When we at the RBEC Knowledge and Innovation Team at UNDP Europe and Central Asia designed our four-week learning sprint with selected municipalities in Ukraine and Moldova, as part of the EU Response and Renewal programme, we wanted to see how much this learning journey would encourage the municipalities to widen their perspectives and empower them to apply different tools and processes to rebuild and adapt to the emergent insights. Our team had a chance to visit all of the selected municipalities in Moldova and meet with municipal teams and mayors to see what was happening on the ground and hear their concerns. In the case of Ukraine, our team had one-to-one calls to further understand their current situation.
Many municipalities expressed they were facing difficulties in addressing uncertainty and unpredictability in times of crisis. One Mayor in Moldova specifically mentioned: “One day we had 500 refugees coming to our town. Three months later, only 100 were left in the city. We do not know what will happen in the next 3 months.” Many of the municipalities were already struggling to address the demands of the residents or prioritize issues prior to the crisis due to their limited resources.
In times of crisis, our context changes drastically, making it difficult to plan for the future due to highly unpredictable circumstances. We are often forced to make quick decisions based on limited data and fragmented information due to immediate and pressing needs. We might seek evidence and in-depth research that points us to the “right” solution, but in a time of crisis where circumstances change rapidly, we need to practice a delicate dance between seeking validation and taking decisive action.  We need to address the immediate needs through action while holding the space for learning and adaptation to new learnings and discoveries.
The EU Response and Renewal Programme for local authorities in Ukraine and Moldova, under the Mayors for Economic Growth (M4EG) network, was designed to apply complex systems thinking in a crisis context, emphasizing how we can manage complexity in a crisis setting and adapt to emerging realities. This grant programme offers direct support to 13 selected municipalities in Ukraine and five selected municipalities in Moldova, totaling EUR 1.8 million. Our call for proposals asked municipalities to clearly articulate how they will address issues related to response and renewal, and after the selection, they were invited to join a 4-week learning sprint to validate their proposals and identify emergent insights to adapt them.
Given the limited resources and capacities of many municipalities in the region, we intentionally built a 4-week learning sprint to introduce municipalities to the basic knowhow and applicable tools needed to discover new insights and apply them to their submitted proposals. This was a unique approach whereby the selected proposals could be further enhanced and adapted based on emerging changes, acknowledging the importance of flexibility, adaptiveness, and empowerment of teams and networks to help us make sense of the changing landscape in a complex crisis setting.
The key value of the learning sprint was to improve the proposals and eventually ensure that activities will be more targeted and effective during implementation. In standard project design, we often design our activities upfront in a linear way that (unintentionally) creates a relevance gap by the time implementation starts. Therefore, the learning sprint was designed to build in adaptability, flexibility, and effectiveness of the activities by embedding system-wide perspectives and community listening. In particular, we wanted to achieve the following objectives from the 4-week learning sprint:
Key takeaways from the social listening:
During the social listening exercises, some teams discovered other adjacent needs that their work could address to be more relevant. The Chernivtsi municipality said: “Based on the results of the received answers, we saw that the problem of providing internally displaced persons (IDPs) with housing is quite urgent. Therefore, during the implementation of the project, it is planned to monitor existing initiatives in this area and to inform target groups about available opportunities on an ongoing basis.” Some teams found social listening to be a helpful tool for monitoring the impact of their initiatives.
The Bucha municipality said: “During the implementation of the project, it is planned to conduct social listening on an ongoing basis to identify new challenges and problems that arise, as well as to receive feedback from target groups for the further possibility of adjusting measures and activities.”
What is social listening?
Social listening is a powerful tool that localizes and connects interventions to the people in the community – the actors or beneficiaries – to ensure their relevance. The municipalities of Ukraine and Moldova embedded this process as part of the Response and Renewal programme to achieve two objectives:
Social listening was embedded in the learning sprints as a two-week practice of learning and doing and was broken down into three parts:
The sprint commenced with an introduction to a stakeholder mapping tool to assist municipalities in comprehending the actors and initiatives within their respective geographic ecosystems. This tool facilitated the identification of connections and the importance of various present actors. Municipalities gained a holistic understanding of the system’s interconnections and interdependencies. Stakeholder mapping served as a valuable aid to initiate the listening process by providing a clear picture of the relevant actors based on their engagement, decision-making power, and interest in the thematic areas addressed by the municipality’s proposal.
Introduction to listening and core skills training:
Following the stakeholder mapping, participants underwent a comprehensive training session on the purpose of social listening and its applications, including the essential skills required to conduct effective listening activities, such as in-person interviews, focus groups, and observations. The aim was to equip participants with the ability to document their initial assumptions, tailor questionnaires to their specific contexts, and proceed with interviews with selected stakeholders. All participating municipalities successfully completed this exercise and conducted in-person interviews with up to 10 stakeholders.
Data collection and synthesis:
After the interviews, our next session focused on synthesizing the collected data and extracting patterns and insights. The session began with guidance on data synthesis techniques, followed by teamwork to summarize and discuss findings within teams. Through internal discussions, participants answered key questions, unraveling both the insights and conclusions that emerged from the data. Furthermore, they revisited their initially stated assumptions and hypotheses from the first session, validating or invalidating them based on stakeholder feedback and new information gleaned.
Reflection and future applications:
Throughout the learning sprint, ample time was dedicated to team reflection and cohort discussions, enabling participants to evaluate the benefits of their enhanced listening skills in their current work and potential applications going forward. The opportunity to reflect and exchange ideas fostered a collaborative learning environment and encouraged the identification of practical ways in which listening skills could contribute to their ongoing initiatives.
What is sensemaking?
Sensemaking is used to identify, generate, map, and leverage relevant connections and existing dynamics across different initiatives and projects. It is also used to create the conditions for reinforcing coherence and building networked effects across different actors through socialization and engagement (UNDP Portfolio and Sensemaking Protocol).
Sensemaking and design session in Ukraine (Zoom + Miro)
Under the EU Response and Renewal programme for Ukraine, five municipalities were selected under Lot 1 to focus on immediate recovery activities for refugees and IDPs, and eight municipalities were selected under Lot 2 to focus on medium and long-term renewal activities for refugees, IDPs, and local communities. Regardless of their selected lots, we have learned that the municipalities are developing their efforts on 1) social integration of refugees and IDPs, 2) creating and supporting economic opportunities for refugees and IDPs, 3) building and restoring city services and infrastructure, and 4) reshaping and planning for the future vision of the city through comprehensive analysis and aftershocks caused by the war.
Here are some of the key insights that have been captured during the sensemaking and design session:
Sensemaking and design session in Moldova (In-person)
Under the EU Response and Renewal programme for Moldova, two municipalities were selected under Lot 1 to focus on immediate recovery activities for the refugees, and three municipalities were selected under Lot 2 to focus on medium and long-term renewal activities for the refugees and local communities. Similar to the selected Ukrainian municipalities, Moldovan municipalities concentrated on 1) fostering the social integration of refugees, 2) creating and supporting economic opportunities for refugees, and 3) enhancing public services to support refugees in the local community.
Here are some of the key insights that were captured during the sensemaking and design session:
As we received positive feedback on the sensemaking and social listening sessions that enabled municipalities to discover new opportunities and validate their assumptions on their community’s needs, we also realized that it takes clear guidance and support to embed learning and adaptations. While a few municipalities were able to entirely reframe their approach and adapt to the emergent insights, captured through the learning journey, almost all municipalities were able to strengthen their proposal arguments, enhance their reasoning and validate the activities of their original proposal. In addition, some also noted that they would’ve liked to use this approach before writing their proposal, and even wanted to reuse the tools and processes for other opportunities.
Another key lesson learned from us is that municipalities are open to learning opportunities, and despite their constraints and daily municipality tasks were very active and engaged in the process. The format preference varied from municipality to municipality, but all of them requested having at least one in-person meeting for networking and deeper engagement. Online meetings were also well-received because this allowed municipality staff to have better access. Future topics that have been requested from the municipalities include proposal writing, project management, foresight, and strategic planning – some are now planned to be included under the Urban Learning Center.
Eighteen Municipalities are now actively in the phase of implementation, and we will organize a follow-up sensemaking session in the Autumn of 2023 to capture what has happened since the design and activity implementation. Stay tuned for more updates and if you would like to know more details about each municipality taking part in the EU Response and Renewal programme, please take a look at this document.
 Managing complexity in chaos by Cynefin