Innovation requires that we look at the world as it is and ask: Why? Why are things this way? How else could they be? What would it take to change the things that aren’t serving us?
In June of 2018, 1000 young social innovators (“Talents”) from over 110 countries convened in Singapore for the second annual Unleash SDG Innovation Lab to tackle real-world problems by looking beyond the world of the obvious. We asked “why?” over and over again, seeking to transform insights about development problems into innovative ideas to spark tangible change.
The results were inspiring, and vast: with the guidance of facilitators from UNDP, Deloitte, Dalberg Global Development Advisers, the Carlsberg Foundation and others, Unleash Talents like myself designed and tested solutions to address social problems like refugee civic exclusion, lack of accessibility for people with disabilities on public transportation, and LGBTQIA+ human rights violations. Some of the solutions teams designed have since unfolded into real products and projects — from digital infrastructure to break cycles of hepatitis B transmission in the Philippines to designs to expand social space in the Kakuma Refugee camp of Kenya to toilets that turn waste into economic opportunity in South African slums. But beyond the innovations that emerged through this global lab, it is the relationships and networks the experience kindled that have continued to grow.
As part of SDG11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) at Unleash Singapore in 2018, I worked with a small, diverse team of peers from Germany, Singapore, Lebanon, and South Korea (based in countries ranging from Kenya to Australia), to identify and frame a social problem, then ideate, prototype, test, and set ourselves up to implement our solution. While I had designed many programs and projects in my past work in non-profits and academic settings, it was the structure of the Unleash innovation process itself (which was based on design thinking but included a range of other tools to help us think bigger and dig deeper), combined with the intentional diversity of our team, that made this experience feel different.
“I wanted to deepen my experience of innovation within the development sector, so in November I joined the innovation team as an intern at UNDP in the Arab States. Being a part of the regional innovation team has been an incredible experience — allowing me to deepen and expand my knowledge of design thinking beyond Unleash, and to see firsthand how UNDP innovation champions across the region are already pushing development towards new horizons.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the UNDP innovation champions I have grown to admire are fellow Unleashers themselves. Ali Muntasir (a 2018 Talent) is using behavioural insights to prevent violent extremism in Sudan, Dhafer Hasan (a 2017 Talent and 2018 Facilitator) is leading Innovation for development (#inno4dev) initiatives with youth in Iraq. Lisette Albrechtsen (2017 Talent) is finding new ways to embed a gender lens into initiatives in Jordan, and Zahra Saleh (2018 Talent) is designing digital content to share UNDP’s innovation projects across the region. Jennifer Colville, the regional innovation team lead (2017 Mentor and 2018 Facilitator), and the entire regional network of innovation champions are standing up for the importance of innovation as a lens for all UNDP’s development work.
Regardless of their projects, three things unite these UNDP innovation champions. First, a commitment to looking deeper, and beyond the status quo. They are always asking “why?” and “why else?” Second, they share a belief that even if we haven’t found them yet, solutions exist. To find them, we need to start from the assumption that those most connected to the problem will be at the heart of the solution. Third, real change is possible. But we can’t wait for it to come — we must start from a place of possibility and openness, and to embrace an iterative, reflexive process of testing, learning, and adapting. These are the lenses we exercised at Unleash, and which we continue to embody through our work at UNDP.
A phrase that one of our Danish facilitators, Karim Pederson, used during Unleash has stuck with me: we humans are nothing more or less than “divine experiments of dust and spirit”.
If we are the product of the universe’s innovation, why shouldn’t we be able to use our own “dust and spirit” to change the things in our world that aren’t serving us? The innovation champions I have had the honor to meet through Unleash and UNDP show me that if we choose connection over fear, ask questions instead of choosing isolation, and are open to the possibility of change, especially in ourselves, we can.