Innovation and the Collision of Ideas

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Innovation and the Collision of Ideas

Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change help UNDP find solutions to global problems Fellows and faculty of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change 2014

How can you discourage bribery in Moldova? Or tackle water shortages in Mexico? Or reduce carbon emissions and deforestation in Indonesia? For the United Nations Development Program, the answers might be found in Salzburg, from enterprising media students from all over the world.

Since it launched in 2007, the students and faculty of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change have contributed to research on a multitude of topics, from young people’s attachment and possible addiction to social media and their mobile phones, to the use of images during the Beijing and London Olympics. In 2014, their research had real world impact as the 71 students teamed up with the United Nations Development Program to help the UN agency address real-life challenges in advancing the Millennium Development Goals and the post-2015 development agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Led by Jennifer Colville, a policy advisor in the UNDP’s Knowledge, Innovation and Capacity Group (KICG), the students at the 2014 program, Civic Voices – Justice, Rights and Social Change, made proposals on how media can be used to address the challenges around youth unemployment and livelihoods, climate change, human rights, and corruption.

The emerging field of “gamification” – the use of games to raise awareness and engage citizens on a pressing development issue, build empathy among those who might have differing opinions, and ultimately change people’s behavior with regard to the issue – is one particular area in which UNDP’s KICG is developing a growing interest.

“UNDP is trying to be more innovative,” explains Colville [link to colville interview]. “One of the things we’re looking at is gamification. We’re also looking at a whole host of other things like behavioral science, foresighting, social innovation camps, labs, hubs, challenges… A key piece of the innovation agenda is the communications aspect of it. We’re trying to ‘work out loud’ or communicate more frequently throughout the entire process of development for a variety of reasons: so that more actors are aware of and become involved in the process, so that feedback can be heard as early on in the process as possible, and so that information and knowledge are shared more broadly across projects. Better communications can help us design and deliver more effective projects with our partners.”

As part of their more innovative approach, the UNDP hosts regular research and development (R&D) events, and it was through such an event that Colville and the UNDP became involved in the Salzburg Academy, thanks to the Emerson Engagement Lab, led by Salzburg Academy faculty member Eric Gordon at Emerson College, Boston, USA.

“Last year our regional [R&D] event in Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (ECIS) was on behavioral science and gamification, and Eric, with the Emerson Engagement Lab, was invited to that. Then we had him come and speak to colleagues in New York and he started to work with a number of our country offices as well. And he said ‘We’ve got this [Academy] going – it would be great for you to come and give the development perspective!’” Colville explained.

The 2014 Academy’s group work builds on Gordon’s Ithiel de Sola Pool Endowed Lecture on the Impact of Communications Technology on Society and Politics at the 2013 Academy, in which Gordon laid out how, by playing-learning games such as 1990s school hit, Oregon Trail, and direct impact games like Darfur is Dying (where one must keep their refugee camp functioning in the face of possible attacks by Janjaweed militias), opportunities for learning and empathy can be realized in a much more accessible manner than by simply reading books or listening to lectures.

It is this sort of innovative thinking that Colville was looking to harness from the 2014 cohort of Salzburg Academy students. 

“There is a tendency to go towards the new kinds of media but one of the groups I was speaking to basically felt that even that was old hat. ‘An app is so 2013!’” laughed Colville. “And so that’s great because they want to push [innovation] even further, and that’s what we at UNDP hope to get from our interaction with young people. As we develop programs for young people, it’s really important for us to work with them to push boundaries.

“I think what it would be great to have from them is that out-of-the-box thinking. There is the new and the ‘out there’ thinking that I’m looking for – the different perspective they bring is invaluable,” she added.

Over three weeks, under guidance in-person from Colville and Gordon and via Skype from UNDP country offices around the world, students from 23 different countries developed Media Action Plans (MAPs) of a campaign, reporting tool or game to tackle real-world issues. 

The students’ solutions included: “DROPIT” – 

a website using GPS mapping to catalog water scarcity in Mexico; an Instagram campaign – #WEThiopia – to raise awareness about poor water access in Ethiopia; “i-Toil” (India To Overcome Immoral Labor) – an online petition calling for the implementation of legislation to protect domestic workers in India; “Youth Bridge” – a whistleblowing and teacher review app in Armenia to counter corruption in education; and “Raise The Roof” – an app offering advice on urban agriculture in Indonesia. 

The team behind the Moldovan proposal – the game “Bribe?” which offers Moldovan citizens a better understanding of the motivations behind corrupt teachers, students, and parents – was featured on the Voices from Eurasia blog by the United Nations Development Program in Europe and Central Asia. The game is now being further developed and designed by the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, led by Gordon.

Following the success of the 2014 partnership, the UNDP, together with the Red Cross, will be returning to work with the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change in the summer of 2015. 

Colville congratulated the 2014 students on their “inspiring and encouraging” work, adding, “I know [my colleagues] are very excited about looking at what some of these opportunities might be for their country offices.”

Colville and her colleagues might be turning to Millennials to help find solutions to the world’s development challenges, but that’s not to say that they are no longer listening to the older generation.

“The demographic shift is calling for a response and an engagement with youth – we cannot ignore it and we don’t want to ignore it,” says Colville. “But we’re not only engaging the youth; it’s part of a broader effort that the UNDP is trying to undertake with our international partners to reach out to a variety of voices that we haven’t traditionally heard from. It is about hearing all these different voices – that’s where this collision of ideas happens and where the great ideas can emerge.” 


Download the Salzburg Global Chronicle 2015 in full (PDF)