UNLEASH Innovation Lab, Shenzhen, November 2019

UNLEASH Innovation Lab 2019 was hosted by Shenzhen city in China. From the 5th to the 14th November over 1,000 UNLEASH Talents, from 162 countries, met in Shenzhen to innovate and work collectively on the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The week was both challenging and transformative, as groups spent four days working through the UNLEASH innovation process to develop unique solutions which support the achievement of the SDGs.

The innovation process we followed was designed and developed by Deloitte in collaboration with UNLEASH partners. It encouraged groups to engage with a process-driven step-by-step project development structure, starting with team building which moved onto problem framing, solution development, prototyping and testing. At various stages groups were assessed against the innovation process criteria, known as the gate system, where facilitators would check each group was on track to meet the goals/objectives of the specific stage of the process. A significant part of the UNLEASH learning journey was engagement with this innovation process, alongside working in our diverse and unique teams.

I worked in the Quality Education (SDG4) track, innovating with a team from Japan (me), Cambodia (Chhayyuth), Nigeria (Elizabeth) and South Africa (Malebo). The first barrier we faced was cultural, as we each approached the project from different perspectives and with different ideas in mind. After sometime team building, we started to explore various problems, gradually emerging with our focus area; mental health. Through following the UNLEASH Innovation Lab guidance, we considered the various problems associated with mental health in the four countries we were representing. I shared stories from Japan, where, similar to many other countries around the world, there is a stigma attached to mental health problems. Through some research, we uncovered harrowing statistics, which supported us to focus in on teenage girls in Nigeria. In Nigeria, suicide has been criminalised, and there are significant social and cultural stigmas attached to mental health. There is a lack of support for teenagers experiencing mental health issues, and especially among teenage girls, the rate of suicide is increasing. This is a global issue, but for the sake of our innovation process, we decided to explore a solution to support girls aged 13-16 living in southern Nigeria talk about mental health, in order to develop their self-awareness of mental health issues. 

After framing our problem, we moved onto the solution phase. Here, we brainstormed a range of ideas we thought could offer a potential solution, such as digital storytelling, and in-school mental health awareness clubs, before deciding to proceed with a chatbot plugin idea. Our chatbot plugin would be for social media, specifically Facebook and WhatsApp, as they are most popular among the demographic of teenage girls in southern Nigeria. The main reasoning behind the chatbot plugin, which we named JOY My-Padi, was that we could reach teenage girls where they currently are, rather than having them need to download another application. After passing the problem framing and solution development gates, we moved onto prototyping our product and preparing for our pitch to the rest of the SDG 4 Quality Education group. On day four of the innovation process, we pitched our idea to over 100 fellow talents, facilitators, and judges.

Although our idea was not selected as the winning idea for our overall SDG4 group, I felt privileged to work on something so important with such a diverse and talented group of people. I learned a great deal about mental health challenges facing people all over the world, and fellow talents approached us to share their stories of mental health too. It is clearly a vital issue people need to be talking about, and I was proud to be able to contribute to that dialogue in some way.

After the idea pitching showcase, the following day we attended a marketplace in central Shenzhen, where we could share our ideas with other talents looking at other SDGs as well as citizens and investors. At the marketplace, I learned about other innovative ideas which had emerged throughout the process and the previous four days. It was humbling to see so many people focusing and working hard on creative solutions to complex and challenging problems. Some winning ideas included ‘Bubble Box’ a device developed using a water bottle to help solve the problem of asphyxiation in newborn babies in Nigeria, and the winning idea from SDG4 which looked to develop a heat protection fabric for school uniforms for children learning outside in intense heat in Pakistan.

The city of Shenzhen were wonderful hosts, who opened up various unique sites throughout the city for us to live and work. SDG4, for example, was hosted by the staff and students at Shenzhen Polytechnic University. They took great care of us over the ten days we stayed there, and even in the late hours of the evening, the volunteers were on hand to help us out if we needed it. They were a credit to their university and city.

On the 13th November over 1,000 talents and special guests including the UNLEASH chairman, Flemming Besenbacher, two Nobel Peace Prize laureates,  Muhammad Yunus and Leymah Gbowee, Shenzhen Mayor, Chen Rugui, accompanied by a video from U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterresat, gathered at Shenzhen Concert Hall for the closing ceremony. Here we were treated to some incredible dance performances as well as motivational speeches to conclude our experience. After a long and sometimes very challenging week, it was a real celebration of the journey we had all been on. 

While not every idea launched at UNLEASH Innovation Lab 2019 will go on to impact on the 2030 SDGs, each talent that participated was transformed in some way and I am sure that many of us now have friends and contacts around the world for our future endeavours. I will certainly take my experiences and learning back to my Rotary Peace Fellowship friends, and continue to work with my group on the future of JOY My-Padi. I look forward to hearing more about the other ideas and how they will develop in the future too, as we all strive to work towards the achievement of the ambitious 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. 

Thanks #Shenzhen!

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