Citizens pave the way for more participatory development in Armenia

Mar 2, 2016

From street lighting to monitoring the effects of the climate change, Armenia is revolutionizing the way services are being delivered by calling on citizens to come up with solutions that work for the public good.

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.

“Concepts that reach Kolba Lab come from individuals. We do the selection and help to turn it into a working product or service. We work with the best ideas using our tools and connect them to different experts, financial resources. As a result, a small idea expressed by someone may grow into a bigger programme, product, or service.” says the head of Kolba Lab, Marina Mkhitaryan.

One of the winning initiatives at a recent Social Innovation Camp is the “Armenian Meteo” project. Using open data, the start-up will create a network of sensors placed in different parts of the country that deliver real-time 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 municipal project, one young community member from Gyumri – situated in the North of the Country -- proposed creating a sustainable street lighting model relying on solar batteries. The lights will initially be placed in community spaces, such as playgrounds and city parks.

“Engaging citizens to generate new ideas is the best way to tackle key issues because people are the best placed to know what’s going on. This approach promotes both democracy and more effective decision-making”. Claire Medina, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative.

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.

The lab is also using TEDx talks to create discussions around specific issues. To date, a number of figures from across the Armenian landscape – politicians, diplomats, entertainers, and policy specialists – have delivered inspirational public talks, outside the traditional lecture format, on topics ranging from climate change to public sector innovation.

In 2013, another UNDP project, Women in Local Democracy (WiLD), helped initiate a system of community micro-polls. Through the programme, text messages containing a question and multiple-choice answers is sent to the residents. Citizens select their options and reply. This system has been implemented in five communities of Armenia in cooperation with the Ministry of Territorial Administration. 

Local governments have taken into account the responses in all of their decisions. For example, in Areni (situated in the South of Armenia) 37 percent of all poll respondents stressed the importance of street lighting, and the municipality dramatically improved the grid. In the community of Tumanyan, 42 percent of respondents gave preference to the renovation of the town’s #8 street, and the municipality acted accordingly.

The micro-referendum tool is now part of the Armenian government’s “open government partnership”, deepening grassroots representation and decision-making.  

 

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