The UN Innovation Agenda in Armenia



The UN Innovation Agenda in Armenia

From designing public services with citizens to holding pop-up innovation labs in government ministries and building funding models based on the private sector, UNDP in Armenia is revolutionizing the way that development organizations contribute to public good.

Text : Ani Smbati  /  Photo : UNDP Armenia


Five years after the creation of a ground-breaking innovation lab, Armenia has sourced perspectives from citizens in municipalities across the country and made important inroads against climate change, human rights abuses, corruption, and many other areas.
“One of the main features of Kolba Lab is the fact that we do not have ownership for the ideas we incubate,” says Hasmik Soghomonyan, Digital Communications Expert at Kolba Lab. “We support activists, entrepreneurs and change-makers within the Government of Armenia who have a good understanding of social problems and feel passionate about solving them. Our incubation programme picks the potentially best successful ideas, and provides access to our design workshops, support from mentors, specialists and organizes fundraising to help the ventures reach scale and sustainability,” she says.
One of the winning initiatives at a recent Social Innovation Camp is the “Armenian Meteo” project. Using open data, the start-up has created a network of sensors to be placed in different parts of the country that deliver real-time information about air, soil and water. Thanks to the system, it will soon be possible to make more robust predictions about climate change and promote better adaptation.

In another project centred around healthcare services, one group of women who had been working with children with learning disabilities suggested development of an app that helps parents of kids with autism teach them how to perform daily tasks and supports them in social integration.
According to Kolba Lab Lead, Marina Mkhitaryan, these are the kind of ideas that Kolba helps bring to life. “We simply tap into Armenia’s creativity and entrepreneurial side, harness it, and use it to deal with some of the development issues that the country is facing”.
Kolba Lab periodically organizes competitions around diverse topics, identified with UNDP’s specialists. Anyone can participate, regardless of age or specialization. After a citizen defines an idea, it passes through an incubation period, where it is processed and different experimental methods and innovative tools are applied.
The resulting idea takes the form of a prototype – a cheap, flexible, first attempt at implementing the idea – which then goes through a user-testing stage. Kolba Lab evaluates the feasibility of the prototype, before assisting in finding funding for projects. One of the significant principles is that the author of the idea should be someone who is directly affected by the issue at stake.
Seeing this success, in 2016 the Armenian Government started working with Kolba Lab in an attempt to create an internal cadre of creative and dynamic civil servants and power the government’s reform agenda. At the beginning of 2017, Kolba Lab held Armenia’s second Public Sector Innovation Week. Through a series of platforms and events dedicated to exploring public administration and governance innovation changemakers from across the spectrum of society were invited to take part.
In June 2016, Kolba Lab with the Armenian Government and Ministry of Justice announced first-ever call for innovative ideas in the public sector among civil servants. Ideas were crowdsourced from within the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Justice to solve small issues with innovative approaches. The Ministry of Justice of Armenia hosted a Pop-up Innovation Lab where employees of the Ministry could test their ideas and discuss them with experts. The successful ideas were announced during the Public Innovation Award in early 2017 and Kolba Lab is already preparing to run incubation cycles for those ideas.
What’s next for Kolba Lab? “We want to link the sectors together even more. If we have citizens and government both working to solve different social challenges, why not have them do it together? This is the logic behind our next challenge, focused on education, that will take place around June this year. We also want to make use of the Armenian expertise in Data Innovation and Behavioural Insights, and to really take advantage of these new resources and opportunities. It’s an exciting time for us,” says Marina.

In March 2017, UNDP plans to host “Impact Investment for Development” Summit (IID) in Yerevan. IID will focus on the opportunities and mechanisms of impact investing and the role that development agencies, including the UN, can play in promoting it. According to Artak Melkonyan, Senior Advisor at UNDP Armenia and the Summit’s lead organizer, this event will give entrepreneurs a great opportunity to present their projects to both impact investors and development organizations targeting sustainable development goals as part of their major mission.
“UNDP works on addressing impact investment developments through various platforms. The one developed in Armenia – Impact Investment Vehicle – is unique as it aims to support social enterprise at all stages of its development. The concept is based on inputs from Venture Capital and Social Entrepreneurship scholars at INSEAD and Stanford University, combines incubation and acceleration, an Impact Venture Fund, as well as provides advisory support to ventures, aiming to attract both private and public money for funding,” he says.
There are many events on social entrepreneurship but the IID Summit is the first one specifically focusing on how to bridge the two worlds: that of impact investment and that of international development organizations. Four types of participants are invited to take part in the Summit: international organizations, bilateral development agencies, impact ventures and government representatives interested in social entrepreneurship.
Artak Melkonyan says that since the independence of Armenia, the economy has consisted of three components: government, businesses and NGOs. Businesses pay taxes to the government and/or support NGOs and these two would then take care of social issues. “Now it’s the turn of the fourth component, social entrepreneurship, to contribute to the development of the country, finding new ways of addressing development challenges and scaling up impact solutions,” he says.
“Once the Impact Investment Vehicle pilot concept is proven successful in Armenia, UNDP may implement the template globally”, says the Senior Advisor.