Photo: UNDP Colombia


Development challenges are and have always been highly complex. That was true during Ancient Egypt or Greece and is still true today. However, there are unique characteristics of the 21st-century development challenges: hyperconnectivity, more than 7 billion human beings, combinations of abundance and scarcity of data and knowledge, and a bast net of exchange systems, which all result in an unprecedented dynamic and rapidly evolving context that can keep us entertained while distracted from the core elements that require focus.

UNDP Colombia is a part of a growing global cohort building capabilities to address complex development issues in ways that are more coherent with the uncertainty and unpredictability they generate. We do this through the deep demonstrations as an organization vehicle to show that we can tackle complex development issues in new ways and facilitate transformation on the ground. This work focuses on building our capabilities to do four distinct things in respect to the development of regions we work in:

  • Sense: See and understand what is keeping different regions back in terms of development, what are the underlying dynamics and drivers and how are they connected.
  • Reframe: Based on ‘seeing’ new entry points, alter the vantage point from which to intervene in the system.
  • Position: Based on being able to ‘see’ many possibly entry points, develop a portfolio of connected interventions to address some of those underlying drivers. 
  • Transform: Jointly with partners, deploy the portfolio of interventions that combined can act to change the situation in the regions toward more sustainable development.


These four approaches are not linear. This post summarizes some of our learnings from moving back and forth between the sensing and reframing process we have taken in three regions in Colombia, as we are just getting into the portfolio design (Position).    


Defining a complex issue in Colombia

An issue is complex because its solution is unknown. According to Enrique Martínez, "a complex problem is not a point but a trajectory," so "both the process(es) to solve complex problems and their solution(s) are uncertain." These deep demos aim to improve UNDP's micro and strategic decision-making under uncertainty and unknown frameworks.

Colombia is a country full of complex issues. According to the Gini coefficient, we have one of the highest rates of inequality in Latin America. We also have climate change and environmental hurdles, an internal armed conflict present for over more than 60 years, and high levels of corruption and low trust of citizens in institutions. Our first challenge was not identifying complex issues but prioritizing a broad issue relevant to UNDP that allowed the participants to interact differently with its complexity and the three prioritized territories: La Guajira, Nariño, Antioquia.


Photo: UNDP Colombia

The three targeted areas are departments in Colombia. While featuring different geographical and development contexts, there are patterns across the three regions that open up an interesting opportunity for us to create a space for learning on what combination of interventions is likely to address and tap into some of their defining common features such as cultural diversity and ethnic communities, environmentally protected areas, high rates of informality, extractive industry, illegal markets, armed groups, high rates of inequality, poverty, gender issues, and migration.

Given the diversity of these features, we first worked on building a shared understanding of a direction we want to take with this work.  Ultimately, we act to improve citizens' quality of life within three targeted areas (La Guajira, Nariño, and Antioquia), with a focus on vulnerable populations, mindful of the fact that the drivers of low quality of life differ across and range from access to economic opportunities and adequate essential services (education, health, infrastructure, WASH) to the role of responsible institutions and inter-culturality.


Developed in collaboration with Chora Foundation


Different lenses = ‘sensing’ and ‘reframing’ different entry points 

Having sensed and defined what we mean by the quality of life and its drivers across the three regions, our research and field experience pointed us in the direction of what our north star in this work should be. To start, and to understand what is keeping the current system stuck where it is, we visualized the system and the key elements through a 3d model that allows us to see the dynamics of the current system that emerged from the element´s  interactions. The core elements that emerged from a series of seminars, where the team gave inputs of the interactions according to their independent research and their territorial knowledge, are:

  • Governance, or the way decisions are made. We ‘view’ governance or rather understand the way decisions are made through the way policies are implemented, public sector is organized and engages with the different parts of the society to shape the economic system in the region.
  • The second element is resources, and to help us better understand the situation in the region we ‘view’ resources as used and produced. This allows us to dig deeper into internal available resources and those that come from external sources, further exposing unbalance in a way that resources are allocated.   
  • The last element is economic agents, or those who either produce or consume goods. We differentiate between local and external consumers, and four different kinds of agents (extractors, satellites, makers and self-sufficient). 


Developed in collaboration with Chora Foundation


The interactions between these elements result in dynamics that impact development. For example, governance engagement models over land use may not always consider interests of indigenous populations who, without access to and ownership of fixed resources, might not be able to generate sustainable value.  Visualizing the system in this way allowed us to reframe our thinking about how we intervene in building conditions for sustainable economic growth:



Initial problem

Low quality of life driven by economic deprivation necessitates supporting entrepreneurship, diversification of economy and skill development.



From economy 101 to decentralized & distributed governance: building confidence and agency of communities to make decisions about resource allocation


The current economic system in the targeted areas does not work for all Colombians, significantly affecting the quality of life of ethnic groups, migrant or displaced populations, farmers, small businesses, women, and youth. The current economic model is based on a western economic and competitive model, where the governance and agency over core resources often excludes local ethnic groups, practices, and values​​that protect natural resources and spur a more collaborative social model. What this essentially means is that any effort at building skills has far less impact because the system is rigged against individuals and communities who may not have the agency to make decisions over critical resources in the first place.


Photo: UNDP Colombia


This reframing provided us with new lens, which allowed us to see a range of entry points to address the quality of life through designing an "alternative" economic model. Specifically, a set of directions emerged from our work and research that point to what that alternative might look like:

  • La Guajira: overcoming the economic dependency on mining and energy issues by strengthening the local entrepreneurial tissue  to expand the access to financial sources, technologies and empowering local and indigenous communities.
  • Nariño: developing capacities to build an alternative model to illegal markets based on collaborative schemes in which different ethnic groups produce and consume local goods. 
  • Antioquia: developing and implementing a circular economic model, which aims to promote fair trade of commodities and empowering women and youth.


Developed in collaboration with Chora Foundation


This new economic approach to the regions allowed us to integrate elements from communities into our ideas, making us approach the system with a bottom-up perspective incorporating local, ethnic, and traditional values and cultural practices. This process also taught us about the importance of building sharing spaces, where we, other stakeholders, and beneficiaries can get together to share insights and learnings.  If we integrate these spaces into our daily activities and we keep reviewing our work with other stakeholders and beneficiaries, we think we can improve our knowledge flow to rethink, adapt our create new opportunities for our field work, and we possibly have more impact in the long term.

Constant discussions from different teams and regions around the quality of life showed us the tendency of our team to be very topic/region focused, which we have perceived as an opportunity to mix team members so new possibilities can emerge. However, it has been a challenge because we are used to working in our comfort zone that when the process moved us out, we tended to get back to our familiar and comfortable point. That is the reason, we want to strengthen the communication channels between different regions and work areas to have new perspectives at the time we get capabilities to develop a more versatile team that can easily work under conditions of uncertainty.


Moving forward: What's next

After sensing and reframing our problem space, the system transformation methodology seeks to move forward, positioning the portfolio design of solutions for La Guajira and Nariño. Only these two territories were prioritized because time, human resources, and methodological efforts needed to be focused on. Nonetheless, the systemic approach aims to leave capabilities within the CO in Colombia so that colleagues can replicate a mental process with any other project or territory more than the methodology itself.

So far, we have identified some areas of interest for our portfolio design process. For La Guajira, to develop an alternative economic model, these areas are related to creating local capabilities and productions system that:

  • Advocate for respecting indigenous practices and cultural diversity.
  • Promote economic activities that regenerate natural resources.
  • Develop a participatory governance system that fosters well-being.


While for the department of Nariño the intent is to take advantage of its local capacities and resources to induce systemic transformation towards a local and inclusive economic development that:

  • Guarantee an economic diversification by decentralizing the regional economic chains.
  • Create resilient productive structures at the local and regional level, balanced with national and global value chains. 


We are halfway through the system transformation approach. While this post provides a global overview of our process of sensing and reframing here in Colombia, we will later communicate our learnings and recommendations that could help improve these deep demos exercises from more local and human approaches. Keep yourself in tune and do not miss our learnings!

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