Why is Social Innovation Key for Holistic Development in Sri Lanka?

Speech by Country Director, Mr. Jorn Sorensen on the second day of the 28th Annual Conference of the Organization of Professional Associations (OPA)


A very good morning to all of you.

President and President-elect of the Organization of Professional Associations

Officials and members of the OPA

Speakers and members of the panel discussion,

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

I am very pleased to be here this morning to speak to you on the importance of social innovations for holistic sustainable development, and especially as this conference is organized around a theme that is very close to us at the United Nations Development Programme, globally and locally.

Allow me to start off by asking a few questions? What is innovation, social innovation to all of us?  And, are technical advancements equal to innovation?  And, has innovation played a significant role in development in Sri Lanka?

Quite often, we tend to look at innovations as inventions, as a futuristic technological development that will have everyone awestruck initially. But our experience indicates that this is not necessarily the case.

Innovations are deeply ingrained in the culture and history of Sri Lanka. Take the example of the magnificent rock fortress, Sigiriya. The rock served as a royal residence, perfectly camouflaged for protection, while offering all the luxuries to its tenants.

Now, on the verge of the global launch of the Sustainable Development Goals as we talk of responsible consumption in goal 12 – we can go back to the wise words of a Sri Lankan King, who said:

“Let not even one drop of water that falls on the earth in the form of rain be allowed to reach the sea without being first made useful to mankind”.

It was this type thinking of sustainable consumption that placed Sri Lanka as one of the countries with the oldest traditions in irrigation systems.  It was the result of innovative – out-of-the-box- foresight to address pressing social and developmental issues at the time.

This is the innovation, the new thinking that supports efficient processes that we are looking to support through the application of innovation for development, ultimately contributing towards sustainable human development in Sri Lanka.

While Sri Lanka has a strong history of innovations, however, modern goals and the need to always be guaranteed of success has brought many challenges into the field of innovations.

The fear of failure and lack of support being the main obstacles while the lack of monetary investment to come up with, and test out new ideas is yet another obstacle.

Therefore my query;  how can we encourage creativity and risk-taking amongst the current and future generations?

Part of the answer is that we need to focus first at the very beginning by developing an education system that fosters curiosity that lead to creative thinking and innovations - - -  and to bring out local skills and talent for creative solutions and exercise the innovation muscle that is within us.

Creating improved learning environment that encourages experimentation and logical reasoning is the foundation of innovation and subsequent development.

Strengthening the scientific manpower and developing local capacity could place Sri Lanka as a leader in utilising innovations for development.

Moving further in to the workplace, it is important to create an atmosphere that encourages innovation and provides a safe-to-fail environment.

While we do this, we must keep in mind that sustainable economic, social and human development requires a focus on goals that reach beyond monetary benefits.

This is the role of social innovations. It has the potential to identify non-traditional actors in the economic, social and human development arena and integrate their skills and strengths in to the design and delivery of the development task.

Here the power of partnerships is of utmost importance. Partnerships do not only strengthen the impact of our interventions, it brings different perspectives to the table, together, leveraging our complementing advantages together for a common good.

While globally we have witnessed great social and economic progress - hundreds of millions of people rose out of extreme poverty, and many developing countries have seen rapid economic growth.

In the last decade and half or so, more than 700 million people were lifted out of poverty in the region and average GDP growth rates in developing Asia have surged ahead of other regions. This prosperity, however, has failed to act across the board.

Nearly two thirds of the world’s poor still live in this region, and the next tranche of gains in the region are threatened by persistent development challenges caused by climate change and rising inequality.

We should also not forget that the so called “wicked challenges” continue to persist, inequality has been on the rise, including within rapidly growing developing countries, and through a set of very poor and/or conflict-stricken countries being left behind other fast developing countries.

This challenges us to re-evaluate how we monitor progress, and what we mean by development? This requires speed and accuracy calling for innovative outlooks and thinking.

By engaging the community at large through efficient, non-traditional processes, we can, with time – gain holistic development.

The relative importance of drivers of economic growth and prosperity has evolved over time, and, for a growing number of countries, innovation in its many dimensions is emerging as a leading factor.

From a fresh crop of ideas in social entrepreneurship and social impact investments, to the growth of capital markets for social goods, and the future role of technology in tackling persistent development challenges globally, the element of innovation could be critical in ensuring the impact of a new generation of policies warranted by the rapidly changing region.

Last evening, we heard from many speakers, including the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, where he highlighted how the global community has already started innovating, and why we must not only keep up, but be ahead of the curve and leverage opportunities that innovations serve for shared prosperity and regional cooperation.

UNDP Sri Lanka’s interest in innovation has sparked us to enable this force within many sectors. The HackADev - Sri Lanka’s first social innovation hackathon, where ‘tech meets development’ - will take place at the end of this week in partnership with Dialog.

HackADev will engage young technology enthusiasts to look at persistent development challenges with a keen eye and propose socially relevant technological solutions to these issues, supported by the Sri Lankan private sector, and UNDP.

We also saw the need to gain fresh perspectives on development issues and develop a discussion around them. We therefore supported the initiated ‘unlocked’ in partnership with Daily Financial Times. ‘Unlocked’ being a series of blogs and offline spaces that ‘unlock’ voices providing a space for youth to voice their personal experiences, opinions and propositions on current social issues.

Globally, UN has recognized the need for disaster preparedness and the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction which took place in March in Sendai, Japan, stands in testament to this.

 Sri Lanka too – and most unfortunate - has faced its fair share of natural disasters in the past, and these have all taught us the need to increase our disaster preparedness and to improve our responses in times of disaster.

UNDP Sri Lanka is working closely with a number of partners including the University of Moratuwa to explore the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in assessing sites of disaster in order to deliver tailor-made relief supplies and rescue operations to the affected region. In addition, the use of sensor technology to facilitate the early detection of landslides are also being piloted in collaboration with the Ministry of Disaster Management.

These are some of the innovative and effective solutions that today are being used to address issues that hinder sustainable human development in today’s context.

The call by His Excellency the President for a knowledge-based innovative approach for human development in Sri Lanka is an excellent starting point. 

We note many similar initiatives taking place at the moment. Stakeholders have to continue these and we need the services of professionals of all fields. These discussions need to continue.

Sri Lanka is certainly embarking on the right track – this conference on innovations and technology for sustainable development has initiated a discussion on this vital topic and recognizes the need for investment in innovation for Sri Lanka to stay ahead of the curve and achieve economic prosperity and human development.

We sincerely hope that together with all of you we can continue this dialogue in the future, I assure you of UNDP’s support to do so.

Before I conclude, let me please put forward another couple of questions.

How can our world utilize its great global knowledge, technology, and wealth to build a better, fairer future?

How can we fulfil our destiny of being the first generation to eradicate extreme poverty?

I strongly believe the answers lays within effective adoption of innovative tools such as:

-          new thinking,

-          new analysis, and

-          Harnessing collaborative value that can deliver new solutions for a better world.

In conclusion, let me quote Albert Einstein, “You can’t solve a problem on the same level that it was created. You have to rise above it to the next level.”

So let’s rise together above our challenges and think differently and let us think innovatively to create sustainable solutions for sustainable development.

I invite all professionals gathered here, to engage UNDP in a dialogue to analyse innovative solutions.

UNDP, being a key development partner, working in Sri Lanka for nearly five decades, can add value and provide an insightful perspective in to their practical applications.  

So I urge all those gathered here today, do not lose the innovative touch. Rise above challenges, change your point of view. Cultivate innovation and let it grow so that Sri Lanka can achieve unprecedented rates of growth and do so in an equitable, inclusive and sustainable sense.

Thank you and my sincere wishes for successful deliberations today. 

UNDP Around the world

You are at UNDP Sri Lanka 
Go to UNDP Global