Revolutionizing Development: UNDP’s Accelerator Labs and the Power of Systems Thinking

UNDP People for 2030
10 min readMar 20, 2024


Meet Yrika Maritz and get inspired by her work at the Accelerator Labs in Namibia helping UNDP to reimagine sustainable development for the 21st century.

Yrika Maritz, Head of Experimentation, UNDP Accelerator Labs in Namibia

My parents were among the first generation of United Nations Volunteers. In the 70s, they joined a UNESCO — driven Programme for Educators and were part of the initial cohort of teachers assigned to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. As a result, my connection to the UN dates to my childhood. They always hoped that I would follow in their footsteps and continually encouraged me to carry on the family tradition. Even after they left the UN, they remained committed to teaching and serving as agents of change. This dedication to education and service was ingrained in me from an early age. While I had been eager to join for a long time, I didn’t want to pursue a traditional project management role, which I had already been doing for many years in government. But when the advertisement for the Head of Experimentation for the Accelerator Lab at UNDP Namibia was published in 2019, I realized that everything I had done until then was preparing me for the role I was yet to define and by doing my part towards creating the envisioned “learning society”. The rest, as they say is history.

This is now my fourth year at UNDP, and it has been an incredibly enriching and fulfilling experience. Everything that I had ever imagined regarding the impact of UNDP’s role as the development arm of the UN has exceeded my expectations. UNDP is not only well positioned within their respective Countries they serve, but globally, as a network weaver that brings together the various components of the Sustainable Development Goals across different agencies. While organizations like UNICEF, UN Women, and WHO all have clear mandates and focus areas, it is crucial to have a dedicated Agency with a unique focus on connecting the golden thread to bring these different perspectives and initiatives together. This integrated approach towards relationship building is essential for UNDP to amplify its work.

What impresses me the most about UNDP is its commitment to advancing systems thinking and transformation. To stay relevant in the 21st century, we need to rethink our work as the world keeps changing. We need to ensure that our approach resonates with the people and communities we serve. For example, UNDP has combined grassroots innovation and capacity development by sourcing solutions from the users who are expected to benefit from policy initiatives; advocating for a bottom-up approach, which sends signals that today’s development can be done differently. For example, we have experimented with new forms of working and partnering in acknowledging the work of existing actors in a specific context. As an international development organisation, it was important to find a knowledge partner, a local venture builder, who already had access to their own network and partners. Our collaboration focussed on harvesting insights on digitalisation, public service delivery, the start-up ecosystem and grassroots communities in real-time, feeding those back, supporting iterations of work, and deepening social innovation. Our joint learning journey on digitalisation has resulted in co-creating the first National Digital Strategy for the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology.

Partnerships for the Goals: A brief pose to “work out loud” after a rich co-creation sprint on Namibia’s National Digital Strategy with unusual partners such as Impact Tank, a local Venture Builder, the private sector, government and local stakeholders

UNDP is not only focused on being future-oriented in terms of its organizational structure, but it is also striving to incorporate foresight with its partners. That is what attracted me, it is future — orientated, embraces systems thinking and is a thought leader in transformational efforts, recognising that there is no one-size fits-all approach to solving complex problems. UNDP’s new way of working in development spreads innovation methods across 115 countries through the Accelerator Labs to their host governments and other partners. This aspect of systems transformation is something I’ve been trying to understand and operationalise, and over time, once you start mapping the different parts of a system, there is almost no end to the process. This is because everything is interconnected, and systems operate through relationships and the flow of information. Both relationships and information hold systems together and they both equally play a great role in determining how they operate.

To illustrate this, one of the many entry points we have been exploring over the past four years was to find ways of supporting public service innovation. We designed a few experiments with the Public Service Integrity Champions and Innovation Communities of Practice to identify levers for change for improved service delivery. We encountered several challenges, which also gave us an opportunity to look for data, understand the relationships within, and the system’s history. Contrary to popular belief, I have witnessed that it is possible for the public service to innovate! If we want to move beyond business as usual, then we need to accept that the world is nonlinear, turbulent, and dynamic and not organised in neat logical boxes. Within the public service, people who are passionate about making a difference, advocate for change, understand and respect the limitations of the system and despite this, self-organise learn, and evolve. These pockets of excellence across the Public Sector are unleashed by the power of what we refer to as “collective intelligence” or the total of pooled ideas that emerge as a result of the collaboration of many individuals in the group. Our work using collective intelligence has largely contributed to the shift of knowledge from a top-down to a bottom-up approach, and from the individual to the collective where UNDP has identified a number of local solutions such as the Pocket Guide 2.0 and the digitalisation of micro-learning modules to support the onboarding and induction process of public servants.

Bringing digitalisation, collective intelligence design and innovation together to create new learning solutions and tools to the public service: the launch of the Pocket Guide 2.0 by the Rt. Honourable Prime Minister, Sara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, RBA’s Regional Director Ahunna Eziakonwa, UNDP Namibia’s Resident Representative, Alka Bhatia.

I believe The United Nations is a great opportunity for young people who want to be part of something bigger than themselves. For me, the most attractive aspect of UNDP is its ability to push boundaries and reassess situations, which makes it an exciting organization to work for.

The Accelerator Labs are an excellent example of this forward-thinking approach in action and that is exactly why I applied four years ago.

The Accelerator Labs are in UNDP Country Offices and operate in contexts where people are experiencing the world’s most profound challenges. The objective of these Labs was to address the bottlenecks and challenges of projects which reflect a mismatch between high level aspirations and the realities experienced by communities in their respective contexts. As an experiment, the organisational configuration of the Lab is unique and embodies a true matrix structure with networked capabilities for system-wide learning. Each Lab consists of a Head of Experimentation, Head of Solutions Mapping or Ethnography and a Head of Exploration. These are practitioners who are specialists in systems transformation, data science, behavioural insights, action research, design thinking and complexity science. While there are also traditional organisational guidelines and structures to follow, the very nature of our roles compels us to be agile, flexible and adaptive enough to navigate them while achieving a collective purpose.

We follow lines of enquiry by using various methods and tools such as sensemaking, collective intelligence, human-centered design, empathy mapping, futures / foresight and behavioural insights to ensure our work is contextually relevant. By collaboratively gathering and visualizing data with the communities we serve, we can highlight the gravity of the challenges faced on a local and global level. Our methods of enquiry and unusual data collection methods such as crowd-mapping and citizen science approaches reflect a plurality of voices and stories. Rather than amplifying a traditional top-down perspective, our approaches reflect the complex realities of those who are closest to the problems.

“We need to ensure that our approach resonates with the people and communities we serve. For example, UNDP has taken an innovative approach to capacity development by sourcing solutions from the bottom up, which sends signals that today development can be done differently.” Yrika Maritz

The Accelerator Labs follow a 90-day learning cycle and build in space to iterate and pivot as part of our reflective practice. In the exploration phase, we focus on sensemaking, which is often neglected in today’s work environment. We approach sensemaking with an inclusive perspective, considering various lenses such as those of people with disabilities or those who identify with the LGBTQ+ community. By doing this, we gain a deeper understanding of the problem and co-design more effective programs with them. We believe that those closest to the problems hold the key to the solutions. Therefore, we involve community members in solutions mapping to co-design projects that resonate with their needs. This approach ensures community buy-in, open innovation, communication, and ultimately, sustainability. It also fosters ownership and empowerment from the grassroots perspective. Without understanding the context and program expectations of a particular community, one-size-fits-all approaches and criteria developed for assessing mainstream programs are unable to provide the culturally specific and values-based information that are important to measuring beneficial impacts for the community.

UNDP Resident Representative, Alka Bhatia at the Girl’s Coding Camp, a digital literacy programme to source local solutions on informality from the perspectives of young girls living in a Namibian informal settlement.

We seek to strengthen communities that would potentially call for accountability, sound the alarms on poor service delivery or call attention towards issues that are otherwise hidden or overlooked. UNDP’s approach is centered on being inclusive to ensure that we do not leave anyone behind, and the Labs have been the mechanism to test and experiment with tools to accelerate sustainable development. With 91 accelerator labs spread across 115 countries, we may not have all met in person, but there is a powerful network effect at play. Being part of a community of practice where we can share our experiences and learn from others helps to foster this sense of belonging. As I work on the challenges and opportunities of implementing a SMART city, digitalization, governance challenges or issues of informality in Namibia, I know I can reach out to my counterparts in other countries facing similar challenges. This opens a dialogue about what strategies and tools they are using and most importantly, how we can learn from each other. It is for this reason that the Accelerator Labs serve as the world’s largest learning network.

As a UNDP employee, the most appealing aspect for me is being a part of a larger purpose beyond myself, and the opportunity to learn and share knowledge with others. At the Lab, we view failure not as a setback, but as a valuable learning experience that can contribute to our evolving knowledge management system. By openly sharing our failures and learning from them, we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future, iteratively strengthening the design of our projects and portfolios. Mutual trust and support are being taken to an entirely new level within the Accelerator Lab Network. We are modelling how to embrace vulnerability within our respective Country Offices and across the organization, fostering an environment where we are encouraged to openly share uncertainty, curiosity, tinker with unexplored ideas that require incubation and take on difficult questions which don’t have answers. This culture not only encourages open dialogue but also unlocks untapped potential, allowing for the realization of innovative solutions as well as personal growth.

Working in a highly decentralized organization like UNDP at a global scale is meaningful. Our work is focused on grand-scale system transformation, such as climate change, informality, or amplifying innovation ecosystems. As part of the evolving research and development (R&D) role of the Accelerator Labs, we seek to find a balance between policy and academic research. It requires special attention to promote the idea of networked learning and actionable insights. The logic of creating small, safe to fail experiments allows us to gauge what is possible, test underlying assumptions and contribute to emerging portfolios aligned to global strategies. This means striking a balance between addressing issues of global significance and keeping local relevance in mind. When we emotionally invest ourselves in our work and see ourselves as part of a larger picture, it motivates us to go the extra mile.

Using circle practice with UNDP’s stakeholders to create a safe environment to listen, explore, share, learn and transform.

The Accelerator Labs have showcased the need and value of new capabilities to drive development activities today. Seventy-five percent of Labs members are new to the UN system, bringing in an impressive and diverse range of new technical and soft skills. If you’re a Gen Z looking to make a difference and be empowered to use your skills and innovation, then UNDP is the perfect place for you. Our portfolio approach and various programs provide ample opportunities for young talent to engage with us. We prioritize a horizontal organizational structure with a collaborative energy, and mutual trust through frequent exchanges and network activity. Our culture shift away from command and control towards trust and collaboration with dedicated spaces for learning, reflection, and psychological safety is also inspiring.

“What impresses me the most about UNDP is its commitment to advancing systems thinking and transformation. To stay relevant in the 21st century, we need to rethink our work as the world keeps changing. Yrika Maritz

In closing, I’d like to refer to the Japanese concept of “Shokunin”, which is the endless pursuit of perfection for some greater good; a principle that embodies the ethos of striving for excellence not just for oneself, but for the benefit of others. It is the pursuit of knowledge as well as the application of that knowledge towards a higher purpose. This pursuit is how I would like to describe my journey at UNDP. Joining UNDP is not just about achieving personal success, but about contributing to the greater good of society. It is a call to action that appeals to our sense of logos, pathos, and ethos, inspiring us to work towards a better future for all.