Inside the SDG innovation lab that aims to build a 13,000-person movement

At UNLEASH, team Shanka worked for five days to come up with a way to strengthen social and emotional learning in young people. Photo by: Kelli Rogers / Devex

SINGAPORE — It’s day two of the annual Sustainable Development Goals innovation lab UNLEASH, and the six innovators from across the globe making up team “Shanka” seem confident with the progress they’ve made on how to boost social and emotional learning for children. But by early next morning, the bravado has seeped out and tired eyes look up from a table littered with hastily scribbled ideas. Just days away from pitching their final idea to a panel of experts, they have more questions than answers.

“We talked until late last night. We’re still in problem framing,” says team member Najmuzzaman Mohammad, chief product officer for a Bangalore-based network of impact funds.

Mohammad is one of 1,000 young people from 109 countries who participated in the annual innovation lab that began May 31. The carefully selected millennial thought leaders gathered in classrooms and halls at various university campuses across Singapore, aiming to address some of the biggest global problems. In just five days, 170 teams of former strangers worked to define their own unique problem related to the SDGs — and come up with a viable solution.

“This has been more about seeing how can we mobilize some really, really smart young people to down the road become a force of nature collectively.”

— Henrik Skovby, executive chairman of the Dalberg Group

Working under a time crunch and governed by a precise methodology, participants in self-directed groups presented their progress to facilitators to pass through “gates” to the next stage of innovation. It’s a unique model, not only because it brings young talents together from around the world, but also because the ultimate goal is not necessarily the ideas or products pitched on the final day of the event.

Moving forward, participants will have access to an online platform to stay connected with each other, as well as with the expertise and financial muscle of corporations, think tanks, foundations, nonprofits, and angel investors. UNLEASH partner Deloitte has also promised seed funding and pro bono services to three to five of the solutions developed in Singapore. But the lab is less about the pitch, and more about investing in a movement — one that will generate 13,000 UNLEASH innovators by the time the lab finishes its final year in 2030.

“This has been more about seeing how can we mobilize some really, really smart young people to down the road become a force of nature collectively,” said Henrik Skovby, executive chairman of the Dalberg Group, who helped develop the UNLEASH idea and garnered support from about 250 partner organizations to make it happen.

The process

On Sunday, the “Water Lead” team — a group of five women scientists and engineers from four continents — is back at square one after spending eight hours “thinking too big,” explained Jen Loudon, a wastewater laboratory technician from the United States.

“We took three steps back … but we’re about to take five forward,” her Australian teammate Lisa Walpole told Devex.

To create an environment for innovation and spur creativity in just one week, the event in Singapore was highly curated. In fact, “a lot of this is actually down to minute plans,” Skovby said of the structured schedule that details activities from the moment talents arrive until their departure.

As a result, “there's very limited chance of this not succeeding,” he said in terms of participants having a positive experience and walking away with an understanding of the innovation methodology. “If there is something that doesn't work on the logistical side for you, it takes away focus. So everything we can do, we do.”

To start, UNLEASH flies 1,000 talents — chosen from a competitive pool of 7,500 applicants — from all over the world to a new city every year and puts them up for a week. The event costs about $4 million, without factoring in in-kind contributions. Covering all costs ensures the diversity in income and education level of its participants, which the lab considers its most fundamental aspect and biggest draw.

The innovation process is broken up into five stages, managed by facilitators from partners such as Dalberg, Deloitte, the United Nations Development Programme and expert consultants in this year’s eight focus areas: Zero hunger, education, health, water, energy, cities and communities, responsible supply chains, and climate action. A thick deck of activity cards prompts participants through problem framing, ideation, prototyping, testing, and implementing.

Every day, the teams must present their progress to a lead facilitator in order to move to the next stage of innovation. It isn’t easy, and many of the teams at UNLEASH will revisit problem framing multiple times throughout the process — while some might not graduate to ideation at all. The Water Lead team tried and failed to pass their gate on day three, but the exercise and ensuing conversation with facilitators prompted them to think differently about the issue they’d chosen to tackle: Lead-contaminated water and ensuing health concerns due to unregulated mining in Nigeria.

“I hate exercises in futility, but I think actually without going through everything we went through yesterday, we wouldn’t be able to narrow it down to what could work versus what just isn’t feasible at all,” Loudon said.

Nigerian teammate Adesinerola Adio-Adepoju, who brought the problem of lead contamination in her country to the table, described the process as a roller coaster, and a lesson in patience: “It’s almost like UNLEASH did this intentionally,” she told Devex. “They want you to get to that point where you boil over, just so you get all the bad energy out of your system so you come back to cool. We boiled over last night, and now we are cooling off, it’s good.”

The personal

On day five, Team Shanka’s Mohammad is tired, but optimistic. The group set the activity cards aside, he said, and spent a night sharing experiences from their own childhoods to spark ideas about what it takes to teach empathy and compassion at a young age.

“We actually developed a passion for it after we shared a story and realized, ‘this is something that we really need to work on because this has affected each of us.’”

Working with a team of six people sharing insights from six different countries is challenging, but it also provides more confidence that they’ve identified a strong problem to solve, he added.

Every year will see changes to the UNLEASH model as the secretariat responds to participant feedback. This year included a bigger focus on personality and team building, explained Murrayl Berner, UNLEASH 2018 innovation lab lead.

“This is an incredibly passionate set of individuals, and they're amazing and wonderful and talented in their own right — and they're also human,” Berner said. “So, you show up at something like this, you're incredibly jet lagged, you're out of your element.”

On day one, talents were prompted to identify whether they were a “thinker,” “sayer,” “doer,” or “feeler,” as well as to write down their motivating reason for participating. Equipped with this insight, along with talents’ professional backgrounds, facilitators then created diverse groups within each SDG topic area. It has become UNLEASH tradition that the ideation of team names and team charters happens long before any SDG solutions.

This year also gave the talents a chance to escape their own thematic area and chat about each other’s solutions in an idea marketplace in downtown Singapore: “Again, it's not about one team, it's about everybody, about the process and the connections and the learning,” Berner said.

Team Shanka’s socioemotional learning app for parents didn’t win them a chance to pitch in the finals, although it will be featured in the UNLEASH Solutions Catalogue, along with all the of the ideas that came out of the lab this year.

Mohammad sees room for improvement in the innovation methodology, which he felt was too broad, with activity cards prompting far more than can be accomplished in five days. He suggested UNLEASH bring in more veteran entrepreneurs to weigh in on the process design. And according to Skovby, it sounds like that will be part of UNLEASH’s future. Already, several talents who participated in Denmark flew to Singapore to act as facilitators, and 2019 will see the addition of an advanced track for entrepreneurs who have already developed a product that needs acceleration.

“It will be for you guys,” Skovby told the audience of talents at the final pitch competition, where eight teams — ranging from a social media-based sex education program to a system of nets that can help reduce farmers’ food waste — walked away with the title of top innovation of the week. “For people who have done good stuff throughout the year, we will invite again to come to UNLEASH.”

On Tuesday’s pitch day, the Water Lead team shared their solution of a simple, low-cost water treatment system for removal of heavy metals in rural Nigeria’s water supply. They didn’t advance to the final “Dragon’s Den” pitch competition, where the top spot for water went to a team that designed a safe latrine solution for a slum in South Africa.

Still, Adio-Adepoju got what she wanted out of the week, she told Devex: “I didn’t come here with a solution, I came here with a problem. I don’t have all the answers, but with young professionals in these many different fields, chances are you will talk to somebody who can provide feedback or a different insight. I feel like this is my United Nations.”

The reporter traveled to Singapore with the support of UNLEASH. Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.

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