The Unleash Innovation Lab is a gathering of 1000 young people from around the world, who are innovative, entrepreneurial and passionate about making a difference. It brings together two demographics - those with experience and interest in sustainable development, and those with experience and interest in innovation and entrepreneurship. I fall into the first group, and was lucky enough to attend the conference in Singapore from 29 May to 6 June 2018. Through a heady mix of talks, group work and cultural activities, Unleash changes you - it's an experiential crash course in design thinking, to spark innovation around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). What does that mean? Let's break it down.
The entire experience is designed around sparking innovation to find solutions for the Sustainable Development Goals. One thousand attendees, called talents, were divided among 8 tracks corresponding to 8 SDGs: Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well Being, Quality Education, Clean Water and Sanitation, Affordable and Clean Energy, Responsible Supply Chain and Production, Sustainable Cities and Communities, and Climate Action. While the tracks, groups and teams dove deep into specific solutions, the opening and closing days focused on broader ideas, inspiring talents with breakthrough innovations and high-level reflections on design and technology.
Experiential Learning for Capacity-building
Experiential learning is learning by doing - rather than a lecture or seminar-based format, Unleash throws you head first into the process itself. It started with a self-assessment, aiming at the twin goals of sparking self-reflection and helping the facilitators assign teams with complementary strengths. An extraordinary amount of time (an entire day) was spent on this part of the schedule, given how few days there are, but through the course of the week, it became clearer that the initial grouping is crucial. This is because the experience of learning is not undertaken individually, but with a team. Of course, in the real world we choose our own partners, rather than having someone like a facilitator choose for us, but the activity illustrates how important it is to find and choose the right people to work with.
A big part of the experience was learning to work with an international team of 3 to 6 individuals from diverse backgrounds with diverse communication styles. An entrepreneur from Western Europe thinks very differently from a policy-maker from Western Africa, but they have so much to learn from one another. Team building activities helped facilitate cross-learning, but it was also clear that some teams simply click or find ways to work together while others do not. Working through the activities helped minimize conflict and stay focused on an innovative, feasible and viable solution.
The Innovation Process and Design Thinking
The innovation process began after team division. Now, many people think of innovation as inspiration, an idea that just strikes you, like the apple falling on Newton's head. What this experience is premised on instead, is that new and innovative ideas can be co-created by following certain steps and activities, by a group of people leveraging their own unique backgrounds and strengths. That's what is called the innovation process, and in the Unleash lexicon, it consists of five steps: problem framing, ideation, prototyping, user testing, and implementation. Teams sat together in rooms, on roofs, in football fields or at Starbucks, working through the night sometimes, to develop their ideas. Our team's brainstorming with post-its and markers worked its way across whiteboards circling an entire room. Eventually, teams pitched their solutions to their peers and judges, some teams were shortlisted and pitched on stage, with a final few chosen to present at the closing ceremony. Opportunities to attract funders abound.
It's important to note that the innovation process itself is not unique to this conference, these sponsors or these stakeholders. It is an academically-developed, widely-tested and proven methodology for innovation, grounded in design thinking. Three features of design thinking that permeate the process are: keeping the user's needs and wants at the centre, thinking differently to uncover new solution paths, and embracing an iterative approach. While the value of design thinking has increasingly infiltrated the business world, it is recently starting to see application in the social and environmental development spheres as well. The goal of Unleash is to spread awareness and build capacity to spark innovation for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Solutions and Networking
Considering the competitive structure within which the group work is couched, it would be easy to assume that generating implementable solutions is the primary goal of the conference. However, if developing real solutions to be taken forward into implementation were the primary goal, then one week of work with teammates chosen for us would not be the optimal format. The awards then are more an incentive for deeper engagement and learning than a goal in themselves. The measure of success of the conference, thus, should not be the number of solutions developed at the conference that were implemented, but the number of people it brought together, and their sense of the learning and value that the experience brought them.
Indeed, the third goal of the conference, that in order of priority might even come second, is creating networks. The word networking can conjure up much cringing, and understood in its narrowest, most calculating sense, rightly so. However, bringing people together for an intense learning experience where they form meaningful connections, i.e. find high-capacity people who share common thoughts, care about the same things, and come to care about one another - that is creating networks too. Unleash achieves that, albeitthrough activities, games or atmospheres that cansometimes feel emotionally manipulative, but it does also create the right conditions for these bonds to emerge organically. Putting 1000 passionate young people through a high-intensity, low-sleep pressure cooker of a week has to result in some pretty unique friendships!
My team did not win awards for the solution we presented, but my learning experience was that much more valuable for it. I made lifelong bonds with smart, deep people passionate about changing their world. I was inspired by the President of Singapore, the former president of Timor L'este and a Nobel Laureate, a UN Ambassador for the SDGs and the world's first robot citizen, Sophia. I learned a huge amount about innovation and entrepreneurship, which I now feel empowered to combine with my existing knowledge and experience in sustainable development, governance and policy. My sense of purpose feels revitalized, and I realize deeply and truly that I am part of something larger than myself. That is what Unleash 2018 gave me, and I'm looking forward to bringing that to my work at NITI Aayog, and taking it with me into the future.
Unleash will be hosting an innovation lab around the SDGs with open applications and funded opportunities every year until 2030. Find out more at www.unleash.org.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not represent the views of NITI Aayog