• How can countries implement the #SDGs? #Armenia has teamed up with the UN to create a new innovation lab to help
  • The Armenian Lab is the first to be operated by both a national government and the UN – it is not expected to be the last
  • Armenia's SDG Innovation Lab aims to be a platform for experimentation, collaboration and analysis

Meet Erik Gyulazyan. The director of the Armenia National SDG Innovation Lab is friendly, insightful, bilingual (thanks to several years in the UK), but most of all excited – as well he should be.

The Lab formally launched in mid-November and is a joint initiative of the Armenian government and the UN. It’s the world’s first cooperation model between a nation state and the UN in bringing innovation to boost the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a country level.

Gyulazyan is aiming high. “We want to achieve a leapfrog in SDG implementation,” he says. “We are going to be using the best available innovative methodologies and practices, including the UN’s own innovation facilities and tools, and I’m confident that we will see a real leap forward in the years to come.”

Sounds like a very worthy aim – but how is it going to happen? And why is the Lab needed in the first place?

Integrate to innovate

The SDGs – 17 in total – aim to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that everyone enjoys peace and prosperity. Building on the platform of their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals, they are interconnected and involve areas such as economic growth, poverty reduction, climate change, inequality and education. Think of them as a global “to-do” list for the key issues facing countries around the world, both developed and developing.

Armenia, like many others, have embraced the SDGs and committed to delivering on them in full. But the country is also finalising its own National Development Strategy 2030, one that focuses on its efforts to diversify its economy, strengthen economic growth and improve citizen outcomes. The decision was taken, says Gyulazyan, to combine the two. “We in Armenia believe that the SDG implementation can be part of our overall approach to improving essential areas of the economy and society,” he explains.

“So we decided to integrate them into our national development strategy and create an interagency working group to bring the two sets of priorities together. The interconnectivity and complexity of the challenges necessitate new approaches and new solutions that can have a real impact – and that’s where the Lab comes in. It’s an implementation tool that can help make sure that the development plans actually become real, and it’s something that is part Armenian, part UN. So it’s really special.”

Gyulazyan and his team – made up of bright and enthusiastic minds – will be linking the SDGs to Armenia’s development challenges and identifying innovative, cross-cutting solutions. They have several priorities.

Although the country has been transformed since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, its economy, for example, was badly hit by the global financial crisis and today remains heavily dependent on old-style, low-yield agriculture and the country’s mineral resources.

Poverty reduction, too, has been occurring at a relatively rapid pace, but too many Armenians remain vulnerable. Late last year, the Government of Armenia established its own reform-driving powerhouse, the Center for Strategic Initiatives (CSI), a public-private partnership platform that operates outside the state system, and it was natural for the ambitious SDG Innovation Lab to be established within the CSI’s premises.

Open for business

The Lab was officially launched on 14 November 2017. As a platform for experimentation, collaboration and analysis, it is expected to unlock the country’s development potential, and aims to do so via four key principles: Progressive, Participatory, Pragmatic and Private Sector. Gyulazyan explains what this means in practice.

“Short-term wins are important, but they have to be blended with the long-term goals we have in mind,” he explains. “We also want to open-source our work, and to this end the Lab has already partnered with organisations such as the Stanford Change Labs, UN Global Pulse and the Behavioural Insights Team, and there’s still more to come. We also want to create a market for development and reduce the cost of governance through using things like behaviour-centred design and big data.”

He goes on to say that he and his colleagues have sought to learn from the experiences of the many other government Labs that now exist worldwide – such as Denmark’s Mindlab and the UK’s Policy Lab. “We have seen what other Labs in different countries are doing – either to accelerate the development of a country or enhance innovation in a particular field,” says Gyulazyan. “If you want to achieve a desired level of development and growth, you need to be creative and innovative – the whole world is moving in that direction. So we need to catch up and grow faster than the average trend, that’s what lay behind the idea of the Lab.”

Although this is the first Lab to be operated by both a national government and the UN, it is not expected to be the last. With other countries certain to be watching their activities and performance closely, Gyulazyan says that building a good relationship between the two “owners” of the Lab is rooted in the recognition that the SDGs are not something to be seen in isolation. Rather, they are an active set of goals and frameworks that should be embedded in a country’s domestic activities.

“We need to give credit to our government, which saw the future benefits and was forward-looking enough to understand the importance of innovation in delivering national reform,” he says. “We also had very positive cooperation from the UN – they saw it as a success story that would benefit Armenia and themselves, as it could show other countries how they might go about implementing the SDGs. But when it comes to other national governments looking to open up similar Labs in the future, I would say that they really have to realise that the SDGs belong in their development plans, and place them within internal governance and reporting structures.”

Looking ahead, Gyulazyan’s optimism about the future bubbles over. “We have the full support of the government and the UN, as well as a very good team and very good team spirit,” he concludes.

“The issues that countries are facing are becoming more and more complex and cross-sectoral. We need to be quicker and more creative if we want to achieve strong levels of growth and development. But with the Lab now up and running, I am very confident and positive that we will make a strong contribution to innovation and the development of Armenia.”

If enthusiasm translates into public impact, then Armenia is certainly well placed for a period of rapid development – watch this space.

 

FURTHER READING

  • Mind the gap: from theory to implementation for the SDGs. The applause that greeted the ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals was well merited, says the UNDP’s Max Everest-Phillips. But meeting these targets will require some course adjustment
  • Crossroads of capabilities. When Michael Woolcock is not at the World Bank headquarters or teaching at Harvard, he can be found more often than not on the frontline, investigating social development and service delivery interventions in developing countries. He suggests some strategies for unlocking implementation capability for governments worldwide
  • Why context is key in development. After 23 years at the World Bank, Brian Levy knows a thing or two about development. He explains why maximising impact requires more than a top-down approach deployed from afar
  • Measure for measure. For Melanie Walker, overseeing the World Bank Group’s delivery unit is more than just keeping score. She tells us why it’s really all about a fundamental transformation that aims to free a billion people from the grip of extreme poverty
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  • Open all hours. Liz Carolan explains how open data can help accelerate development progress around the world
  • Open data: unlocking development potential in Africa and Asia. Dr Savita Bailur sets out how open data can empower ordinary people to participate in development