All of five months have passed since UNDP in Armenia hosted a social innovation camp (known as Mardamej locally) and in that time my colleagues and I have delivered a few presentations on our experience and received numerous insightful questions from the development community.
A recurring theme concerns the use of the social innovation camp methodology for dealing with uncertainty within UNDP’s manifold operational contexts.
Late last year, Albert Soer and Balazs Horvath initiated a vibrant debate on Sustainable development and coming to terms with complexity, asking whether sustainable development is a normative outcome of a complex social system or whether a complex system is a product of a sustainable approach to development – a chicken and egg dilemma (almost).
The importance of the debate lies in the fact that both sides seem to agree upon the need for more dynamic programming, and in doing so, question the efficacy of linear thinking and an over reliance on central planning.
Complexity theory, in application, seems to require experimentation, learning and the inclusion of contingency by development agencies. Experimentation with small-scale project prototypes, it is argued, enables quick response programming and learning, but, equally, low impact failure (at least financially).
The presence of a wide array of small-scale projects in turn creates a portfolio of possible paths and, as such, contingency.
It is in nurturing a range of small-scale development prototypes that the advantage of social innovation camps becomes apparent. The process encourages active citizenship by enabling self-organization and projects are designed and run by volunteers, therefore reducing the financial costs of failure. UNDP’s oversight of the projects also ensures that if a project threatens vested interests within a particular context, UNDP is well positioned to mediate or advocate for compromise, helping to reduce social or political risks.
Although it is too early to fully evaluate the impact of the social innovation camp in Armenia, initial signs are positive. The event’s Facebook page is still a vibrant forum for discussion, five out of the six projects created at the event are operational (one funded by UNDP, four funded by the Eurasia Partnership Foundation), three of which will soon conduct a hard-launch (more on this in the coming weeks). These positive signs in Armenia raise questions concerning the wider applicability of the methodology, especially concerning international collaboration.
With the above insights and questions, I recently travelled to Cyprus to present the methodology and our experiences in Armenia to the Peace it Together network. The network (formed as part of the USAID funded and UNDP implemented Action for Cooperation and Trust project) consists of civil society organizations and activists who have extensive experience of citizen-led peacebuilding in Cyprus and beyond.
They plan to host social innovation camps in preparation for what they hope will become an annual conference on citizen-led peacebuilding and reconciliation.
In Cyprus I developed a deep respect for the knowledge, vision and ambition of the Peace it Together network members. They were interested in the social innovation camps because they reach beyond the “usual suspects,” and saw the potential to engage a wide variety of people in peacebuilding efforts.
We concluded that social innovation camps are applicable to grassroots peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts, but that it would need to be contextualized along the following lines:
- Host itch workshops with participants from individual communities identifying issues pertinent to their daily lives
- Link issues which transcend dividing lines and are not directly linked to the causes of the conflict
- Engage with idea owners in order to identify individuals who are willing to work in multi-communal teams
- Conduct the social innovation camp for the participatory design of solutions to common issues
- Implement the prototypes within one community, or ideally within various communities (peace building in action)
Even if the projects designed at the social innovation camp were implemented only within one community, the Peace it Together network would have enabled contact between the two communities on common issues unconnected with the conflict.
Can the networks and projects developed at social innovation camps create a foundation for citizen-led reconciliation and peace building?