By Milja Laakso, Programme Officer, Innovation Unit, UNICEF

In an evangelic free church in Orinoco, a Garifuna village in the Southern Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, the Saturday night mass is in its full bloom. With the aid of an electronic synthesizer and a drum set, a roomful of people are chanting and praising God. At the end of the service, the priest steps up and begins to talk to the congregation about the importance of birth registration of children.

Saturday night mass in evangelic church in Orinoco. Photo @UNICEF Nicaragua/M.Laakso/2015
Saturday night mass in evangelic church in Orinoco. Photo @UNICEF Nicaragua/M.Laakso/2015

At the back of the church, a group of local government officials are observing the situation. This multi-sectorial group of local government officials coupled with UNICEF staff, have spent almost a week Orinoco and Marshall Point prototyping a strategy aimed to improve birth registration of children. An empathy-driven policy making process conducted by local government and UNICEF applying Human-Centered Design approach revealed that birth registration is regarded by parents as a difficult bureaucratic process with little direct benefits. Many times, it also entails costly travel to the municipal centre. As a result, many children in the communities lack this document, vital to accessing their basic rights. During the Human-Centered Design process the cross-sectorial design team had tackled the challenge from new angles: how can we bring Civil Registry closer to the already existing social rites in the community? This could include creating alliances with priests as auxiliary pre-registers and sources of information, or bringing a mobile registry to Sunday masses so that families could be able to baptize and register their children at the same time.

Prototyping in Orinoco

The prototyping in Orinoco was part of iterative implementation of the Regional Policy for Children and Adolescents. In June 2015, five teams from different sectors and levels of government, including local students gathered to tackle the 5 areas of the policy: i) violence and abuse against children, ii) education and child labour, iii) recreation, iv) infant and prenatal health and v) birth registration.

In a co-creation workshop, they identified replicable and cost-effective strategies to be tested in 5 of the most vulnerable municipalities of the region. Each group was assigned a small “risk investment” which they were free to use for prototyping.

After 1,5 months of planning and a series of feedback clinics, the government teams and UNICEF hopped on speed boats to travel back to the communities to put their prototypes to test. The solutions ranged from SMS-based system to improve the real-time information gathering of communal health workers that support pregnant women, to participatory design of recreational spaces that “embrace the chaos” in highly vulnerable communities.

Local Government officials presenting their plan to prototype education materials adapted to the context to tackle the problem of child labour. Photo. ©UNICEF Nicaragua/2015/F. Roces
Local Government officials presenting their plan to prototype education materials adapted to the context to tackle the problem of child labour. Photo. ©UNICEF Nicaragua/2015/F. Roces

There were various reasons for adopting an iterative try-fail-learn-repeat approach:

  1. Emphasis on real impact. The policy design team had come up with what seemed to be technically feasible and economically viable ideas to bring solutions to local problems. But unless they were tested and adapted in the real environment with the people they are meant to serve before possibly scaling up, the government and development agencies might spend a lot of money implementing solutions that in the end fail to meet the needs of people. In Orinoco we learned quickly that while religious leaders can be important allies in echoing the importance of civil registry, the local health centre might be a better host for a mobile registry point instead of the Sunday mass.
  2. From culture of planning towards culture of experimentation. Instead of rigid project plans and indicators to be checked at the end of the project, there is currently a shift towards a culture of experimentation also in the public sector. In today’s rapidly changing environments the capacity of exploring the emerging possibilities instead of reacting to change is essential. Experimenting with 0.8 models and gradually improving the solutions to achieve the best possible fit is even more important in the context of extremely scarce resources. In the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, there are major challenges in the access to adequate up-to-date data. The rapid cycle of experimentation and iteration stresses the importance of collecting and quickly analysing data along the way to be able to dynamically turn learning into action.
Team of government officials coupled with students from local indigenous universities getting acquainted with rapid prototyping through the marshmallow challenge. ©UNICEF Nicaragua/2015/F. Roces
Team of government officials coupled with students from local indigenous universities getting acquainted with rapid prototyping through the marshmallow challenge. ©UNICEF Nicaragua/2015/F. Roces
  1. No participation – no results. Prototyping is by definition making a solution tangible to be able to gather feedback from the people the solution is meant to serve. Prototyping means taking social innovations to the people at an early phase in the planning cycle when there is still real chance to improve them, instead of evaluating ex-post whether they like our interventions little or a lot. This can open more meaningful spaces of participation of children, youth and families to interventions directly affecting them. In Orinoco, local community leaders and religious authorities praised the chance to be part of improving the solutions.
Local Government officials and stakeholders in the Co-creation lab of the Regional Government of Southern Carribbean Autonomous Region of Nicaragua. Photo: @UNICEF Nicaragua 2014/M.Laakso
Local Government officials and stakeholders in the Co-creation lab of the Regional Government of Southern Carribbean Autonomous Region of Nicaragua. Photo: @UNICEF Nicaragua 2014/M.Laakso 
    1. Playground for various actors – creating space for multi-sectorial co-creation through prototyping. Human-Centered Design is based on co-creation – creative minds from diverse disciplines working together to come up with ways of doing things differently to create impact. In the design community, this is the normal practise – but how does it translate to a government setting with highly sectorial and bureaucratic structures? According to a local government official, “Before, everyone was working in their own sector, there was little collaboration”. After the co-creation process they were more aware that solutions for children are “not a single sector’s work, just health or education, but of the totality”.

By supporting the government in adopting the co-creative approach we wanted to introduce spaces for entrepreneurial problem-solving across sectors to complement parallel system to the hierarchical command lines.

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