Long term implications of COVID-19 are still taking shape and are likely to remain unclear for months to come but what we are certain of is that it will affect our political systems, economy, ways of working and well being to a degree previously unseen. The scale, scope and speed at which the pandemic has exposed accumulating risks (systemic inequalities, dense urban settlements, interconnected supply chains) and is generating contagion risks (acute hunger, poverty, broken economy) created a disorienting reality depriving individuals (and institutions) of reference cases to build response strategies.


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There is no playbook for dealing with such uncertainty, leaving decision-makers like Miguel Trevino, mayor of San Pedro Garza Garcia, the first city in Mexico to announce an emergency situation, to take 100% responsibility for decisions based on 10% of information. Looking at Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) Region, countries will need to face macroeconomic instability which will put at risk hard won gains in the reduction of poverty and inequality while dealing with compounding negative factors: 69% of the region’s population lack proper sanitation95% of children are out of school; gender based violence has greatly spiked; percentage of informal workers in the region is extremely high and 61% of them do not benefit from any form of social protection. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimates that poverty could go from 185 million to 220 million people in 2020 in LAC.

Designing a new playbook

How can we overcome the challenge of distilling timely information to inform decisions during unprecedented uncertainty? COVID-like events not only shape a different type of demand (what do you do when you dont know what to do) but more importantly ‘preconfigure alternative mindsets and practices’ that create the space for new offers and renewal. Might this point to a role that development organizations like UNDP can play — design and deploy new institutional structures to better deal with uncertainty? The most recent Brookings Institute study indicates that World Bank’s advisory and analytical services ($200m a year) has outsized influence on Governments’ policies relative to its lending services ($30b a year), pointing to the fact that in times of uncertainty organization will compete on the rate of learning more than anything else.

Different organizations deal with it differently but those that seem to better defy uncertainty are those that apply Dave Snowden’s mantra of deploying teams that deal with the day to day response side by side with teams who keep focus on the emerging trends and the future. This scheme underpins a response to the dual imperative of ‘immediate response’ and ‘smart recovery’ and gives public value organizations an opportunity to re-cast its existing policies not as drywall but as the  metaphorical load-bearing walls(mission critical policies that enable citizens to thrive and reduce exposure to risks).

This translates into a very different mode of operating where the functions are split between two simultaneous tracks. Experiences are emerging across the world and within different sectors. McKinsey is building ‘plan ahead teams’ — as modular (issues-based) units working across multiple time horizons with a specific task to elevate an organization’s view above day to day response by picking up signals of change and making sense of them. Similarly, Australian State of Victoria created an ambidextrous ‘2-government system’– department heads are lifted off their duties in favor of creating a ‘rapid response’ focused on COVID medium term missions, while deputy secretaries deal with the day to day business. And even the Pope has set up task forces at the Vatican looking into both the emergency response to the social economic implications of COVID and a longer-term reconstruction and collaboration with other countries.

As more embedded, cross sector institutional responses, we also see governments setting up Ministries of Possibilities (in the UAE) and Civic Imagination Offices (this one in Bologna, but we see this trend emerging across many cities globally). In the LAC region, the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF), invests in future and foresight as one of the critical functions to ‘see’ the probable futures, while many countries in the region are investing in experimental governance as an effort to engage with uncertainty. Lastly, COVID generated a real-life preview of what Entrepreneurial State looks like in action — with governments around the world deploying massive response programs extending basic social services, education and health to populations at large. This trend indicates a new political space to explore system transformation as a political necessity and not as a luxury.


UNDP in RBLAC: building new capabilities for dealing with the uncertainty

We need to balance the need to acquire some of these new capabilities to manage uncertainty fast, with the efforts to develop them internally even though that might take more time. In this sense, we think of these external efforts and learning as a way to broaden the diversity of our partnership and innovation portfolios and in no way a substitute for internal innovation — outsourcing this core capability, as the response to COVID shows, spells out trouble.

There are two ways in which we are translating learning from outside the organization around dealing with uncertainty in the LAC region. The intention behind both is to maintain or maybe evolve our own relevance in the context of rapidly changing environments in which we as a development organization operate, anticipate their potential implications and harness them for sustainable development. Again, this goes back to our ability to compete on a rate of learning.

First, we are testing out new methodologies for system transformation and decision making in contexts of unprecedented uncertainty. We are working with Chora Foundation in applying this to our city work in Bolivia (and exploring interesting possibilities in Colombia around portfolios of action targeting geographic hot spots and Dominican Republic around new uses of public space in the post-COVID times). We took inspiration from similar work in //medium.com/@undp.innovation/crossing-the-river-while-feeling-the-stones-portfolio-approach-to-governance-in-malawi-d25ae011a5d8«>Malawi on issues of Governance and Slovenia on issues of circular economy.

This approach is a departure from a more mainstream way in which we work in development, and specifically as it focused on initially understanding system dynamics vs going straight to the solutions, designing and working with portfolios of interventions vs. focusing on single point solutions, and committing to a long term engagement vs. doing small scale experiments testing new tools. So the case of Bolivia, these led us to understanding the quality of life in and ‘seeing’ the city as an emergent system of interlinked forced in the city economy (made up of informal and formal sectors), citizen access to critical services (education, social protection and ecosystem services), and policy environment (ability of cities to resources, design and deploy policies). This now allows us to evaluate existing UNDP country office portfolio to see which parts of it ‘speak’ to some of these dynamics, as well as understand where we have gaps.

Second, we are exploring an establishment of a region-wide foresight function, tapping into the new organizational resources — a network of 7 Accelerator Labs in LAC (as a part of the broader network of 60 Accelerator Labs). This is an effort to identify ‘unknown unknowns’ that can disrupt sustainable development in ways that we aren’t capable of even understanding (consider the present COVID-triggered reality). Our intention is to complement the ongoing policy response and recovery work with the emerging signals and alternative policy directions. Our intention with this work is rewiring our capabilities to face uncertainty and engage with new and existing partners over exploring potentially new policy directions stemming out of COVID response.

Our ability to detect trends and articulate their potential policy implications might support the Country Office teams to start having different conversations with the Governments about accelerating transition to new and more sustainable systems. We are thinking of organizing this function (and here we are also inspired by the work of the //medium.com/@undp.ric«>UNDP’s Regional Innovation Center in Bangkok) in order to allow us to:

1.Rapidly spot the emerging trends, the implications of which we can’t grasp yet but have potential to change the way policy or work is done

2.Understand their potential implications on policy, through learning by doing and engaging with trends

3.Translate them into new policy and program offerings, indicating a new normal coming from the edges into the mainstream

This new way of working brings with it a different perspective from which studying development issues. It allows us to engage with the problem in a different way and generate more options to consider for our development portfolio. Some early learning from this work is already surfacing some interesting policy alternatives in areas ranging from urbanization and social services to solidarity and trust.

Urbanization. Cities in the region are rapidly increasing kilometers of biking lanes in response to COVID (Colombia, Mexico) to enable citizens to exercise and move around the city in a way that respects physical distancing policies. Might COVID create political space to rethink urban planning and consider alternative ways of public space use? New Zealand is the first country to have turned this response into its permanent tactical urbanism policy and coupled it with the experimentation fund for citizens to submit ideas for de-risking cities’ exposure to air pollution that is seen as accelerating the vector of virus spread and increasing mortality among those infected.



Bike lanes in Bogotá by Dylan Passmore licensed under Creative Commons.



Social programs & digital transformations. One area where policy response to COVID has been the most swift is the social welfare program — Spain announced the $3 billion program for universal basic income. In Brazil, a massive civic campaign has led to the Government looking into UBI, and we’ve seen interesting solutions around providing welfare services to workers in the informal sector (see the COVID voucher example). We also see those governments who invested in strong digital infrastructure (as opposed to outsourcing them to the private sector) are now able to have a lot more policy options at their disposal to deal with uncertainty.

For example, Brazil transformed the Parliament’s work into a fully digital mode and used chatbots to manage unprecedented amounts of citizen calls for support in San Pedro Garza Garcia and Colombia extended the existing social service program to //medium.com/@undp.ric/daniel-gomez-how-colombia-accelerated-the-expansion-of-its-social-safety-net-e26712bb74bb«>3.5 million new needy households in a single week in Colombia. There’s been a rise in civic activism in the region around leveraging technology to halt misinformation related to pandemic that both leads to lack of compliance with policies and decreases trust. These efforts leave questions about both the quality and permanence of some of these solutions. On one end, done in haste, a lot of the emerging policy efforts expose inequalities (children with no access to wifi and devices aren’t able to access online education like in El Salvador and in Honduras, where teachers bike warm meals to kids who are at risk of facing hunger), and on the other risk creating expectations of Government services that when rolled back might lead to decreasing trust and civil disobedience.


Emerging business models. With the global economy stalled, citizens and businesses are resorting to new models of work in order to preserve operations and service citizens in lockdowns. In Mexico, taxis having lost their traditional business, repurposed into mobile green groceries selling fruit and vegetables. In Brazil, a digital Nubank has expanded into providing its customers medical and psychological remote care at its own cost. Bakeries have switched from selling food to selling food experiences and nutritional advice. The pandemic has created a sandbox for emergence of new business models that might point the way to new lead markets, innovation and disruption in the region (look at this map tracking emerging business models).

Environment. Emerging studies have highlighted a link between air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in China and Italy. Harvard research shows air pollution linked to higher COVID death rates. This evidence points to the importance of biodiversity and ecosystem protection, and cleaner economic growth. Might this indicate a new tactic to influence public & private investment in clean energy, and provide new conditions for economic bailout schemes that connect them to sustainable practices among the private sector (as Marianna Mazzucato preached here). On one side, the pandemic has exposed the limits of evidence-based policy as it is an event that was entirely predicted but not acted on. However, we wonder whether this emerging evidence on the link between mortality and various externalities of our current economic system might provide tactical ammunition to influence more investment toward green development?

Solidarity. We’re witnessing massive outpours of civic solidarity in response to COVID. It is putting a spotlight on the importance of social capital and trust, and as Daniel Aldrich, an expert on social ties finds, it is social infrastructure (not physical) that saves lives and builds the institutional immune system to a variety of shocks. Alternative infrastructures come to the foreground to fill the gap that would otherwise be taken up by the public sector, as the mayor Miguel Trevino points out with a story of a massive volunteer network emerging in San Pedro Garza Garcia in the face of COVID. The question for us is to what extent we can augment the current surge in solidarity as an important mechanism for community resilience (UNDP Mexico & Paraguay are working on this) ensuring it continues post the pandemic and strengthen trust within societies.


New forms of activism. We are seeing signs of the evolving nature of civic activism. For example, in Chile there is a manual on how to protest in times of physical distancing. In Israel, protestors are complying with physical distancing policies while at the same redefining what protests in this context look like. We may continue seeing evolution of civil protests and expression of discontent, which might in turn lead to reaction from the State further exacerbating (or accommodating) relationship with the civil sector and overall trust.


We are in the early stages of learning how some of these different approaches might help inform our work and provide a cutting edge policy advice to Governments in the development context characterized by ‘//medium.com/@lucagtt/strategic-innovation-and-the-governance-of-uncertainty-f9409dec5f8e«>unmeasurable uncertainty.’ In some cases, this work points to a different approach to policy design –bold, massive scale and public purpose driven that manifests the Entrepreneurial State in action and that opens a different space for work with our Government partners around transforming key systems that are likely to generate and maintain trust and legitimacy and ensure sustainable growth. In others, this work points out to emerging business models and (regenerative, circular) investment opportunities that open up a different space for work with financial institutions to build green cities and decouple growth from emissions. We’ll continue exploring possibilities for identifying and understanding opportunities and risks posed by these potential ‘new normals’ and to what extent they might offer alternative policy directions that would make countries and societies more resilient.

Some insights in this blog post have come through collaboration with Accelerator Labs in 7 countries in the RBLAC (Argentina, Mexico, Paraguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Dominican Republic and Barbados) and with the UNDP’s team in Bolivia.