Unleashing Youthful Potential

The annual UNLEASH innovation lab convenes 1,000 millennial thought leaders to tackle the world’s most intractable problems — including the climate crisis

October 30, 2019

10:42 am

When Burundi disintegrated into violence in 2009, Daniel Christian Emerimana fled his native country and ended up in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Despite the trauma of the upheaval, the then-20 year old managed to take online classes known as MOOCs (massive open online course) at a U.S. college. Not only did he graduate from Colorado’s Regis University by MOOC, but now, he’s designing MOOCs for other refugees.

Molly Bonnell overcame similar challenges to embrace social good. The New York fashion designer was born with cystic fibrosis. Now she’s designing hospital gowns with “dignity” for patients who spend an inordinate amount of time in treatment facilities.

And then there is Iraq’s Hama Osman, who like so many of his countrymen has seen horrific, unspeakable acts of inhumanity throughout his life, not the least of which was the trend of young children putting down their schoolbooks to pick up machine guns. He is now dedicating himself to making sure children in Iraq are able to have educational options.

What these three outstanding individuals from three different parts of the world have in common is that each was a fellow in the inaugural UNLEASH Innovation Lab in Denmark in 2017.

UNLEASH is an annual convening of 1,000 millennial thought leaders — like Daniel, Molly, and Hama — who come from more than 150 countries and who gather in a different host country every year to compete with their ideas for solutions to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

As Earth’s Call readers well know, we have just 10 years left to solve the SDGs and achieve the UN’s 2030 Agenda, or risk the unfathomable dangers of irreversible climate change. Nonprofit solution incubators like UNLEASH — and others, including the Hult Prize, Enactus, and AIM2Flourish, to name a few — are critical to spurring youth innovation. Today’s youth are, after all, the ones who will be facing the consequences of our climate-battling efforts.

Now in its third year (the third edition of UNLEASH will take place in Shenzhen, China, next week, beginning on Nov. 6), UNLEASH has already produced nearly 400 SDG solutions. And this year, for the first time, UNLEASH will bring back some of the previous years’ winning ideas and further develop them, in a new track called UNLEASH+. Among the solutions competing for the first-ever UNLEASH+ title are:

* SaniHive: This modular toilet system for use in urban slums in South Africa was inspired by the spatially optimized structure present in beehives. The integrated Sani-Hive system allows for resource recovery (urine for fertilizers and feces for composting), while the money from these resources can provide jobs for community members.

* Champions for Inclusive Green Growth: This program empowers rural women and youth from low-income families to feed themselves by establishing their own gardens, as well as to sell surplus to established businesses in Kenya and Zimbabwe. The program offers free training and support, as well as solar drying and packaging.

* MicroTERRA: This solution develops decentralized water-treatment systems in Mexico that recycle fertilizer onsite by collecting the runoff from farms into a bioreactor, where microalgae is cultivated, and feeds on the fertilizer present in the water. After the microalgae grow, they are harvested and processed, producing new fertilizer. So the system cleans the water while creating a new product.

All of the innovating and ideating at UNLEASH this year will be taking place in Shenzhen, which is a city that China this year announced would be one of three designated as an SDG innovation-demonstration zone, specifically focused on developing SDG solutions. That status has made "China's Silicon Valley," a futuristic, chaotic city with eye-popping innovations, that has grown in population from 30,000 in the 1970s to a metro area of 18 million today.

And eye-popping innovations are exactly what is needed to help achieve the stretch goals of the SDGs. For that reason, it is even more essential to rely on the disruptive solutions of youth like Daniel, Molly, and Hama, who have overcome so much and who have shown so little fear in the face of tremendous obstacles.

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