Photo: UNDP India


When Robert Opp started in August 2019 as UNDP’s inaugural Chief Digital Officer, he was impressed at the level of digital innovation he found in UNDP’s country offices. A large number of UNDP country teams were already using digital tools to develop impactful projects to address local challenges. One exciting example of UNDP’s long history with implementing digital projects for governments is the ongoing a2i project in Bangladesh. 

The problem was, these amazing solutions were going through their entire life cycles within the boundaries of the country office, completing their stated objectives before they’d gotten close to what Opp saw as their full potential. Worse, when there’s ineffective coordination between country offices, they can end up developing duplicate projects independently – essentially doing the same work twice.

Take The Other Bar as an example. Developed by UNDP Ecuador, The Other Bar is a chocolate bar packaged with built-in blockchain technology, enabling consumers to track the sustainability of their chocolate. Opp was impressed by what The Other Bar had accomplished – and he wasn’t the only one. The initiative had been getting some buzz in the press, too, with articles in Fast Company and The New York Times. 

“So why isn’t The Other Bar in ten countries,” Opp wondered. “The answer is that there was no process to build things like this into global solutions.”

Through the UNDP’s Digital Strategy, Opp and the Chief Digital Office team hopes to change that. Through a process of continuous digital innovation, the team hopes to create support infrastructure to help UNDP unlock the potential of the digital projects that already exist at the country and regional levels. By helping successful local ideas flourish into ones that are globally applicable, the digital transformation team believes that UNDP’s overall impact can be exponentially increased. With only nine years left to achieve the SDGs, digital technologies play a crucial role in accelerating impact. 

To that end, the team launched the Digital Sprints program in February 2019, building on the success of the prior Digital Lighthouse initiatives (short-term, well-defined digital-first programs to serve as role models for similar programs across the organization). The team ultimately selected six teams of ambitious participants eager to create impactful projects with the potential to scale. The teams were invited to New York to attend a bootcamp run by digital innovation and scaling lead Sam Ng in concert with consulting firm Ernst & Young. 

The bootcamp, and the Digital Sprints program as a whole, was intended to facilitate the rapid acceleration of ideas from the field, so their impact can be increased. But also, the accelerator was intended to inject a jolt of fiery startup passion in the six teams. 

The Digital Sprints program consisted of the initial bootcamp to workshop ideas, and mock board meetings with the Sprint team members, Opp, and equivalent business unit heads. In April, the teams underwent a design thinking workshop with non-profit online design studio Over four weeks of sessions, interviews, webinars, and design support, teams produced functioning prototypes to clearly communicate their ideas. 

One team, Data Futures, has not only shipped a prototype of its Data Insights Platform – they have scaled their product to a global platform for COVID-19 socioeconomic response and recovery, integrating data from across the development system. Others are still working on their minimum viable products. But failure and iteration are all part of the entrepreneurial process – they’re integral parts of innovation. 

The goal of the digital transformation process is not just to nurture local initiatives into global solutions. It is also to engender a more collaborative, iterative mentality among the teams and individuals involved. 

Building on the success of the Digital Sprints program, the team has now announced the second cohort of teams as part of a new program called Digital X Scale Accelerator. With generous support from the Government of Japan, Digital X supports proven, ambitious digital solutions with the potential for great impact in launching their concepts in new countries, territories, or user groups. Responding to the needs of the moment, the new cohort of Digital X teams specifically address COVID-19 response and recovery. 

UNDP’s Chief Digital Office provides funding (from $25,000 to $150,000 USD per team); awareness-building and visibility within the UNDP community, external partners, and mentors; communications tools; and the guidance of experienced digital and innovation professionals.

The primary focus of Digital X, says Opp, is to take proven digital innovations and scale them, with the goal of making UNDP as an organization more efficient and effective. The secondary focus is to foster in UNDP country offices and HQ departments the capacity to leverage the plethora of digital tools at their disposal in an agile, iterative way. 

Digital X is not a solution in and of itself. Rather, it’s a scaffolding of digital support for ambitious, creative teams to climb. “We are not trying to invent something now that will achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by itself,” says Opp. Instead, “we are trying to ensure that UNDP and its partners are able to constantly adapt to employ the opportunities presented by digital technology.”