Spire at UNLEASH Global Innovation Lab

Copenhagen, where UNLEASH took place. Photo by Julien Widmer.

Copenhagen, where UNLEASH took place. Photo by Julien Widmer.

Lukas Leitinger from Spire Ås took part in the 9-day UNLEASH innovation lab in Denmark attempting to find new ideas for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 1000 talents from 129 countries listened to speakers in Copenhagen, and  set out to schools around the country to form groups and work out ideas. There were also social activities, and in the end the talents traveled to Århus to pitch the ideas to various judges and investors.

Lukas på Unleash

Lukas at a reception in the City Hall

Lukas tells about his experience:

Pitching ideas to ‘investors’ did certainly ring a bell for me, not a category of people I typically associate with solving the world’s problems. This brings me to the funding and intention of the organizers. While the program was marketed heavily to ‘solve’ the SDGs, the main funding was coming from corporations many of which with a questionable sustainability record. Especially the main sponsor, a huge ‘fast fashion’ corporation, seemed to have a strong interest in attracting creative youth for recruitment or ‘greening’ their business practices. Having employees of the corporate sponsors join the groups and gather ideas for the company diverted the intention away from the SDGs.

With the funding of the event clarified, the ideas and solutions had to fit a very specific niche of solutions. They either had to help a large industry become more efficient or create a new venture to ‘disrupt’ old business models. The words we heard over and over were ‘impact’, ‘scalable’ and ‘investors’, leading heavily towards technical solutions to structural problems. Any problems that couldn’t be fixed by a new social enterprise were quickly off the table as not suitable for this event. While this concern was raised repeatedly and caused discontent among some participants, that might be the only strategy feasible for an event of such kind. In this sense, it felt more like an entrepreneurship event with sustainability side effects.

In my opinion, not all problems framed by the SDGs can be solved by scalable and quick solutions.

While we did listen to some very inspiring speakers with successful organizations, such as Trisha Shetty from SheSays and Salman Khan from Khan Academy, many spoke about a very similar technocratic/innovation story. My personal low point amongst speakers was a very famous actor and investor who (as the probably richest person in the room) told us how Airbnb and Uber reduce inequality, a highly implausible story.

I hope the next years of UNLEASH will focus more on inspirational stories and speakers, not celebrities.

Last but not least I want to talk about our group and idea. After forming a group with seven very different backgrounds, we looked into the problem of automation and industry taking over traditional livelihoods and heritage. We zoomed in on the Indian Handloom weaving sector, that is threatened by the automated Powerloom sold as counterfeit. After working hard to formulate our problem statement and almost giving up, we had a bit of a motivational breakthrough and ended up having a great time working together. Our final idea was to have a QR-Code woven into the fabric and thereby connecting the customer directly to the individual weaver. By doing that, it proves the authenticity of the product better than the existing labels and enables direct payments to support livelihoods and traditions. While we didn’t win the competition, we had interesting and fruitful discussions we all learned a lot from.

Summing up, I’m glad to have met so many wonderful people and I think that was one of the key points of the whole event. Maybe our idea was not the world-changing idea we thought it was at the peak of our excitement, but we formed close connections and plan to stay in touch and maybe work on our problem statement or different ones in the future.

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