Meet Ana Grijalva, Head of Exploration at UNDP Accelerator Labs in Quito, Ecuador. Ana shares with us some insights of a career journey marked by a strong commitment to put innovation and experimentation at work to leave no one behind.
Many of us who work for the United Nations (UN) often share a childhood dream of being a part of this organization. This, in my view, reflects our belief in its unique and meaningful role. What sets the UN apart is its commitment to create positive change in the world. As UN professionals, we embrace the values of peace, justice, and above all, a genuine dedication to improving the well-being of others. And by “others”, I mean all living beings on the planet. Being part of the UN provides us with the opportunity to contribute to these vital efforts and truly impact people’s lives for the better.
I joined UNDP in 2019 when the Accelerator lab (ACC Lab) was created. I was attracted to the fact that UNDP has in its DNA to think outside the box.
This agency has a deep-rooted culture of introspection, constantly seeking to evolve its approach to better serve its mission. It is an entire strategy called #NextGen and has multiple layers of experimentation and exploration. Its ultimate goal is to transform internal evolution into external revolution. And it is not for the show. It is not theoretical; it includes concrete steps that UNDP is taking to challenge conventional methods and scrutinize our achievements in the past decade. By identifying areas that require attention, UNDP acts and finds new solutions. For me, this is precisely why I find UNDP such an interesting place to work.
Working with rather than for: A joint decision-making process.
One significant shift that we prioritize is moving from working for the people to working with the people. This profoundly influences our approach to address issues and engage with different groups. This principle forms the core of our accelerator labs, where co-creation and joint decision-making processes are fundamental. Collaboration is the key to innovation; claiming to create something truly innovative without involving others is simply impossible.
An example of this principle in action can be seen in our collaboration with the municipality of Quito in Ecuador, my home country. When they expressed interest in establishing their own social lab, they were unsure of its purpose and potential. To address this, we organized a workshop to help them comprehend the concept of a lab and its role in fostering social and public innovation.
Moving from theory to practice, we jointly selected a specific service to improve: the assistance provided to homeless people. We suggested involving homeless individuals themselves in the process to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges they face and to explore potential solutions with them. Initially, there was resistance from the municipality regarding the participation of homeless individuals, but over time, they embraced the idea.
Now, with the active involvement of homeless individuals, there are three prototypes in operation that have made a tremendous difference. This collaborative approach has led to tangible improvements in the service, benefiting the homeless community directly. It serves as a powerful demonstration of the impact of working with people, rather than simply working for them.
For more detail of this journey see our report
Innovation and digitalization: Left no one behind.
Another important aspect of UNDP’s approach to sustainable development is through three key mechanisms: innovation, digitalization and strategic foresight. It is essential to me that we strive to become “digital by default” while ensuring that no one is left behind. We are aware that a heavy reliance on digital solutions can exclude a significant portion of the population. What sets UNDP apart is their approach of treating both ideas with equal importance — becoming more digital while ensuring inclusivity. This task is at the core of UNDP’s work and processes. It reflects a thoughtful and comprehensive perspective that goes beyond simply embracing digitalization.
A firm belief in positive change.
These principles are among the many reasons why being part of UNDP is inspiring to me. It is an organization that constantly pushes itself beyond its comfort zone, a sentiment I have personally experienced as a member of the Accelerator Lab.
Throughout my career, my focus was mainly on education, trying to understand through data and econometric models the impact in that process of learning and how we can improve this experience for a child. This period of our lives shapes our growth and fosters the development of our skills. I have a firm belief in effecting positive change and have long regarded education as the most potent means to accomplish this goal.
My current work today with UNDP may not be directly related to education anymore, but the essence of working for positive change remains the same through innovation, public innovation, and social innovation. My dream is to combine both education and innovation in my daily work as much as possible. And today the blank canvas of working for the UNDP’s Accelerator lab inspires me to be creative and work for others.
UNDP knowledge management strategy: Community of practice & Digital tools.
Working for UNDP pushes me to have a broader mindset. While I am focused on improving the policies and initiatives of my own country in Ecuador, such as the example I mentioned regarding my city, Quito. I am being pushed to consider how my work can be useful to others and to always keep sharing knowledge in mind. The knowledge management strategy that UNDP has, including its community of practices and various digital tools for sharing information, is highly relevant. Your work may be focused on a local level, the tools, and lessons you learn are meant to be shared globally, allowing everyone to learn together and progress more quickly.
Often, we use the term “network” loosely, picturing a collection of disconnected dots without any lively communication. The global team places a lot of emphasis on creating a real network, reminding everyone that part of their key performance indicators is to demonstrate that they are working as a network, by sharing what they have learned, helping others, and collaborating across countries.
The organization emphasizes ethical conduct and responsible practices in all aspects of work. This approach encourages me to reflect on the broader implications of my actions. For me to work for an employer that prioritizes these values, has been a transformative experience which has had a profound impact on my life. It encourages self-reflection and cultivates a high sense of personal and professional ethics.
Additionally, it is important to recognize the privileges you have in your position, such as the ability to take days off, have a maternity leave, and receive medical insurance and pension benefits. UNDP provides a supportive environment that covers labor rights and offers opportunities for career growth, and it’s important to be grateful for these benefits.
The accelerator Labs: Being an explorer.
As the leader of exploration at an accelerator lab, my primary responsibility of this role requires to be resourcefulness. It is crucial to understand that development problems are complex and interconnected, and it is important to avoid viewing them through a narrow sectorial lens. Instead, we take a multifaceted approach and utilize a range of data sources, including satellite images, drones, mobile data, social media, household surveys and interviews. By employing diverse technologies, we can uncover new perspectives and valuable insights. Additionally, it is vital to recognize that issues often exist within a larger ecosystem. By identifying and mapping the various actors and their actions, we can find opportunities for collaboration. Rather than duplicating efforts, we try to unify forces and work towards our objectives together.
Future Thinking and Readiness
Another important aspect of being an explorer is the need to be future-ready. It requires horizon scanning. It’s not about predicting specific outcomes, such as the exact increase in sea levels or unemployment rates. The aim is to identify signals and trends that suggest potential future scenarios, possibly 10 years from now. This exercise helps us understand which scenarios we prefer and align with sustainable development and the well-being of people.
It is a creative exercise based on real information, where there are no right or wrong answers. The objective is to guide conversations towards the desired future. This focus on being future-ready is rare, and most of the time we neglect future thinking and risk being caught off guard.
I am happy to share my blog on the work we are doing in the Latin America and Caribbean region on the future of human mobility
Another project is Discrimination and Gender Violence.
As I mentioned earlier, I am deeply passionate about education, there is a particular project I would like to share with you that focuses on addressing gender violence within schools. Specifically, we worked with adolescents between 15 and 18 years old, who are in their last three years of high school. We tried to change behavior towards mitigating discrimination and gender violence. The pedagogical approach employed a dialogic model, which involved selecting three readings related to discrimination and gender violence and having the students select the one they found the most interesting. A facilitator then led a conversation around the chosen reading, creating an open and equal dialogue, rather than a hierarchical relationship between teacher and students.
An impact evaluation was conducted, comparing the group that received the intervention with the group that did not. The results showed that while violence levels remained the same, the students’ capacity to perceive violence changed. At the beginning, many denied having experienced or witnessed violence, but by the end, they were more aware of its prevalence in their lives. The project was very cost-effective, requiring only inexpensive printed materials and one facilitator, yet produced encouraging results that could potentially change the lives of those involved.
I wanted to highlight that we recognize that addressing gender-based violence requires a systematic approach that involves not just adolescents, but also teachers, parents, school authorities, and even civil servants and policymakers. We conducted similar sessions with teachers, where we explored how their teaching practices may have unintentional gender biases and reinforced harmful gender norms. To summarize, we need to work with the entire education community, not just adolescents. Starting early is key to changing attitudes and biases towards gender equality.
Here is a short video of the school community´s experience.
Scale up: from one school to advocating for education policy
The main objective for 2023 is to expand the project, not just by reaching more schools, but by advocating for its integration into the education policy. This will ensure that the initiative becomes a core component of government efforts in all schools, leading to sustainable impact. Additionally, we observed that the project had a positive impact on girls’ empowerment within the classroom. The use of public space is an essential aspect of gender equality, and the classroom is one of the first public spaces that we encounter as we grow. The girls became more confident in speaking up, sharing their ideas, and being critical, which was evident in their increased participation and engagement throughout the project. We saw a process of empowerment and the girls’ growing sense of ownership of the classroom. Overall, this project has been one of my favorites in terms of the impact it has had so far.
Whenever people ask me why I have chosen to work for the United Nations, two quotes come to mind. The first is from Mahatma Gandhi, who famously urged us to “be the change that you want to see in the world.” Through my work within the UN system, I hope to embody this message and contribute to creating positive change in the world. The second quote that resonates with me is from the Jesuits, a branch of the Catholic Church, who remind us to “be more to serve better.” To me, the UN is a place where you try to improve as a person, in terms of developing your knowledge, capacities, and skills, because you really want to serve better. Working for the UN is an incredibly inspiring experience that allows you to contribute, I hope, to hopefully makes the world a better place.”