The idea for the EU-funded project Innovation for Development (Inno4Dev) implemented by Kolba Lab started when Kolba’s team saw some social innovation initiatives asking citizens to contribute ideas turn into a network, a movement that mobilized people and resources.
The project has three key components. The first one is citizens’ social innovation as a solution to different prioritised thematic issues. Within Inno4Dev Kolba Lab organised two contests, one related to healthcare, another to education.
“We received many innovative submissions,” says Kolba Lab Lead Marine Mkhitaryan. “One was to do better in connecting the student to the job market. The suggestion we received was to make the thesis graduating students write relevant to the industry’s requirements. Instead of rummaging the theoretical materials from the 70’s the student, who wants to work for a company will research and write on a current applicable topic proposed by said company and thus get an employment opportunity.”
An interesting result of winning one of these open contests is a mobile app “Matcheli Vayrer (Accessible Places)” designed for people with disabilities to know the inclusive spaces in Yerevan. Varduhi Aramyan, the author of the idea, says:
“Anyone, who sees a space with wide doors and accessible elevators can mark it as “inclusive” on our map. Our team is in constant contact with its users to work on the app’s improvement. Soon people with disabilities will be able to check the arrival of inclusive public transport online, instead of having to call the dispatcher.”
The overall philosophy of Inno4Dev is to encourage the citizens’ participation in Armenia’s political life. Mkhitaryan says:
“Social solutions have to be human-centric; the assumption was that people, who have the issue know best how to solve it. We have to recognise just how much citizens have changed since the establishment of democracy in Armenia. The citizen, who books an Airbnb or presents his or her consumer needs and complains becomes a great deal more proactive. It is strange that the citizens’ integration into the system of governance in particular happens at such a slow rate. The philosophy is to invite citizens to be at the very center of power relations, not simply thought of as the receiving side of said decisions. Hence the government becomes more accountable and responsive.”
The second and biggest component is innovation in governance. If a citizen has become proactive, he or she needs to be connected to the system of governance open to his or her issues. The government in its turn should have the capacity to integrate the offered solutions.
“One important aspect was finding the innovators within the governmental system,” Ms. Mkhitaryan says. “As we know, there are educated and motivated professionals not able to apply changes because of set hierarchy. We announced contests aimed at the “emancipation” of those professionals at the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Culture, and Prime Minister’s staff. The contests received more than 150 suggested solutions from governmental workers. The people running the governmental machine themselves admit to what is not working in the system, offer ways to communicate with the citizens better. Then we help turn those suggestions into projects, and they become project implementers within the government which is an entirely new culture for RA.”
The third component of Inno4Dev is making sure the environment where both the citizen and the government operate is beneficial for their dialogue. Ms. Mkhitaryan says:
“If everyone regards both the citizens’ abilities and the government’s ability to listen with mistrust, the collaboration will not be steady and long-lasting. We use communication tools online and offline for this component. For example, we organise public Kolba talks inviting speakers to discuss topics commonly not touched upon via traditional media channels, such as using blockchains for social impact, branding Armenia or the future of labor markets.”
Marine Mkhitaryan believes it significant that we approach the citizens and the government with the same empathy.
“It is easy to be critical of RA government but thinking about how many of its workers are underpaid and so caught up in the bureaucratic process they lose sight of the end goal, which is the citizen, makes one reconsider. One remarkable result was when we organised a contest within the Ministry of Justice, and Arpine Hovhannisyan, the Minister at the time, noticed there were plenty of ideas that did not even require any financial contributions. Apparently they simply needed contests like these to get people to speak out and offer solutions. Since then they just hold these internal contests regularly.”