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For months, the world of sustainable development has been set abuzz with excitement by a new form of innovation in the works. For 10 days in August, a thousand handpicked talents from all across the globe convened in Denmark to take part in an innovation lab, which set out to take on the ambitious aim of achieving tangible progress for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This initiative was UNLEASH: the vision and brainchild of Dalberg’s Henrik Skovby, which came into fruition after two years of rigorous behind-the-scenes planning, partnership-seeking, and a competitive candidate-selection process undertaken to form the innovation lab’s inaugural class. It brought together the collective brainpower of young people between 20-35 of varying trades, backgrounds, and perspectives from across 129 countries, and equipped them with a single purpose: to develop fresh and impactful solutions for the SDGs. I was lucky to be one of the thousand young leaders chosen to participate.

A Spin on Traditional Innovation
The UNLEASH model was synthesised from three main pillars: firstly, to source top talents with the vision and drive required to disrupt conventional solutions and create a better and more sustainable world; secondly, to accelerate next-generation ideas and partner talents with individuals, companies, NGOs, government agencies, investors and foundations that are at the forefront of innovation and global development; and thirdly; to support solutions towards realisation, through ongoing support, online hubs, and a venture fund setup which can ensure financial backing of the most transformative and viable ideas.

The program, supported by over 250 sponsors and partners, started off in Copenhagen. The 1000 talents were divided into seven themes: food, health, education and ICT, water, energy, urban sustainability, and sustainable production and consumption; and assigned to work in our respective groups to address real-life case challenges posed by UNLEASH’s partners. As an innovator within the Education and ICT theme, I also had the opportunity to visit businesses in Copenhagen that excelled in the innovation of educational products and services — the likes of Microsoft Corporation, the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, and Labster.

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The talents were then deployed to different parts of Denmark — to begin work on the ‘real’ challenges. We were housed in 10 folk high schools (Folkehøjskole) across the Danish countryside; a hybrid between boarding school and camp, Folkehøjskole has long been a prominent feature of the education system in most Nordic countries. These folk schools’ longstanding legacies of nurturing students for ‘lifelong learning’ — by prioritizing their personal development, an environment of open collaboration, and hands-on learning — is nothing short of true innovation within classic educational models.

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Alongside the folk school students and staff, UNLEASH talents sang together every morning, bonded over sports and lawn games, and shared private stories, anecdotes and passions with one-another. At the same time, we were guided through a unique innovation process by Deloitte — UNLEASH’s main innovation partner — to devise SDG solutions. The process emphasised the importance of going above and beyond with the understanding and framing of a particular social problem, before moving on to brainstorm, test, and prototype potential solutions to the problem. After working tirelessly throughout the days and nights, all the talents reconvened in the city of Aarhus to pitch our devised solutions to peers, industry experts, and investors.

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How did the UNLEASH lab differ from other models of innovation? As a participant, I found myself entirely immersed into an ideation process that encouraged practical-thinking; we were encouraged to create solutions that specifically-tackled incremental causes of a multi-faceted problem. This way, we were able to approach our problems from a bottom-up perspective, leading to a clearer design of our solutions in duality with corresponding SDG indicators.

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Diversity within the talent pool was also amid one of UNLEASH’s strongest, and most unique points. The power of networking was amplified by close physical proximity between the talents. On the ground, we were constantly engaging with one-another to discuss best practices on how to tackle various social issues — many of which were found to be common across geographical regions — and beneficiaries of envisaged social interventions were able to first-hand contribute their insights to address the challenges discussed.

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As a result, I found the UNLEASH environment to be highly-conducive to the refinement of my very own passion project. Aiming to catalyse domestic labour reform in my home country, I participated in riveting discussions with my fellow peers and mentors to further refine my solution — which utilises the principles of a shared-economy to improve the work productivity, incentives and human rights of female foreign domestic workers in Malaysia. I believe it was only through UNLEASH that my ideation process was able to achieve fruition over such a short amount of time.

What’s Next for UNLEASH?

The combined efforts of the public and private sector that went behind the actualisation of the UNLEASH initiative, completely embodied what Goal 17 of the SDGs had set out to do all along: it ignited a longstanding partnership towards the common purpose of achieving the goals. With a powerful implementation framework in the works, I am confident that the UNLEASH secretariat and program partners are capable of mobilising to bring forward our solutions to the real world, thus creating real impact towards the SDGs and for the benefit of vulnerable communities all across the world. Already, talents have been presented with incubation opportunities, while support for some solutions has been provided by funders and partners under the UNLEASH network. It will only be a matter of time before the true value and impact of such a forward-looking initiative will manifest; indeed, in the words of Mr. Skovby, “the best is yet to come.”

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ZENNA LAW

Zenna graduated from UCL with a degree in Russian politics. She has interned at the Permanent Mission of Malaysia alongside the United Nations in Geneva on issues of human rights, intellectual property, WMDs, and the nuclear ban treaty. Her time in Geneva made clear the role that civil society has in supporting various human rights protections. She aims to realise the rights and self-agency of foreign domestic workers and migrants in Malaysia by developing a campaign initiative focused on awareness, prevention and the redress of exploitative domestic labour practices in the next few months.

While in London, she worked year-round as a UCL Global Ambassador as well as conference coordinator for the youth division of British Pugwash to bring forward nuclear disarmament efforts. Most recently, she was part of the inaugural class of UNLEASH - a disruptive innovation lab designed to support real and tangible progress by youths upon the SDGs.