Social Innovation Camps: From an idea to implementation in 48 hours

Teamwork was the cornerstone of success

A recent Social Innovation Camp hosted by UNDP saw six teams turn ideas into functioning projects over a weekend. UNDP Armenia examines the next generation of participatory processes and how they’re empowering Armenia’s youth and engaging a much wider constituency in decision making.

“The potential we have is the guarantee for the better future of our country,” says Annie Davtyan, one of the Social Innovation Camp’s participants. “Mardamej was my best weekend for the past months… loved the format!” she adds.

Mardamej, or the Social Innovation Camp in Armenia, brought together six visionaries whose ideas had made the grade with activists, ‘techies’ and experts in social policy. The ideas ranged from tracking political promises to monitoring state policlinics. Each group was tasked with developing a functioning project in time for a donor presentation on the afternoon of the final day, so the pressure was intense.

“Although the event is just the beginning for many of the participants, it feels like the end of the beginning for us,” jokes George Hodge, one of UNDP’s event team.

Got an itch?

Planning for the event had been intense. A partnership between UNDP, USAID, Internews and the Eurasia Partnership Foundation was enough to secure funding, but at that stage the hard work was only just beginning.

Some Highlights

  • Social Innovation Camps provide us with the methodology to empower individuals to effect change, but more importantly: “This was an unforgettable experience and I hope we’ll have more similar projects in our country,” concluded Silva Khachatryan, an event participant;
  • This is where Social Innovation Camps demonstrate their value, because if people are experts on their own problems, then user-centered and user-driven development projects are catalysts for social change.

“We launched a call for ideas, held 14 itch workshops across Armenia, collected all the ideas, presented them to a judging panel (who selected six for the event), contacted the relevant ideas owners, worked out what they needed to make their idea a reality and persuaded the rest of the participants to attend… phew,” laughs Hasmik Soghomonyan, a member of the event team from the Eurasia Partnership Foundation.

In total, the event team received 66 project ideas from activists across Armenia. This feat is attributed to the quality of outreach and, of course, the capacity of individuals and communities across Armenia.

“The itch workshops are an interesting innovation for outreach,” says Hodge, “we got beyond the ‘usual faces’ to those not involved in the development mainstream.”

Itch workshops were held in the regions as well as universities in Yerevan. The methodology involved getting participants to focus on issues that annoy them, clearly articulating the problem and jointly developing solutions.

“We’re all experts on our own problems” says Glen Mehn, Director of Social Innovation Camp Ltd., founders of the concept and one of Mardamej’s partners, “that’s why the participants are best positioned to develop the solutions.”

The old way

“In the past, the stuff that created social change or provided social goods was designed and delivered from the top down,” says Mehn, “state, non-profits and businesses treated the people they were affecting at best as customers and, at worst, as passive recipients who got what someone else decided was necessary and good for them. This just doesn’t make sense any more. Top-down hierarchies are inefficient and ineffective, failing to meet the increasingly complex demands of modern society!”

This is where Social Innovation Camps demonstrate their value, because if people are experts on their own problems, then user-centered and user-driven development projects are catalysts for social change.

Social-venture capitalists

In this regard, the Mardamej experience exceeded expectations. All six projects were user-centered and user-driven; however, there could only be one winner. The 48 hours of concentrated work concluded with each project pitching to a panel of judges.

“Every project presented here has the potential to win. They are all well thought out, meticulously planned and focused on important social issues. The judges face a difficult decision,” highlighted Mehn.

“Based on the unanimous decision of the judges, MyTransport is the winner!” shouts Manana Aslamazyan, a member of the event team from Internews.

MyTransport is developing a website for information on public transport in Armenia. Users will be able to enter two places within Armenia and receive a list of transport options as well as information on times. The project also plans to develop timetables in local transport hubs.

Although the judges had to choose a winner, several other donors stepped forward following the presentations offering support to the other projects.

“What did we get out of this pilot?” ponders Hodge, “five fully-funded development projects, focused on practical solutions and what works, being implemented by volunteers, as well as a strong project flow from activists across Armenia… proof that the concept works!”

Venture capitalists often refer to the concept of deal flow: basically, the number of potential deals that cross their desks. We, as UNDP or even the wider development community, should begin to see ourselves as social-venture capitalists who look for social value in innovative development projects.

Social Innovation Camps provide us with the methodology to empower individuals to effect change, but more importantly: “This was an unforgettable experience and I hope we’ll have more similar projects in our country,” concluded Silva Khachatryan, an event participant.

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