by Rebecca Lucas and Emmy Moore
To create a world that can feed 9 billion people by 2030 while providing clean water access, ensuring equal access to education across gender, and supporting renewable and safe energy, do we need to establish new and profitable business models? Or do we simply need to adjust business as usual?
A giant social experiment took place in August. One thousand people from 129 countries. Ten days. Nine Danish folk high schools. All to formulate solutions to address the United Nation’s seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that had been condensed to seven major themes: food, energy, water, sustainable production and consumption, education and information and communications technology (ICT), urban sustainability, and health. After a week, 199 pitches of innovative solutions had been created by groups of people who had only just met at the start of the experiment.
UNLEASH is a global innovation lab, created with the intention of bringing together “talents,” aged 20-35, from all over the world to innovate on the UN’s SDGs and develop new businesses, new ideas, and new ways to achieve these objectives. The long term goal is to continue this program every year until 2030, banking on the probability that at least a few new and creative solutions will successfully emerge. Six individuals from the Friedman School were selected to be part of this inaugural year; while at times it was clear we were guinea pigs with similar frustrations, we were also immersed in an entirely unique and novel experience.
The setting is Denmark: known for clean design, universal health care, paid parental leave, and above all, a high per capita income. This makes for an interesting contrast when working on problems that are facing the world as a whole, yet many that disproportionately impact developing countries.
The first few days all 1,000 of us gathered in dichotomous venues; post-industrial sites, like locomotive storage, and prospects of the future, like Copenhagen City Hall. We were showered with inspirational words from a variety of sectors within Denmark, meant to invigorate us with direction of technology and what is possible today that was not ten years ago. But many of us were left wondering what these futuristic notions had to do with the issues we were at UNLEASH to tackle today.
After two days of corralling 1,000 millennials around Copenhagen, we were divided into our SDG themes and shipped to folk high schools. The Danish Folk High School feels like an adult summer camp but is so much more: individuals who want to learn anything left out of standard school settings, including banjo playing or poetry, can attend throughout their life for different lengths of time. Ry Folkskole, where half of the food-theme group resided, was on a lake and focused on music, theatre, and canoeing. It had a principal who told us the mission was to remind its students that there is more to life than business—there is life. An interesting juxtaposition when we were there with the objective of intensively creating business proposals.
After a morning assembly of singing and three rounds of problem framing on the first day at the high schools, we were divided into our teams that would ultimately produce the final pitch, loosely based on 20 “insights” that had been distilled from each participant’s application.
This was where the social experiment almost felt absurd at times: thrown together with people we had just met, we were meant to come up with a business plan on a clearly defined, singular problem with an explainable and innovative solution in less than four days. This process of problem framing with elegant solutions did not fit neatly with the SDGs and broader issues many of us initially gathered at UNLEASH to grapple with.
Sustainable Development Goal number two: end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. It is a grand goal and for many reasons it can seem unachievable. Yet here we were, meant to come up with some thing, some product, some idea that was pitch-able to investors. So, the question kept surfacing: is what we need to achieve zero hunger something that is pitch-able? Is what we need to feed nine billion people by 2030 something that can make a profit? Is focusing on the creation of new apps what will address inequity of food access currently? Is the future of sustainability as discussed in this context applicable to the rest of the world?
Perhaps what is needed to address global hunger and improve food security is a paradigm shift, a major change in the way we view development and how development actually lands on the ground, plants its roots, and continues to grow. This isn’t innovative and yet it may just be something that could work if pursued on this type of platform, with these 1,000 people involved who are excited and ready.
The only problem is; this isn’t necessarily a business proposition. We couldn’t exactly prototype a development model with Legos and pitch it to investors and experts present on our panel of judges. Is UNLEASH’s answer to the SDGs the creation of more start-ups? Or is the answer just doing what we do now, but doing it better? Can it be both? Maybe we can innovate by renovating our existing business models to incorporate the objectives and indicators of the SDGs while also creating new business.
The goal of UNLEASH was not to achieve a paradigm shift in ten days. It aimed to build connections and support future projects and collaboration. The event introduced people from 129 countries to each other and reminded us that we have a shared desire. To gather 1,000 people together who want to make this world a little bit better has much larger implications and reverberations than any business pitch could generate. The paradigm shift is coming.
You can read more about some of the solutions that won prizes here.
Emmy Moore is a second year MS candidate in the Agriculture, Food, & Environment program. Her academic interests include agriculture policy, water resource management, and systems modeling. She likes playing with her cat Pin and road trips. Before joining Friedman she ran a business in California making pickles and jams.
Rebecca Lucas is a second year Agriculture Food & Environment/Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning dual degree student and changes her mind monthly as to her primary focus while in graduate school. Right now it’s all about community engagement and farm to institution work. Hailing originally from the central coast of California, she is still trying to understand how life still functions when it snows and the difference between a “winter” coat and just a coat.