1000 Talents from 162 countries, sounds like an overwhelming gathering! And it was. At our opening ceremony, the Shenzhen Eco Tech Park was filled with these amazing souls and no amount of time was enough to know all of them. If I could, I would ask for at least 10 such UNLEASHs for me to interact with all these people with interesting stories and learn a little more about the world we live in.
What is UNLEASH?
For those who are unfamiliar with UNLEASH Innovation Lab, as the name suggests, UNLEASH is a platform where people from different countries, backgrounds, and challenges come together and innovate solutions for their problems in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Participants are selected after a rigorous application process, and are called Talents. The talents are divided into different SDGs based on their preference and experience. Further, Talents are assigned into teams based on their interests in the specific aspect of a certain SDG.
UNLEASH is strongly supported by and has partners across academia, government, non profits, corporate and civil societies.
The Innovation Process
UNLEASH is not a regular conference where there is a rush to give out a business proposal to solve a problem. Instead, it is a well thought of, well designed, and well resourced experience which genuinely works towards opening up our minds, thinking processes, learning, experience exchange, and monitoring of personal and collective growth. It clearly emphasises on the importance of time, constant monitoring and evaluation, and productive facilitation leading to better understanding of the direction we wish to step in.
The entire journey began with multiple opportunities to network, let loose and just be. The journey of challenge, however, was broken down into five steps, beautifully explained and laid out for us:
- Problem Framing
In addition to the experiential learning, UNLEASH provided ample of real-life inputs on how the processes and approaches which are designed theoretically, are broken down and implemented in reality. It was evident in our very first step of “Problem Framing” which by the name seems to be an easy step but “Why” it has to be meaningful and impactful and “How” it can be so was eruditely facilitated by the guide book we received (another piece of an amazing artwork, whosoever designed it, designed a guidebook to the world), and our awesome facilitators – Tara, Angie, Youp, Birte, Priyanka, Hillary, and Ilia.
Thanks to Chemonics and Deloitte for sharing their best resources with us and introducing us to the concept of Innovation Consulting!
Having worked in an non-profit sector for three years in India, idea of innovation has always been technical for me and facilitation was no different that mentoring. My entire perception changed when I observed our facilitators helping us by allowing us to open our minds and ideas in ways I didn’t know was possible. A seemingly complex problem of choosing the best ideas among 40 ideas by simply ranking them on a scale of 1 to 3 was mind blowing for me. May be, it is all cool and common in the western and European countries but by the way I had felt, I know we Indians need processes like these now, especially, in the development sector which rarely steps out of the way to innovate in project designing and implementation, and is stuck in a “Donor – Project Implementation” loop.
End User Engagement
Another learning or rather, observation I had was to realise the scale of issues being issues in the first place because the engagement of end stakeholders is missing. The challenge my team was solving was on strengthening extension systems in agriculture which fail or are not leading to adoption of climate resilient farming because they are not providing what the farmers need. It was quite surprising how it was directly related to a concept Youp introduced with us on reality of project designing and implementation.
Each day, along with the regular briefings, we would have one of us sharing our story of a developmental challenge in our country and how that is being combated. The intricacies of problems that I learnt through these exchanges could never be learnt on google search. Agricultural bottlenecks in China, Oil company in US trying to change its face, youth engagements in consulting, climate sensitization through art and music, empowerment of women in Europe, policy-community conflicts in Brazil, even innovations and progresses in certain parts of India! Contrary to coaching or mentoring, these were simply experience sharing and the learning organically happened in the process.
UNLEASH has brought together experts, students, professionals and artists from variety of fields and countries. There are students from premium universities of the world, experts working in multilateral agencies like UN, FAO, World Bank, policy makers from Sub-Saharan African countries, activists from Europe and corporate professionals from all over – with such diversity, professional and personal accolades, yet the grace and humbleness with which Talents, Facilitators, Volunteers and Organizers have carried themselves is commendable. There happens no belittling of one’s work or position, and no display of arrogance among people. I have observed great amount of empathy towards region and background, a common attitude among everyone towards new learning opportunities in the group, and appreciation of embellishments of culture.
I am taking efforts to mention humbleness separately because with the increasing engagement of youth in developing the world, there exist tendencies among us to leave the ground, put ourselves on pedestal and look down upon the rest of the world. Therefore, I believe we must acknowledge, appreciate and be grateful for the gatherings which instill these values in the society.
Through experience sharing and facilitation, I learnt of a wide variety of issues, solutions and situations which not only expand my knowledge but also allow me to innovate with my problems and solutions by integrating these factors. Some of the topics I learnt of are:
- Climate Anxiety: While the problem is often looked at from the lens of technicality, policy, development and environmental conservation but rarely it accounts for emotional and psychological impact of climate change among humans and other species. How people respond to the climate crisis – knowingly or unknowingly – and how these stress levels can be alleviated.
- Psychological Barriers to the Climate Action: Distance, Doom, Dissonance, Denial and Identity
- Biochar: It is a charcoal-like substance that is made by burning organic material from agricultural and forestry wastes (biomass) in a controlled process called pyrolysis. Although it looks a lot like common charcoal, biochar is produced using a specific process to reduce contamination and safely store carbon. It is one of the promising ways towards climate mitigation.
- Biochar is useful in retaining soil’s nutrients in the events of erosion, thus, protecting against water pollution
- It also has ability to absorb or restrict up to 50% of agricultural carbon emission through decomposition of organic elements, thereby, reducing carbon release in the environment.
While most of the energy is invested in designing the solution, UNLEASH helped me understand how important it is to communicate the problem and the solution effectively. Interestingly, it was a clear enact of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle. The “Why” of the problem and solution should be clearly communicated. Contrary to common belief, the solution should sound as clear as explaining it to a 7-year old. The heart of the pitch is not the complexity of the problem, design, or solution rather it is the simple element of innovation, could be a small change in habit, that is capable to bringing change. For us to provide a clear and convincing pitch, the idea should be even more clearer in our heads. Unless the functioning of a solution is capable of convincing your own mind, it cannot convince anyone else. Thus, start with the trigger statement which briefly explains the core message you want to convey, and then stretch it further to make people understand its operation.
Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes
My best friend gifted me a book called “Switch” which talks about how any change can effectively be brought into a system. One of the case studies that blew my mind were how in a village in Vietnam, children were malnourished and in their neighboring village, the children were in better health. The person responsible, in order to understand this discrepancy, started small with understanding what these people ate. Surprisingly, in both these villages, they ate same grain and same portion of food yet there was a significant difference in children’s health. The element that led to this discrepancy was the way children were served food. In the village with malnourished children, they were given same proportion of food twice, while in the healthier village, the exact same proportion was broken into 4-5 meals a day. All the solution providers had to do was to convince mothers to break the meals int0 smaller ones and the children could be healthier.
That was my encounter of knowing that innovation could be something this simple and didn’t always need Elon Musk like technologies to make difference. Similar sensitization was provided at UNLEASH where we understood that innovation could come in all shapes and sizes. It could be capitalizing on existing network, restructuring assets, change in work culture, putting existing techniques to unique uses, showcasing products and services differently, or even engaging customers.
As much as developing nations like India need technological innovations, machines, and infrastructure, what we need the most is acceptability to the idea of innovation, design thinking and promoting creativity. A country of 1.2 billion population is capable of bringing more innovation, invention and simplicity than we can imagine. All we need is platform to channelise and capitalise these innovations.
As an Asian, I found so many similarities in the way Chinese and Indian carry themselves. For example, more frequent communication with parents, hospitality or letting others finish the sentences, always “You First” attitude, etc. Had it not been for UNLEASH, I would have never even planned to visit China but now I want to. Needless to say, China is so underrated. It’s a land of culture, technology, science, tradition, and spirituality. Every city has its own story to tell, and people are more welcoming than I had thought.
During our cultural immersion, we attended a session on Tai Chi, a self defense art from China. It seems fluid and soft and smooth but it was only after the multiple moves and gestures were broken down for us, I realised its complexity. A Tai Chi master along with his student gave us a few demo of basic Tai Chi moves, enlightening on us crucial yet simple defensive techniques and lightened the mood with his innocent smile and adorable demonstration with us. If I could, I would definitely learn Tai Chi.
Next came, a traditional Chinese vegan dinner. From a variety of mushrooms to vegetables and sprouts, the food was nothing short of a detox regime. It was also the first time I ate with chopsticks, so yes I am pretty excited about that too!
No matter how much I say would be unable to summarise my emotions for this experience. A big shout out to my fellow UNLEASHers from India and from SDG 13 who made my experience as special as it is, I wish to take these learning and connections with me and become more capable of understanding and solving global challenges such as Climate Change.
Do apply for it next year!