UNLEASH is a global innovation lab that brings together 1,000 young people to create solutions for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This year, UNLEASH took place in Singapore. On Day 1, we found ourselves surrounded by 998 other participants, eagerly awaiting the inspiring speakers slated for the opening ceremony.

This event took an unexpected turn when we were each given a small packet of yellow and red Legos, along with the instructions: “You have 45 seconds to build a duck.” A flurry of activity ensued, and moments later, there were 1,000 Lego ducks in the audience, built in hundreds of different formations. Immediately, we examined our neighbors’ ducks, remarking on their unique approaches and reformulating our own to incorporate elements of others. This exercise epitomized what UNLEASH is all about: convening a diverse group of people from all over the world and drawing on their unique experiences and skills to create robust solutions to challenges.

An innovation lab for the Sustainable Development Goals

After the inaugural UNLEASH in Copenhagen in 2017, the event moved to Singapore this year, convening 1,000 young people from more than 100 countries for a week of learning, collaborating and, ultimately, developing more than 200 solutions that tackle issues within 8 of the 17 SDGs.

The 2018 innovation lab focused on:

  • SDG 2: Zero Hunger
  • SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 4: Quality Education
  • SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation
  • SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy
  • SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production
  • SDG 13: Climate Action>

We formed smaller teams to focus on a subset of each broader SDG. For example, within Clean and Affordable Energy, some groups focused on energy access, while others focused on increasing renewables development. From there, we formed teams and began the innovation process, following a design-thinking methodology led by consultants, development practitioners and entrepreneurs. Each team completed a series of activities that helped us frame our problem, identify root causes, brainstorm tons of ideas, test our top contenders, and build out our most promising and viable solution. We then pitched to expert judges, and the top two teams from each SDG moved on to a final round, where awards such as most innovative solution, global scalability potential, and promotion of gender equality were presented to the winning teams.

UNLEASH plans to continue the lab in a new host country each year until 2030—the target year for completion of the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development— resulting in a portfolio of thousands of ideas, many of which will be implemented and scaled. And perhaps even more important, UNLEASH is building a global network of people from diverse backgrounds, including academia, nonprofits/NGOs, and both the public and private sectors, all of whom are committed to sustainable development around the world.

The power of collaboration

Ultimately, the power of UNLEASH is in the people. The group created more than 200 creative solutions to pressing global issues over the course of the week. Ultimately, many of them will not be implemented, but that isn’t a bad thing. These solutions were not fully developed, given the limited time frame, but we did create something better than what we initially came in with—just as the ducks we built became better as we drew on the ideas of those around us. And that is the point of UNLEASH.

All of us came into this experience with preconceived ideas of how best to tackle these global problems. We improved some of our ideas and validated others, and some ideas proved less than viable. Even after interacting with peers from around the world, the solutions we devised were highly imperfect. The best solutions take time. What we did create—or continued to grow—was a network of people thinking about these issues, as well as a bank of knowledge and resources. We created seeds that may lead to the vigorous solutions necessary to achieve all 17 of the SDGs.

Thank you to UNLEASH, all its sponsors, and the Erb Institute for making it possible for us to participate.