We, Kathleen and Christian from the Leverage Points team, attended the first UNLEASH innovation lab for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (https://unleash.org/). It took place in Denmark over a time span of 10 days and involved 1000 young ‘talents’ (intra- and entrepreneurs, academics, and technical experts) from 129 countries. The idea of UNLEASH was to gather together young professionals passionate about sustainability and the SDGs to come up with solutions, ideas, and innovations on how to achieve the SDGs. We were both excited to attend the lab and find out how our academic work and framings of sustainability problems/solutions resonated with the perceptions of other young professionals, mostly from outside academia and from different countries and continents. That in itself was a good exercise from which we learnt a lot.
In its first year, UNLEASH focused on seven of the SGDs: water, energy, health, food, sustainable production and consumption, urban sustainability, and education and ICT (information, communication, technology). We were both placed in one of the two “sustainable production and consumption” groups (Snoghøj), which limits our reflections on the UNLEASH lab to our experiences in this subgroup. The program kicked-off with the thousand ‘talents’ meeting in Copenhagen for common introduction and get-together, but we were then split up into smaller groups which were distributed into 10 different places across the Danish countryside. The innovation process took place in famous Danish Folk-High schools – places of adult education with emphasis on common activities and conviviality.
The goal of this part of the UNLEASH lab was to create real, scalable solutions to the Sustainable Development Goals. The innovation process was guided by activity cards, progress and gate checks, which precisely determined which steps had to be followed in order to create an idea that was implementable, innovative, and marketable. Facilitators guided the process and came mostly from consulting companies, but also from other organizations like the UN. Whereas there was agreement among the facilitators that CSR has basically failed (unable to create real change), the new way of how to work with private companies to create change for sustainability that goes beyond CSR remained somehow unclear.
From a leverage point’s perspective, one could observe that most of the solutions that the teams developed could have been more radical and more systemic in the way problems were framed and addressed. One critical criteria for solutions that would move through the UNLEASH process was the economic viability and competitiveness of the idea. This, we feel, somehow constrained the great potential of bringing so many young people together to think about how to create change. The solutions developed could potentially have gone beyond technological problem-fixing ideas and towards addressing the root causes of unsustainability, if economic viability hadn’t been a constraining factor. But here one probably simply has to acknowledge that there is still a gap between deep systemic sustainability change as increasingly discussed by academics and actual ideas taken up by investors to create projects that are economically viable.
Whereas, the Royal Highness Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, who was one of the of patrons of the UNLEASH lab 2017, stressed (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxPb9o1mFoM) the “global spirit and insight of collaboration” and the fundamental need to “work together in radical new ways and collaborate on our common goals across all sectors, societies, countries, and regions, based on the recognition that only together we can achieve meaningful change for good”; this was, eventually, less strongly emphasized till the end of the innovation process when the question always was: “Why would CEOs want to invest in your idea?”
One conversation that has been shared on a social media channel between ‘talents’ pitching their idea and a judge reflects this dilemma quite well:
Judge: “Who are your competitors because your solution is easily replicable?”
‘Talents’: “We don’t care if the model is replicable; we want to solve the problem so it’s a good thing if others take it up.”
Participating in the UNLEASH lab shed light on some common challenges when discussing sustainability transformation, but also on the incredible passion and determination in young people across the globe for solving challenging sustainability problems. Moving forward, we suggest that innovations like UNLEASH open up their innovation process to allow room for both economically viable solutions as well as for ground-breaking, system challenging solutions. Moving towards systemic, wide-spread sustainability transformation requires space to develop such solutions.