Will Viet Nam one day be a new Asian tiger?

Viet Nam - An emerging economy of the 21st century

What comes to your mind when you hear about Viet Nam? Is it alluring alleys filled with aromatic street foods? Or maybe bustling traffic filled with motorbikes rushing in all different directions? To some of my foreigner friends, perhaps a dynamic economy isn’t the first association that comes to mind when thinking about Viet Nam. In my experience, people might imagine rural sceneries with rice farmers and conical hats in the field. 

Things have changed quite a lot over the past four decades. Viet Nam is now home to about 96 million people and a thriving economy. With a median age of 31, it has a relatively large and young workforce. Many international organizations have acknowledged Viet Nam’s impressive rise from one of the world’s poorest countries to a lower-middle-income country in about a quarter of a century. The Economist even calls Viet Nam the other Asian tiger, as it has the world's second-fastest growth rate per person since 1990, only behind China. 

The other side of economic numbers

However, despite the positive economic indicators, Viet Nam is facing major developmental challenges in its next chapter. The fast economic growth Viet Nam has enjoyed over the past decades is also contributing to rising inequality and environmental degradation. Furthermore, the IPCC has identified Viet Nam as one of the countries most likely to be affected by climate change due to its extensive coastline. Even on the economic prospect, Viet Nam is in danger of falling into a middle-income trap due to the increasingly volatile global trade patterns and disruptive technologies that could diminish Viet Nam’s traditional competitive advantage of low-cost labour. Suffice to say, Viet Nam’s path to more prosperity is not necessarily guaranteed. 

It is in this context that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been closely cooperating with the Government of Viet Nam (GoV) to eradicate poverty, find growth paths that are sustainable, and inclusive.

Accelerator Lab Viet Nam - marrying social innovation with development work 

A paradigm shift is happening in the development world. There is growing acknowledgement within UNDP that the challenges of today are becoming more complex and interconnected; they won’t be solved with the same ways of thinking and working of yesterday.  

At UNDP Viet Nam, together with the global UNDP network, we are embarking on a transformational journey with other 59 Accelerator Labs worldwide.  At the heart of this brave initiative is the will to re-imagine how development work is done, promoting a culture of innovation and experimentation. The capacity to adapt in a rapidly changing environment will become key for UNDP to stay relevant and provide effective support to our partners to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

With this mandate, our Viet Nam Accelerator Lab team was formed and hit the ground running. Within less than the first 2 months of operation, we have engaged with the UNDP country office, government officials, community leaders and entrepreneurs to understand their needs and identify where the Accelerator Lab approach could be best leveraged.

Viet Nam Accelerator Lab team working with community leaders and entrepreneurs at DNES on circular economy

Viet Nam already has a young and dynamic scene for startups and innovators. Building an innovation ecosystem has been a key focus of the GoV. In fact, Viet Nam has steadily climbed the ranks of Global Innovation Index over the past few years, with this year achieving the highest recorded ranking of 42nd place out of 129 world economies -- making Viet Nam the leading innovator of lower-middle-income countries group. There is even an ambitious plan from the government to invest US$73 million to build a National Innovation Center (NIC) in Hanoi from Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI), which a member of our team is involved in the consultation process. 

We are at the beginning of a journey to explore a partnership with Da Nang City People’s Committee and MPI to integrate Accelerator Lab approach in solving their pressing problems. For Da Nang, our partners have shown interest in using the Lab approach to accelerate their existing work in sandbox regulation, tourism, circular economy and smart city.

UNDP and the Government of Da Nang exploring the possibility of setting up a CityLab

Finding solutions in the crowd

On the grassroots level, at the Hanoi Innovation Summit, we hosted an interactive session using participants’ collective intelligence to address the complex problem of waste management in Hanoi. Complex issues are often counterintuitive and need a wide variety of perspectives to be addressed effectively and avoid unintended consequences. By bringing in the voices of many, we could systematically show what drives the issues and crowdsource existing solutions. More importantly, we could empower everyday people to take action and innovate in their daily life. 

Mapping out the wisdom of the crowd

The word innovation can be rather inaccessible with big buzzwords like Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, CRISPR Gene editing associated with it. Some could feel like they need to be experts in machine learning to be part of the exclusive “innovation” club. Yet it doesn’t have to be like that, for us, innovation can take place simply when people really listen and connect about their common issues and find solutions together -- there is a certain magic in a group with a common goal that even the best expert minds can’t replicate. 

Over 50 entrepreneurs, young students, government officials, and our UN colleagues joined in the conversation on how to tackle waste issues in Ha Noi.

Let’s innovate together

Viet Nam is still in the middle of a transition between tradition and modernity. It needs to navigate uncharted waters in dealing with new social, environmental and economic challenges. This won’t be an easy journey, but so far in landing our Accelerator Lab, we have found a fertile ground to do things differently. We feel that this is an exciting time to be a changemaker and innovator in Viet Nam, seems like there is an opening for new ways of thinking and doing that are sustainable and inclusive. If you are among those who wish to make a difference in Viet Nam, please reach out to us! We would be very excited to find opportunities to innovate together. Innovation doesn’t have to be confined to just young startups and high-tech companies, it can, and should, be something all levels of society embrace in a way that creates better conditions for all of us. As a final closing thought, I wonder what would the world be like if we all thought of ourselves as innovators?

Get in touch! Send an email to nguyen.tuan.luong@undp.org for any inquiry or exploring collaboration opportunities with the Accelerator Lab in Viet Nam 

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