of Steve Jobs: ‘Stay hungry Stay foolish’

(Ms. Rozita Singh is Head of Solutions Mapping, Ms. Swetha Kolluri is Head of Experimentation and Dr. Krishnan S. Raghavan is Head of Exploration for UNDP’s Accelerator Lab in India)

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