Contradictory innovation

In Montevideo, the people who have been recycling waste at the city's largest landfills for decades do a large part of their work at home. This reality has very negative consequences for their health and of the local population as a whole. The listening process promoted by UNDP in collaboration with the Municipality of Montevideo has allowed us to gain an in-depth understanding of the reality of these people and to visualize the complexity of the entire waste management system in the city. Over several months, this team was able to talk with sorters, community organizations that support them, professionals from the Municipality, and companies involved in this activity. 


Deep listening is a necessary skill to better understand the needs and aspirations of the community in real time. Current innovation and experimentation efforts are too often based on a limited and sometimes superficial understanding of the perceptions of key stakeholders. This capacity, enriched by systems mapping and collective interpretation spaces, are the building blocks for generating balanced portfolios that respond to the perceptions that exist and are operating in the system.


This work has been accompanied by a visualization exercise of the ecosystem as a whole and of the relationship flows between agents.

The main conclusion of this process is: there are very different ways of interpreting this reality (depending on the reality of each group) and the main actors demand safe spaces to experiment with new solutions. These different ways of seeing the same reality can be summarized between people and groups who emphasize the environmental dimension of the problem and those who highlight its social implications. These are not exclusive ways of understanding this reality, but they lead them to opt for solutions of one nature or the other. Within the Municipality of Montevideo itself, the Department of Environmental Development and the Department of Social Development are responsible for addressing the same problem from two different perspectives. The former sees it as a health risk that must be avoided for the common good while the latter points out the potential economic benefits of the activity for the subsistence of the collective. 


An example of this dilemma is the fact that in the month of September, the Department of Environmental Development published an ordinance to prohibit home sorting, which had direct consequences on the daily income of hundreds of families. In the days following its publication, the Department of Social Development received numerous calls from sorters and reached an agreement with the Department of Environmental Development to allow home sorting on a temporary basis until a way could be found to transition to formality with all the necessary health and environmental safeguards. From a traditional management perspective, the municipality should make a strategic decision and choose to give more weight to one of the two criteria. This decision should condition the actions of the classifiers but also of the ecosystem as a whole.

The "Deep Demo" that UNDP is promoting in collaboration with the Municipality, on the other hand, offers a safe experimentation space in which we can test different solutions within the same innovation portfolio. These solutions, or prototypes, may be a priori "contradictory", designed from different perspectives and responding to different groups and thought patterns.


Its added value, therefore, is to create a dynamic knowledge generation space in which we test different solutions but analyze their impact collaboratively and in real time. Instead of trying to convince other groups of the importance of our perspective, we build a shared narrative of what works and what does not. There is abundant scientific evidence of the poor results of trying to "educate" other groups about the superiority of our arguments. On the contrary, collectively interpreting the process of experimentation (sensemaking) facilitates new processes of co-creation between agents who normally have difficulties in working collaboratively. 


In the Deep Demo framework, portfolios are proposed as spaces for learning or experimentation to address complex problems. Through the design and implementation of portfolios that include diverse initiatives, narratives that at first seem incompatible (in this case, different perspectives on how to address the problem of sorting in the home) can be transformed into compatible narratives. In this particular case, the listening process has made it possible to identify a dozen possible "contradictory" but interconnected prototypes that will give rise to the first experimental portfolio that will respond in real time to the different views that exist on such a complex problem. 


These learning spaces allow the implementation of contradictory initiatives without having to reach an initial agreement between the interested parties. It is a regulated or controlled space for experimentation so that the conflict between prototypes can develop naturally. In parallel, collective interpretation spaces allow diverse actors within the ecosystem to listen to other realities and present their own, without trying to convince others. These spaces are repeated over time and allow the generation of shared narratives while testing different ways of responding to the same problem.

In this context, UNDP presents itself as a key player with the capacity to develop these new skills (visualization of complexity, community listening, sensemaking, co-creation and prototyping) and to transfer this knowledge to other players with the capacity to influence the system as a whole. In this way it is possible to generate a broader learning community to implement and improve this working approach to address complex problems.