Be an Earth Champion

The UNLEASH 2019 Innovation Lab brought together change-makers from all over the world to create solutions for the planet's biggest challenges

November 15, 2019

11:10 am

SHENZHEN, CHINA — Approximately 90,000 babies die each year in Nigeria due to neonatal asphyxia. A team, led by a Nigerian medical doctor, ideated a low-tech, ultra-low cost CPAP machine to help the most at-risk communities.

That project, which will help advance UN SDG3 (Good Health), was just one of the some 200 ideas generated and iterated over the last two weeks at UNLEASH 2019 in Shenzhen, China.

Other ideas included:

  • a sanitation system for urban slums in South Africa that is modeled after beehive colonies and that creates economic opportunities for locals. (SDG6, Clean Water and Sanitation)
  • a methodology that uses carbon credits and cash payments to incentivize farmers in Delhi, India, to change behavior that see them burning excess crops. The smoke from those fires is the cause of 60% of pollution in that area, pollution that causes 30,000 deaths a year. (SDG7, Clean and Affordable Energy)
  • a way to fight coastal erosion in Colombia using bricks made of algae on cliffs to stabilize plant roots. (SDG13, Climate Action)

Reaching the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 — just 10 years from now — won’t be easy. But as we know from the UN’s IPCC report of October last year, if we don’t meet those goals in the prescribed amount of time, we face disastrous, irreversible consequences. So, for the third year in a row, UNLEASH has convened 1,000 millennial thought leaders from around the world — this time from 162 countries — to move the needle forward.

The competition, which takes place in a different host country every year (previously:Denmark in 2017 and Singapore last year), specifically recruits and targets individuals who can work on specific SDGs. This year there were eight: in addition to the ones already mentioned — SDG3 (Good Health); SDG6 (Clean Water and Sanitation); SDG7 (Affordable and Clean Energy); and SDG13 (Climate Action) — there were four others: SDG4 (Education); SDG9 (Innovation, Industry, and Infrastructure); SDG11 (Sustainable Cities); SDG12 (Responsible Consumption and Production).

The mission is to have each of the 200-odd teams come up with an idea that targets a granular community in a social enterprise, but that can then be scaled, creating jobs and economic opportunities, as well.

“One message for everyone in this room,” counseled Leymah Gbowee, one of two Nobel Peace Prize laureates in attendance as keynote speakers (the other being Muhammad Yunus). “Do not tiptoe — walk loudly! Let them know you are here.”

The 1,000 UNLEASH talents hardly needed that specific counsel, as they were raucous from the beginning to the end. Gathered at the eye-popping Shenzhen Concert Hall in the downtown Futian district, the talents were seated by SDGs, and throughout the evening broke into an SDG-specific cheer of their own creation. “What do we want? Climate Action! When do we want it? Now!” was the call-and-response cheer of the SDG13 group.

Nobel laureates Muhammad Yunus and Leymah Gbowee at the UNLEASH 2019 closing ceremonies

Noting the cheering, Yunus noted that, “With modern technology and the SDGs to cheer for, you are the most powerful generation of young people EVER.” Both Yunus and Gbowee strongly urged the talents to forge their own path and to take action for the sake of the planet.

But ideas didn’t have to “win” to succeed. A team from Mexico that found a way to use micro-algae to turn fish poop into fish food — for fish farmers in inland Mexico, saving them huge amounts of money and the community massive gallons of fresh water — did not win their group, but will press on with their idea. And that is something UNLEASH encourages.

The evening — and the week — came to a close with a performance from a talent named Joseph Pupe, from Zambia, who came onstage with a guitar and a song he had written specifically for the evening, "You Have the Power," urging everyone to “Be a champion” for the planet. The anthemic moment punctuated a week-plus of inventive solutions, any one of which could kickstart a scalable effort to heal the planet.

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