Over the last two decades, Innovation contests and challenges have become common tools for  addressing development challenges. Diverse institutions and organizations promote them as a way to stimulate creativity, collaboration, and rapid progress toward social and economic development.

The growing popularity of these methods has brought praise of well-designed contests, as well as criticism of their shortcomings and recognition of the myriad challenges they face to be effective levers of innovation. Some of these challenges include Incorporating diverse perspectives and experiences, making relevant knowledge and resources available, follow-up in the implementation of winning proposals, and evaluation of their impact. We believe that considering these challenges is particularly important when working on social innovation in vulnerable communities. 

Social innovation is both the process and product of identifying solutions, tools, and ideas to respond to a specific social problem. As a process, social innovation  attempts to invert the power dynamic often present in traditional innovation policy, by insisting on collaborative, communal, relevant and public knowledge-generation directly with and from the affected communities. 

Social innovation shifts our focus from a primary concern with technology, enterprise, and markets, toward a focus on social contexts, collective assets, and the creation of social value. In this one-size does not fit all mentality, social innovation programs are defined by a multiplicity of methodologies, which includes human-centered design, participatory action research, solutions mapping, and others applied by different Acceleration Labs in the UNDP network.



In Paraguay, the National SDG Commission (Comisión ODS), the National Innovation Strategy (ENI), and the Accelerator Lab have designed and launched  Moirũ Concurso Comunitario de Innovación Social, as a social innovation contest aligned with the first of five national innovation challenges that ENI has defined through a yearlong participatory process: “Paraguay Protected and Resilient in the Face of Epidemics.” Moirũ’s first edition  was focused on innovation at the intersection of SDGs 2 and 5: Zero Hunger and Gender Equality.

Four features were particularly important for us to include in the design of the community social innovation challenge: (1) a primary focus on community organizations, as opposed to on firms and startups, as the main drivers of social change; (2) recognition of collective assets and commons, in addition to technology, as tools for inclusive innovation; (3) creating incentives for collaboration and collective intelligence, rather than relying solely on competitive incentives, and finally, (4) training participants in specific design and research methods to strengthening their proposals, building capacities for their communities. 

3. Moirũ in Practice

We approached the design and implementation of Moirũ’s first edition as a prototyping exercise, carried out according to a five-stage process, for which we developed solutions mapping and challenge reframing methodologies.

In Stage 1, reframing took the form of a facilitated ORID dialogue about challenges at the intersection of SDG 2: Zero Hunger and SDG 5: Gender Equality, with the participation of government, private sector, civil society and community leaders. We mapped the initiatives that responded to the targeted challenge and identified 6 emerging barriers they faced for their growth and development.

Stage 2 drew on the diverse perspectives of our partners for the preselection of a subset of initiatives with the best potential to address these barriers and engage in Stage 3, the co-creation of proposals. For this we ran online workshops, using Experience Mapping and causal diagrams tools as the means to facilitate self-reflection and mentoring.

In Stage 4,  the 18 preselected teams presented their proposals during a virtual event for a public audience and a panel of domain experts from diverse institutional and professional backgrounds. Each presentation was followed by a Q&A. The goal was to use the combination of public online (30%) and expert (70%) deliberation to generate engagement and democratize the final results.

5. What we learned

In general, Moirũ met our expectations as  a novel social innovation method. It demonstrated the power of “popular knowledge” in creating a diversity of proposals, as well as the importance of collective decision-making. Reflecting on the design, implementation, and evaluation of the challenge, it is evident that solutions mapping is effective for engendering innovative solutions to structural issues through collaboration and community engagement. The reframing workshop rapidly narrowed their focus and helped clarify what primary efforts to support SDG 2 and 5 were already underway.

However, budget and timeline constraints pushed us to conduct the entire process in just under four months. Mapping solutions with broad and diverse participation requires more time. Analyzing and making sense of solutions mapped in this way, in order to define a relevant innovation challenge, takes even more time. Our intention was to then conduct an extended period of participatory solutions mapping focussed on the specific reframed challenges, populating the Wendá platform with information about initiatives underway and potential solutions to be analyzed to further refine the challenge. However, the team was unable to mobilize participation of volunteers in the timeframe available, and as a result, we ended up collapsing the planned solutions mapping and application phases into a single stage, as described above. 



The team also found that, while the process of co-creating proposals is effective, it demands greater suspension from the competitive pressures created by the “contest format.” One-on-one work with semi-finalists over the course of the program was essential to overcome the apprehensions of participants. In particular, the “experience map” and “hypotheses diagram” offered a space where participants could express doubts, uncertainties, failures, or barriers they faced in their initiatives, contextualizing their proposal for their own benefit as well as the facilitators’. This openness created opportunities for ingenuity and constructive criticism among participants, rather than demanding the “airtight” performance of perfect applicants. 

In future editions, we hope to experiment with formats that incentivize collaboration and synergy among participants. The Equity-Centered Community Design approach and other traditions of participatory design might come handy in this quest to experiment with a full-fledge cooperative innovation challenge.  

Breaking the digital divide required consistent and active attention and recruiting local helpers to troubleshoot and manage the logistics of connectivity. In normal times, this might have been an insurmountable barrier. However, because all participants were restricted by a national quarantine, the digital format actually facilitated the participation of communities in geographically remote locations with very little or highly intermediated access to development and public institutions.



Finally, we observed that--with the right method--public voting and participation enhances the relevance and legitimacy of the winning proposals, greatly increases community engagement, and makes the contest more visible, bolstering community appropriation of the process and, hopefully, of the resulting project implementation. Specifically, two of the contest finalists were projects that were excluded from the top-5 ranking produced by the expert panel but which received an overwhelming amount of public votes. In addition, the expert ranking produced a tie among three proposals, but the public vote was significantly higher for one of the three, breaking the tie. 

Going forward, it could be interesting and perhaps valuable to explore and experiment with the expansion of decision-making by using other direct participation methods. This could be achieved perhaps through the inclusion of deliberative assemblies with randomly selected community members from participating communities  with or through multiple phases feedback and proposal improvement, integrating institutional or other types of participants in different stages of deliberation and proposal making, furthering even more the diversity of the collective intelligence that emerges from the entire process.  



Despite these limitations, design research methods, mostly centered around qualitative analysis techniques and participatory action research principles, were key to enable a process that was emergent in nature, allowing for enough flexibility and uncertainty to co-exist with the more structured process that we needed to get to concrete winning proposals. Overall, we feel that this experience may represent a good example of an integrated research, development, and innovation cycle that can guide policy for an equally integrated science, technology, and innovation strategic agenda. 

6. What’s next? 

In the next posts in this series, we will present the 5 winners of the Moirũ Community Social Innovation Challenge, and of their ongoing and future projects. 

In future blogs we'll describe how Moirũ fits into a larger strategy for accelerating sustainable development. For the AccLabPy the real work of Moirũ began when the winners were announced. The initiatives must now implement their projects and confront the many systemic barriers to achieving food security and gender equality in their communities, these projects represent the first steps toward building portfolios of prototypes and experiments to speed social and policy innovation.


Lea este blog en español aquí.

*Collaborated for this blogpost:

Ana Lucía Giménez is leading the Social Pillar of Paraguay's new National Innovation Strategy (ENI). Throughout 2020, she articulated citizens-led initiatives as part of her coordination work on Wendá, helping our lab design and facilitate MOIRŨ from this role. Her work with ENI is focused on promoting social innovation in Paraguay, with emphasis on food security and gender. Through Wenda, she is helping to create a space for articulation, promotion and strengthening of citizen and government initiatives on the face of COVID-19 and the day after, mobilizing volunteering networks, social facilitation, and participatory mapping capabilities. She is a Human Ecologist with extensive community development and human rights experience.  

Lucas McKinnon is one of Twelve Gallatin Global Human Rights Fellows who have been selected to work around the globe with organizations in various countries. As a Food Systems Project Coordinator who is working with Hawaii County to ensure ALICE and low-income communities gain access to the services and support needed to overcome cycles of poverty, he will be collaborating with our Lab in giving support to Food Security Initiatives that have been selected through this innovation process. As part of this collaboration, he is also contributing to our blogposts. 

Moirū is a guaraní word that means to accompany one another. It comes from irū, which may mean partner or companion or fellow, and is closely connected to the word angirū, the guarani word for friend. Angirū combines ãnga, which means soul, with irū. To be friends in guaraní means to be soul partners, and that's the kind of fellowship and collaboration we hope to instill. 





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