UNLEASH for the SDGs

UNLEASH for the SDGs

1st October 2021 0 By Lorraine J. Hayman

In November 2019 I joined UNLEASH Innovation Lab in Shenzhen, China, to work on solutions for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I wrote about that here.

UNLEASH is a “global innovation lab for the SDGs, where [participants] from around the world get together to develop innovative solutions for a better and more sustainable world”.

The SDGs are 17 goals, and “are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests”. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by “United Nations Member States in 2015, [and] provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”.

Since 2019, I have been drawn to supporting the UNLEASH innovation movement time and time again. While I think there is always room for improvement for any emerging movement (the first UNLEASH programme was only in 2017), I find the enthusiasm and commitment of everyone connected to UNLEASH almost addictive. When working on an UNLEASH project, you know you are among like-minded individuals. These individuals know that we can achieve the SDGs with collective action and each one has such commitment to the UNLEASH movement. Most wear the UNLEASH badge with pride. 

When I call UNLEASH a movement, I do so because of the sheer number of youth involved. In China in 2019, over 1,000 of us gathered across Shenzhen. Since the pandemic, UNLEASH has continued its efforts online, bringing together youth worldwide to work on a range of innovative SDG solutions. I also call it a movement because each UNLEASH programme follows design-thinking mythology, that draws on the Theory of Change, and supports participants to engage in a step-by-step process of developing SDG solutions. The UNLEASH methodology details from my time in China can be found here. As you can see, it is very detailed and explicit on the steps that need to be taken in the development of SDG solutions. 

Now, I am no longer a youth (!), but that does not mean my involvement with UNLEASH comes to an end. In 2021 I joined UNLEASH as a Facilitator of the Innovation Lab programme and as a Mentor for the UNLEASH Plus programme.

In my facilitation role, I support participants, called Talents, to work on a local/community problem, developing a solution for global impact. I recently facilitated a two-day Innovation Lab event, called the UNLEASH Hacks, based in Japan, although as it was remote participants joined from around the world. The Innovation Lab is the first stage of working with UNLEASH. I joined an Innovation Lab in China, and usually, Talents at the Innovation Lab have no prior experience of working with UNLEASH and are unfamiliar with the UNLEASH methodology. 

The Hack was created to explore SDG 4, Quality Education, and SDG 16, Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. I worked with a group exploring issues related to social isolation in Japan. An issue, known as Hikikomori in Japanese, means QUOTE. I guided the team through the process of attempting to understand the root cause of the Hikikomori phenomenon. That is an important step of the UNLEASH methodology, which encourages a thorough and iterative examination of problems before the development of solutions. As a facilitator, reminding the team to revisit the problem and its context is an important role; it encourages the team not to be solution led, but rather seek a deeper understanding of the issues they want to provide solutions for first. 

The two-day Hack was an intense process. My experience of UNLEASH is that it is often quite intense; A product of high-achieving and enthusiastic people gathering to ideate no doubt! Nevertheless, at the end of the two days, each team pitched their solutions successfully to an independent judging panel. The final event highlighted why I always return to volunteering with UNLEASH. There were over 50 people present from around the world, sitting together in the same space to talk about some of the problems they see in their communities. I think that UNLEASH is actually achieving the SDGs in that act alone; specifically SDGs…

Since August 2021, I have been working as a Mentor for the UNLEASH Plus programme. UNLEASH Plus programme is the next step after the Innovation Lab. UNLEASH Plus Talents may have worked with UNLEASH before. Or, they may already have a problem that they are trying to overcome in their community, but are looking to extend their impact and expertise. 

I am currently supporting a team in Brasilia, Brazil, working on SDG 4. The team have an education project they launched in early 2020 that seeks to bring affordable language education to disadvantaged youth in Brazil. They have a programme where language mentors can connect with youth to offer informal tutoring. It is already a well-developed idea, and the founders are still very young (one is 17!) It is exciting to work with young people so committed to the SDGs, and with such a focus on helping those in their communities that have not had the same chances in life as them. Working with youth like this keeps me returning to UNLEASH; after all, that’s why I became a teacher in 2009.

In the following months, I hope to continue to work with the team in Brasilia and support UNLEASH with other programmes in a facilitation and mentorship capacity. The UNLEASH programmes are an impressive enterprise that in and of itself are achieving the SDGs. It is a privilege to continue to work with them, over two years since I first heard of them. Hopefully, the UNLEASH programmes will continue to make a lasting impact and support the achievement of the SDGs worldwide!