How do you move an immovable object? An interview with Mr. Giulio Quaggiotto

On behalf of A City Made By People Hong Kong Chapter, Jimi was invited to interview the Jockey Club Make a Difference Social Lab Symposium closing speaker Mr. Giulio Quaggiotto.

Photo by Jimi Chiu

Photo by Jimi Chiu

In recent years, Hong Kong’s government has seemingly made choices that have polarized the general public, with a number of mass demonstrations being held throughout the city over the past 10 years. As a result, miscommunication between the public’s needs and the authorities actions have led to increased tensions between the public and the government. Consequently, there has been a surge in public demands to change traditional policy decision making, a process which is typically made from a top-down approach, as it ultimately limits public engagement.

The Jockey Club Make a Difference Social Lab aims to put a stop to this by introducing a first-of-its-kind platform in Hong Kong, for multi-sectoral collaboration. Civil servants and everyday citizens will come together in an effort to co-create human-centered policy innovations in order to deal with the complex social challenges that we face on a day-to-day basis. The idea is to hold everyone accountable for their actions by opening up the floor to people who are the experts of their own lives. This would help encourage the bottom-up collaborative mindset within the public sector. By working with government agencies and citizens, they hope that better design services and policies can be added to provide a more harmonious society through being open to solutions from a variety of backgrounds.

A City Made By People Hong Kong Social Lab Symposium Giulio Quaggiotto 5.jpg
Social Lab as a new kind of engagement and collaboration method in Hong Kong  (Photographs provided by MaD Asia)

Social Lab as a new kind of engagement and collaboration method in Hong Kong
(Photographs provided by MaD Asia)

The Jockey Club MaD Social Lab Symposium, invited experts and speakers from around the world to showcase and share their viewpoints on public services and community co-creation.

Giulio Quaggiotto, Head of the Regional Innovation Center of the United Nations Development Programme, was invited along as the closing speaker of the symposium.

Mr. Giulio Quaggiotto at the “Closing” session of Jockey Club Make a Difference Social Lab Symposium, moderated by Ms. Chris Sigaloff (right) (photo provided by MaD Asia)

Mr. Giulio Quaggiotto at the “Closing” session of Jockey Club Make a Difference Social Lab Symposium, moderated by Ms. Chris Sigaloff (right) (photo provided by MaD Asia)

We’re trying to fix 21st-century problems with 19th-century institutions. We need to instead promote new methods of thinking and problem solving towards complex societal problems that acknowledge existing methods but also question them in order to improve on them.

When asked during the Q & A, what is it he does, Giulio Quaggiotto replied, “I have an insane passion for dysfunctional bureaucracies, that’s a bit of the reason why I work for the UN,” he says with a warm grin. “By the way that’s not a very good pick-up line.”

Where it all began

One afternoon, a young Giulio Quaggiotto would walk into his local London cafe, flick through the paper next to him and by chance, would find an advertisement for a job with the WWF. From there, he would take the step to work with non-profit organizations and realize, quite quickly, what he had been missing in the years prior to that.  “It was only when I started working for the WWF that I really decided to work in the social sector. I really like the idea that ultimately I’m not working for profit making.”

Quaggiotto spent over five years working with, international financial institution, World Bank, before moving on to work with the WWF and the UN University. Now, Quaggiotto is the Head of the Regional Innovation Center of the United Nations Development Programme with a focus on working with governments in the region between Iran and Fiji. Their goal is to launch 10 labs across Asia and eventually 60 across the world.

The main aim of the labs is to establish a dialogue with governments in order to change their regular approach and structure to problem-solving in order to better meet the needs of their citizens as well as achieving their development goals. “The way you’re thinking of problems is just not fit for the type of challenges you have around you,” he exclaims. “We’re trying to fix 21st-century problems with 19th-century institutions. We need to instead promote new methods of thinking and problem solving towards complex societal problems that acknowledge existing methods but also question them in order to improve on them.”

How can we introduce new ways of thinking?

Quaggiotto explains how important it is to alert people of their own biases especially in relation to co-creation and social labs. He explains how we all have biases, prejudices, and assumptions all pre-programmed in us. Which poses the question, how do we change our approach in order to overcome these assumptions? Quaggiotto explains a training exercise he would run in his department that was designed to challenge personal bias and assumptions.

It would involve asking his colleagues to write up complete action plans. After they were finished writing them up he would ask them to put an IF in front of them. The idea of the exercise was to challenge a person's expertise and knowledge of a topic but to also test whether they were willing to challenge their own knowledge and beliefs, accepting that their solution is a possible solution but may not be the definitive solution. “To move them to a space where they say ok, what I think is an absolute truth might be the truth but it also might not. If you are actually able to make that big step to say IF then you’re actually getting people in a different mode because then the question is not how to teach your truth but instead you’re out there to test your assumptions.”

“Open Space” session of Jockey Club Make a Difference Social Lab Symposium encourages discussions amongst participants on the social issues surrounding Hong Kong (photo provided by MaD Asia)

“Open Space” session of Jockey Club Make a Difference Social Lab Symposium encourages discussions amongst participants on the social issues surrounding Hong Kong (photo provided by MaD Asia)

Quaggiotto goes onto remark on how the best advice he received in his career was early during his stint whilst working at the BBC: “You realize in life there are immovable objects. You can either spend your life trying to move the immovable objects or you can work around them and get your way by finding a way around it.”

He reflects on how this advice has stuck with him throughout his career even up to his current role at the UN. He explains that if change is to be made to complex systems then you need to understand where to put your time and energy in order to change things. “I learned over time to look to that advice when I moved to the nonprofit sector. It helps you find the nuances in the system so you can use them to your advantage.”

Quaggiotto explains how the public sector, as an example, has aspects within it that can be utilized. He believes that a lot of people join the public sector for the right reasons, as they generally want to do something good for society. However, due to issues regarding the working infrastructure, individuals who were once passionate and driven are now frustrated and jaded. “If you find a way to these people, you actually find extraordinary sources because sometimes these converted cynics are actually the best type of people,” he says. “So then the question becomes, how do you find an entry point within bureaucracy? To actually have this discussion which allows you to resurface some of these people and use them as your entry point to start doing things differently.”

Some organizations find it very difficult to accept the problems bottom-up. Even if it was a part of the co-creation process because it’s much more exciting to say that we were on a challenge and we found the solution altogether. Where in actual fact the solution already existed. We just needed a way to incorporate it into our existing work.

Finding the solution from the bottom-up

He goes onto give an account of a recent case in Indonesia where they were exploring flood resilience in the area. Quaggiotto describes how classically, you would define the problem in order to get to your solution. In this instance, they did things a little differently. They sent some of their researchers to the surrounding villages to see if any of the locals had already found the solution to the flooding.

They found that one of the villagers had found that the flooding was as a result of waste clogging up the water. This particular villager had a keen interest in insects and had found that insects would eat the waste, therefore unclogging the flow of water. “My point is that no engineer would’ve ever of thought that insects would’ve been a legitimate solution to the problem,” he says. But although this new approach could help thousands of people’s homes there are still institutional issues that don’t allow problem-solving like this to succeed. “Some organizations find it very difficult to accept the problems bottom-up. Even if it was a part of the co-creation process because it’s much more exciting to say that we were on a challenge and we found the solution altogether. Where in actual fact the solution already existed. We just needed a way to incorporate it into our existing work.”

He goes on to describe an innovation foundation in India that gets their employees to go on innovation walks once every six months. “What you’re doing is not asking what kind of problems do you have. All you need to do is to map the existing solutions and just go out and see what people have come up with by themselves. It’s a very different type of mental approach.”

A warm smile stretches across his face, “I am genuinely curious about how much action that is happening that we might not see. I would like to think that there’s much more action than meets the eye and that there are an awful amount of people who are doing, trying, and perhaps it’s just that people are not being shown in the right direction.”

At a Q & A at the Jockey Club Make a Difference Social Lab Symposium, Giulio is asked why we should bother with Social Labs? Why not stick to the current systems of problem-solving? “To stay relevant and coherent with the current problems that we face but also current solutions.”

Quaggiotto believes that Social Labs can have the ability to constantly redefine our approach to problem-solving. He sees it as the marriage of systematic and objective analysis with the added bonus of primary, first-hand information. This format would allow governments to stay up to date with international issues and solutions on a live basis.

On the other hand, Quaggiotto vehemently argues that there is no quick fix, there is no "one size fits all". He claims that social labs need to constantly evolve and rework themselves in order for them to stay one step ahead of the problem, or at the very least, well informed with the now.

Although Hong Kong is generally considered a developed economy, there are many aspects of Hong Kong which still resemble a developing country. The high rich-poor divide; with 1 in 5 people living below the poverty line and 1 in 7 being a millionaire, ultimately leads to constant change and restructuring of not only buildings and businesses, but also communities and homes. Theoretically, social labs could be the solution to the ever-evolving, ever-expanding problems that face Hong Kong. However, it will need time, patience and above all, the willingness to adapt.

By Jimi Chiu, Respondent, A City Made By People Hong Kong Chapter