Delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires unprecedented innovation and a massive change away from ‘business as usual’. It’s crystal clear that the SDGs will not be universally implemented unless we explore new ways of thinking and create opportunities for innovation. But what is innovation?
UNLEASH Global Innovation Lab 2019
From 6-13 November, I attended the UNLEASH Global Innovation Lab in Shenzen, China, where I had the opportunity to join 1000 people under the age of 35, coming from more than 160 different countries, selected from a pool of 18,000 applicants. We were all there with one common aim: to explore innovative solutions for some of the world’s most pressing problems, including climate action (SDG 13), access to safe water and sanitation (SDG 6), and affordable and clean energy for all (SDG 7).
Clustered across eight different SDGs, we spent six intense days immersed in a facilitated innovation process developed by UNLEASH, resulting in more than 200 solutions. These wide ranging solutions included the development of a low-tech and low-cost machine for tackling neonatal asphyxia in Nigeria, a rewards system for reducing open defecation in India, and coast-shielding eco-terraces adapting Colombian coasts to erosion due to sea level rise.
Solutions developed across different SDGs showed the power of joint action and breaking down of siloes between sectors and disciplines. It was inspiring seeing how many of the innovations developed focused on transforming the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable, something that we passionately work for here at Practical Action.
Innovation starts small
One of the most powerful lessons I’ve been reminded of at UNLEASH is that before thinking of the innovative solution itself, we must take a step back and thoroughly analyse the problem from all possible angles. This is the case regardless of whether we are talking about climate justice, lack of access to electricity or poor sanitation.
Otherwise, we’re at risk of developing approaches or tools that are not fit for purpose and fail to tackle the root causes of the issue we’re trying to solve. Any innovation developed only for the sake of it does little (if anything) in facilitating the systemic change required to achieve the SDGs. Systemic change requires knowing all of the components of the system at hand and how these components interrelate and interact. However, even when we know the system, we cannot simply ‘jump’ to the solution. We first need to know, and listen to, the “problem holder”, as they’re the ultimate users of any innovation we’re developing.
Only when the problem is fully understood and a user identified can we proceed to thinking about the innovation. Going to UNLEASH, it was hard not to be intimidated about what ‘innovation’ actually means? Very often, we tend to think of it as something cutting-edge and previously unseen. But what UNLEASH revealed is that innovation is instead often a question of looking at existing solutions with a fresh pair of eyes and, crucially, in a more integrated manner, tailoring them according to the needs of the end users.
Representing the world in the small, the UNLEASH truly demonstrated that innovation aimed at achieving the SDGs is only meaningful when developed jointly, and with an underlying idea of leaving no one behind, echoing Practical Actions claim that big change starts small.