The SDG innovation lab: What can we learn from this 1000-person experiment?

Block Fakes, a group from the Health track at UNLEASH, presents an idea to apply blockchain to the problem of counterfeit drugs. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

AARHUS, Denmark — While judges counted up scores for the pitches they just heard, the group of people waiting to learn which teams would make the cut came together, joined hands and sang “What a Wonderful World.”

At UNLEASH, an innovation lab for the Sustainable Development Goals, 1,000 young people from 129 countries spent 10 days developing solutions for the SDGs. Last week, almost 200 teams, with members aged between 20 and 35, were split across 10 “folk high schools” — a combination of boarding school and summer camp in the Danish countryside. They sang every morning; worked through an innovation process with facilitators and experts all day long; and refined their ideas late into the night, before reconvening in Aarhus, Denmark, after 10 days to pitch the solutions they had developed for the SDGs.

While there seem to be a growing number of initiatives to bring new ideas to the path to 2030 — set as the deadline for goals as ambitious as ending poverty in all its forms — UNLEASH brings a new model to the challenge. Teams assembled around seven topics: water, food, energy, health, sustainable production and consumption, education and ICT, and urban sustainability. But the 10 days were really an experiment in SDG 17 — “Partnerships for the Goals” — which organizers described as the most important of all.

“This is not a typical program that says ‘well done, congratulations, now you’re part of a network,’” said Henrik Skovby, founder of Dalberg Global Development Advisors, who developed the UNLEASH idea and mobilized the partners to make it happen. “The whole assumption is the best is yet to come.”

He explained that while the program aims to apply a venture capital model to finding, developing and funding businesses that can deliver on the SDGs, the potential impact of the event may only be realized in years to come. The UNLEASH team expects that these 10 days in Denmark are just the beginning — not only because of their plans for the innovation lab to move from city to city around the world until 2030, but also because of the businesses that could form in the years ahead, now that these 1,000 talents have a methodology for innovation, a network of peers and an online platform where they can continue to collaborate.

On Tuesday evening, Skoby stood onstage before a theater packed with people from all over the world — who screamed even louder for their favorite SDGs than they did for actor Ashton Kutcher when he took the stage — and talked about the next steps, both for developing an ecosystem to support UNLEASH projects and for identifying future host cities.

Facilitators — many of them from Dalberg and Deloitte, a key corporate partner for UNLEASH — walked the talents through the five phases of their innovation process: problem framing, ideation, prototyping, testing and implementing. They worked for hours on end with Post-it Notes and prototypes, but also carved out time for canoeing and other activities at the folk high schools — which the mayor of Aarhus described as the most Danish way possible to bring people together. Hama Osman, a talent from Iraq, was full of gratitude when he described how UNLEASH had provided him with the first opportunity to leave his country, as well as a daily ritual that helped him escape the stresses of living in the midst of war.

Learning to pitch

Competition to participate was stiff. The UNLEASH team first identified partners who could suggest great candidates, then sorted through thousands of applications. One such partner was the United States Agency for International Development’s Global Development Lab, which shared the opportunity with its staff, with three of them ultimately traveling to Denmark. The team originally set a quota of 100 Danish talents they wanted to include, but found the applications so competitive that only 60 made the final cut.

Reconvened in Aarhus for the final few days of the experiment, the talents heard from experts including Lars Kroijer, an investor and founder of Allied Crowds, who talked about the importance of having an “elevator pitch,” preparing the due diligence documents investors want to see, and taking different approaches to fundraising, depending on whether the investor is focused on profit or impact. Talents then reconnected with their folk high school cohorts, breaking into their SDG-focused groups and pitching to panels of investors.

Devex joined talents from the two folk high schools focused on food in a lecture hall at Aarhus University. One team wanted to build a handbook on opportunities in hydroponics — a way of growing plants without soil — to accelerate investments in the sector. Another hoped to build gardens on unused rooftops in Lagos, Nigeria, to help restaurants and hotels looking for fresh produce and innovative dining experiences. A third team focused on the farming of black soldier flies, developing a prototype of a kit that would turn agricultural food waste into protein meal for fish and fertilizer for crops. Judges listened carefully to each of the pitches, and posed detailed questions to the groups.

We need to have instruments to crowd in private capital for the SDGs rather than just asking business to ‘do good.’ 

— Michael Blakeley, managing director of enterprise and industry development at Nathan Associates Inc.

While one team that took a unique approach to pitching did not get the vote of investors, they did win the award for most collaborative team, and presented onstage at the final award ceremony Tuesday evening. The team behind Farmazon — an online platform built around the needs of smallholder farmers — put together a skit in which each member spoke different languages to convey the ways a poor farmer, a restaurant owner, a boda boda driver and others may struggle to connect their needs.

“My main interest in UNLEASH was that it offers a practical platform to both incubate good solutions and allow uptake by funders,” said Michael Blakeley, managing director of enterprise and industry development at Nathan Associates Inc., who worked with talents on the food track and watched on proudly as the Farmazon team he mentored made their pitch. “We need to have instruments to crowd in private capital for the SDGs rather than just asking business to ‘do good’ or elevate CSR [corporate social responsibility] resources. I believe actual deals will result from some of the ideas I saw in waste, health and climate. That is powerful for just one week’s time and probably a fraction of the cost of traditional development programs.”

But one takeaway for him after seeing the winners is that the business community is more comfortable funding easily understood solutions, such as products or existing technology applied to new environments.

“This means we in the development community are going to have to think a little better about the business proposition of our solutions if we are going to continue to solicit partnerships and capital from private sector,” he said.

Salmon Khan, founder of Khan Academy, talks with UNLEASH talents and guests about how he scaled his big idea for education for all. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

Improving the model

Talents told Devex they appreciated the value of meeting people from all over the world who live close to some of the complex problems the SDGs aim to solve.

"It's important to have farmers involved in the Food track because farmers are the end users," said Emmanuel Olugbayila, a farmer from Nigeria, whose team assembled around him and another farmer when the experts and facilitators suggested they would be important allies in developing solutions, since they face these challenges everyday. "This is not someone who is sitting somewhere identifying a need. We are not really presented with solutions tailor-made for smallholder farmers. This is a real need and now I have made connections so that we can move ahead."

Participants also pointed to room for improvement in the model. Diana Kendi, a Nairobi-based journalist, said her team had a hard time coming up with a market-driven solution to the problem they wanted to address: the fact that many girls drop out of school because their parents do not value education. She did not make it past the first round of cuts, in which talents did peer review on Google Forms to determine who would make it in front of investors, and said it was disheartening that she did not have the option of joining with another team. She suggested working with a smaller number of participants on future innovation labs, but with the same level of diversity among countries, and designing a model that allows nonprofit as well as for-profit solutions for the SDGs.

Designer Adam White said participation in countless hackathons for social impact has made him skeptical of models like UNLEASH. Such programs tend to spend too little time on the ideas and too much time on production, he said, suggesting that the winners are often those with the most polished app rather than the most innovative idea.

At the same time, he said events like these have shaped his career and worldview, and what he appreciated most about this program were the diverse teams that came together.

The diversity helped bring a lot of different contexts into one room for just long enough to think of ideas that were totally out there, but also ready to go tomorrow.

— Designer Adam White

“That helped bring a lot of different contexts into one room for just long enough to think of ideas that were totally out there, but also ready to go tomorrow,” he told Devex.

White was drawn to UNLEASH because of its scale and ambition, and was impressed by the ideas many teams came up with. But he said the same process that led to innovation for some teams led to dysfunction for some others.

“When you're trying to start a business, you've got to work with a team that's going to push that forward, and I didn't have that,” said Suzana Moreira, the founder of MoWoza, a mobile commerce platform that applies technology, including blockchain, to informal supply chains in Mozambique.

She was on the Sustainable Production & Consumption track, on a team focused on making the fashion supply chain more transparent. While she proposed blockchain as a solution, her team wanted a clothing label that would display information, which she was not convinced brands would support. Most teams will hit dead ends, she said — but these outcomes are worth it for the small percentage of teams that may take off.

Taking UNLEASH further

“I wish this could be a start but not an end,” Emerimana Daniel Christian, a Burundian national living in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, told a group of representatives from cities, including San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and London, which have expressed an interest in hosting UNLEASH in future years.

The group discussed what from the UNLEASH model might be replicable. One of the keys to its success, said Skovby, was having a “power sponsor” in the form of Flemming Besenbacher, chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation — the philanthropic arm of the brewing company — who made calls, charmed people and twisted arms to make UNLEASH happen. The project cost $6.5 million, funding that Besenbacher was instrumental in securing from a variety of foundations, as well as some private sector firms.

The city that does carry on the UNLEASH model will have the continued support of Dalberg and the International Finance Corporation at the World Bank, which has committed to collaborating on the experiment.

“We have asked you what you feel is needed to take your solutions off the ground, off the drawing board, and to take them to scale,” Miguel Martins, global lead for innovation and sustainability at the IFC, said at the final awards ceremony on Tuesday.

Talents said they needed four things: a virtual integrated community to keep in touch; continued mentorship; guidance and expertise to help them develop their business solutions; and, last but not least, funding.

“In the coming months, we will start building what we have called, for lack of a better name, a ‘knowledge and innovation hub’ that will take into account your asks and will act as a supporting mechanism for UNLEASH,” Martins said.

Time to time, when we come together as peoples from all over the world, we are able to forge something that goes beyond the individual interest.

Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme

“Time to time, when we come together as peoples from all over the world, we are able to forge something that goes beyond the individual interest,” said Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, at the ceremony.

It is useful to think of the SDGs as an operating system in our smartphones, he suggested: we don’t need to understand how the operating system works, because smartphone applications are what make the devices relevant to our everyday lives.

“We need some people to develop the operating system, and nations did that in 2015. Now it is the time to make them useful,” he said.

He reminded the group that the SDGs are a promise to all — rich and poor, old and young, men and women — and that they must leave no one behind.

Yet the pitch that was recognized for the most impact potential onstage shortly following Steiner’s speech was Smart Wrapr, a solution for lower-cost and more sustainable pallet wrapping. The team explained that their solution hit on SDG 6, clean water and sanitation; SDG 7, affordable and clean energy; SDG 12, responsible consumption and production; SDG 13, climate action; and SDG 15, life on land.

Because the event was made possible by corporate partners interested not only in building their brand but also in potentially hiring talents or incorporating these innovations into their operations, the business-driven solutions to the SDGs did the best. It remains to be seen what other innovations the event will unleash.

Editor’s Note: The reporter traveled to Denmark with the support of UNLEASH. Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.