In August 2017, the inaugural UNLEASH LAB was held in Denmark, bringing talents from all over the world to the country for nine days to create real, scalable solutions for the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include striving for clean water and sanitation globally.
One thousand “SDG Talents” – people primarily between the ages of 20 and 35 – joined the lab from more than 129 countries, representing diverse backgrounds and aspirations. WaterTAP’s own Raad Seraj was selected to bring his ideas and experience to the group. When he returned, we asked him about his experience in representing WaterTAP, Ontario, Canada, and Bangladesh at this massive and energy-filled forum.
In your words, what is UNLEASH? What are the program’s goals?
In its basic form, UNLEASH is an innovation lab. It’s a model for rapid development and prototyping of ideas and frameworks to tackle a given problem or set of challenges.
Unlike other innovation labs, UNLEASH 2017 was unique due to its scale. More than 200 partners, such as UNEP, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Microsoft, Novozymes, and Bestseller, supported the event, fully sponsoring all 1,000 SDG Talents to make their way to Denmark.
At the lab, the sheer diversity of culture and experience was palpable. This was critical in not only understanding global and local problems deeply, but also in creating a level playing platform where people of all economic and social backgrounds could participate.
How were you selected to participate at UNLEASH?
I feel grateful to have been selected to be part of the SDG Talent cadre. Applicants were required to demonstrate knowledge, practice, and entrepreneurial activity in areas that pertained to the seven SDGs, as well submit a unique idea that could be potentially prototyped as a solution.
My work and idea aligned with SDG6 (clean water and sanitation) and SDG12 (responsible consumption and production) because it showcased a) specific water sector knowledge and expertise, b) sustainable fashion advocacy, in particular, knowledge of water, textile manufacturing, and the climate change nexus, and c) inclusivity and community building.
Specifically, my idea proposed using wastewater and carbon emissions streams to cultivate algae or harvesting naturally growing algae from algal blooms as a source of bio-yarn that can be spun and woven into fabrics. Algae-based plastics and industrial foam already exist and this method can not only treat wastewater, especially in water-scarce regions where cotton is grown, it can also provide a carbon-neutral source of fibre production.
What did you do during your time in Denmark as one of the SDG Talents?
When we arrived in Denmark, we spent the first two days in Copenhagen, where we met global industry leaders who provided the context for the SDGs and offered their expertise in tackling these challenges. Then, we joined the SDG streams that the organizers assigned. Based on the idea I submitted, I became part of the SDG12 group.
Each SDG group then visited Danish Folk High Schools. This system is Nordic model of education that is based on non-formal and experiential learning. My school hosted about 100 people in a small coastal community. For the next five days, we worked in smaller groups and spent up to 16 hours a day building and prototyping our ideas.
The innovation process culminated in a two-stage selection process that combined votes from peers and expert judges to select two winning teams for each SDG. All of the delegates met in Aarhus, where we watched some of our colleagues present their ideas during the closing ceremony. Guests at the ceremony included the Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen; Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark; renowned artist Olafur Eliasson; keynote speaker Sal Khan of Khan Academy, and Uber and Airbnb investor Ashton Kutcher.
Now that you’ve returned to Ontario, what were some of your key takeaways from your time at the lab? How will you apply them in your work?
I learned that it is critical to spend a significant amount of energy initially in developing a comprehensive understanding of a challenge, rather than building solutions based on assumptions. Using a problem framework can minimize the challenges with the solution’s adoption, and can maximize its impact.
The UN designed the SDGs to highlight the interconnectedness between challenges – many of which are global-scale problems that we experience locally. Therefore, we must tackle these challenges using global and local talents and resources. Each of the winning teams strongly showcased this commitment.
UNLEASH was composed entirely of changemakers from all over the world who are using technology and social innovation under the SDG framework to coordinate efforts. Western Europe and Africa are key regional leaders paving the way and although North America (and Canada is particular) had some representation, we are lacking in both participation in the global discourse and SDG specific initiatives.
How will the UNLEASH experience inform your work at WaterTAP?
My work at WaterTAP is now informed by insights from this global experience. We’re working to enhance our current programs and build new client-centred programs using the problem vs. solution framework, and we’re aiming to create tools that build upon our organization’s internal capacity. I’m also excited to continue to participate in my new network of experts and changemakers and learn from the global discourse, as well as enhance WaterTAP’s work in water and its key nexus areas.