Grassroots innovations are gateways to understanding real needs of the communities and a perfect entry point for co-creating solutions which embrace local wisdom and place local innovators at the center of the process. Can this be a steppingstone to SDGs achievement at local level?

While the COVID-19 pandemic has added complexity and challenges to our sustainable development journey, it has also accelerated innovations at an unprecedented rate. Innovations are no longer “nice to have” or “let’s do it tomorrow” but become the essential ingredient for today’s survival. Innovations are being created everywhere by everyone to cope with current challenges as well as build forward stronger. At the UN Development Programme (UNDP), innovation initiatives have also become one of the main arteries that enable us to advance our sustainable development efforts. Since its inception earlier this year, the UNDP Accelerator Lab Thailand strives to integrate innovations into our country programmes to foster insightful and inclusive development solutions. 

Acknowledging that development needs to be bottom-up rather than top-down, UNDP Thailand has taken on the challenge of accelerating progress to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by pushing the agenda at sub-national level and localizing the Goals among local stakeholders and communities. This approach allows us to better identify and unpack the problems and co-create innovative solutions together with the local people. We believe that solutions which are made ‘by the locals for the locals’ create a greater sense of ownership and thus have a higher rate of success. The first step is to listen and engage with local stakeholders. So, when UNDP sets out to transform the local food systems and foster economic recovery in Southern Thailand, UNDP in collaboration with ALC engaged in active listening process to capture complex narratives and identify real needs, and pave way for co-creating solutions. The Thailand’s Accelerator Lab adds a momentum to this process by turning to grassroots innovations mapping to gain insights on the lived experiences of everyday folks, their pain points, their ways of coping using self-made solutions. One could say, there is no better entry point to inform us of the real needs and potential solutions than grassroot innovations.

What is grassroots innovation?

The UNDP Accelerator Labs and London School of Economics and Political Science define grassroots innovations as "indigenous solutions, created by actors in civil society and supported by limited resources, which aim to address local situations and often achieve sustainable development." Essentially, grassroots innovations are created by people who are affected by the problems themselves, the ‘insiders’ of the issues instead of external stakeholders like the government, NGOs, companies, or experts. They are the proof that despite the lack of resources, people persist and find ways to tackle their own problems, some of which have a potential for scale. Another characteristic of grassroots innovations is that, where there is a shortage of resources, people make up in creativity. We ‘make do’ with what we have and can possibly do a lot more if given additional supports. In a nutshell, grassroots innovations are the embodiment of human agency.

Grassroots innovations mapping in the hands of our “Food System Heroes”

When UNDP plans to launch the “Food System Heroes” project, a local youth innovation challenge for an inclusive transformation of fresh markets in the new normal era in Southern border provinces, the Thailand’s Accelerator Lab finds an excellent opportunity to share our approach and integrate solutions mapping in the process to empower the local change agents. The Lab joins hands with Digital4Peace, a civic technology organization in Southern Thailand, to conduct training for local youth to co-create solutions for their fresh markets but first begins with the search for grassroots innovations.  

Unlike other innovation challenges that sometimes jump right into developing solutions, the Lab introduced the concept of grassroots innovations as the main entry point. We trained the local youth to map and analyze local solutions to gain deeper understanding of the local markets before starting their ideation. This process helped the youth teams to understand the unmet needs and pain points because grassroots innovations would never emerge if there was no need for them. Therefore, analyzing these solutions can also take us to the root causes. Seeing both the underlying problems and potential solutions opens doors to many opportunities. We can choose to work on improving existing solutions, making them better, more effective, green, and inclusive, or we may see opportunities to develop entirely new solutions once the root cause problems are well understood.

Among countless grassroot innovations captured by the youth teams, we can see common issues emerging, from space management to product display, packaging, logistics, safety and hygiene, water drainage, waste management, car parking, among others. The Lab urged the youth teams to explore this problem space further and analyze which ones are already well addressed by existing simple and affordable solutions, which problems are in need for better interventions, and which are currently not tackled at all. We believe that seeing the landscape of problems will help the teams to ground their work in the real needs of the communities.

Truth be told, it was not exactly an easy process to keep enthusiastic youth in the problems space, analyzing grassroots innovations and the complex network of problems without rushing to think about their dream solutions. Yet, grassroots innovations have proven to be a useful tool to draw our focus to reality on the ground, both the underlying problems and the human agency to overcome them despite all limitations. Empowered with innovative tools, we believe that the local youth can become one of the key change agents to advance the SDGs from the ground up.

So the journey has begun…

This is just the beginning of our journey and not only with the Food System Heroes; it is our step towards mainstreaming SDGs localization within UNDP Thailand country programmes. Grassroots innovations mapping exercise by the Southern youth showcases how the Lab’s innovation toolbox helps to engage and empower local change agents, placing them at the center of their own development process. Follow our next blog to see how we support local stakeholders and communities in the race towards the SDGs.

Read blog in Thai here

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