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Larissa Demel: Accelerating Sustainability Efforts with Community Support

Larissa Demel: Accelerating Sustainability Efforts with Community Support

Spiffy here! I’m back with the scoop on the entrepreneurial leaders of Planet Earth. As the only interplanetary journalist stationed on this blue planet, I’m thrilled to present this galactic exclusive with Larissa Demel who is in Panama working as Head of Experimentation at the UNDP Accelerator Labs. Let’s see how she is helping to make a positive impact in the world!

Spiffy: Hola, Larissa! I’m super excited to meet you and hear all about your work! Can you start by explaining what kinds of challenges you are addressing? 

Larissa: It’s wonderful to meet you too, Spiffy. Our team is designed to close the gap between the current practices of international development at an accelerated pace of change. They model a new capability to make breakthroughs on the future of development: inequality, decarbonization, the 4th industrial revolution, and new forms of governance.

Spiffy: Wow, this sounds like a lot to take on at once. What motivated you to do it? 

Larissa: Few places are as good a place to re-define development as the United Nations. I work there because I wanted to help solve complex problems and reduce the relevance gap between current development approaches and 21st-century solutions.

Spiffy: It sounds like you’re poised to do that. Can you talk about how you and the UNDP Accelerator Labs are helping to make the world a more equitable place for all of us?

Larissa: Sure, Spiffy! We are doing this by learning from the people closest to the problem and understanding their needs, as well as the solutions they've built. Our Lab has already been conducting field visits ranging from half-day solution safaris to week-long multi-community visits where we've trekked to landfills and interviewed communities and local policymakers on their perceptions of the solid waste value chain. These insights have become the basis for building our first portfolio of experiments.

Spiffy: That’s exciting! What other kinds of initiatives are you working on and what kind of impact do you anticipate it will have? 

Larissa: The UNDP Accelerator Lab in Panama turned one year old a week ago! The UNDP Panama Accelerator Lab's first year focused on addressing solid waste management. Waste is increasingly creating environmental and health issues caused by river pollution and open burning practices. Our Lab worked to accelerate community-generated learning, explore new pathways for environmental sustainability, and support public policy design.

Spiffy: It sounds like you’re well on your way to supporting some positive changes. I’m curious if you can share something that exemplifies the impact you’re striving to make?

Larissa: Well, Spiffy, currently, I am betting on citizen science. Citizen science is a way for citizens to participate in scientific research—science for the people, by the people. Citizen science aims to generate and share information in formats that laypeople can easily understand. Currently, I'm testing new methods of citizen science to create empirical and practical knowledge that can support the design of evidence-based policies in the field of solid waste. Supported by the Ministry of Environment, the findings will be added to the collective database on the country’s solid waste management.

Spiffy: And that, of course, could inform other places on how to improve their own waste management and systems. I’m excited to see how this work reverberates throughout the world, Larissa. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, it’s been an honor!


Larissa Demel is the Head of Experimentation at the United Nations Development Program Accelerator Lab in Panama. She is a behavioral and political scientist whose research focus is on the field of social innovation, sustainable development, and technology. Larissa has experience in the public and private sectors on three continents and is passionate about driving change at the local level and translating it into public policies. (First published on the Ladderworks website on December 1, 2021.)

© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.