The University Network

Students Gather At UNLEASH To ‘Create Real, Scalable Solutions’ To SDGs

What do the prime minister and the crown princess of Denmark, Ashton Kutcher and Sophia, the most advanced and celebrated robot in the world, have in common? 

At each of the two annual UNLEASH Labs, these influential, inspiring individuals set the stage for the real limelight of the event — a group of 1,000 different talents, primarily aged 20-35, coming from all over the world with one goal in mind: making our world a better place by 2030. 

“When all UN member states agreed to the SDGs in 2015, I thought it was time to gather the minds of talented young people from all over the world in a movement with the mission to create a more sustainable future by developing innovative solutions to the SDGs,” said Flemming Besenbacher, the chairman of UNLEASH.  

As a global innovation lab and a talent program fully dedicated to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals aimed to be achieved by 2030, UNLEASH will be holding its third annual lab in Shenzhen, China, from November 6 to 13. 

The new catch

The concept of gathering the global community to brainstorm and showcase ideas is not new.  The very first world expo was held way back in 1851 in the Crystal Palace, London, where inventors from all over the world came to share their latest innovation with global peers. 

Almost two centuries later, we’ve seen a flood of global talent programs, ranging from TED talks, international conferences in every possible field, to case challenges supported by leading corporations. 

By now, the concept of global collaboration may even sound ordinary, a default condition for innovation. So, the bigger catch may be for what problem we are gathered to solve. 

Compared to other talent programs and international conferences, UNLEASH is unique in that it is the world’s largest talent program fully dedicated to solving the SDGs, which not just kindles a passive congruent reaction, but galvanizes passion among most of today’s young people. 

The globally aware generation

Yes, today’s young people, who are the primary target of UNLEASH, care about the greater world in which they live, often more than their older generations.   

According to a report by the World Bank, millennials picked climate change or destruction of nature, large scale conflicts or wars, and inequality as the most serious issues in this world. 

Also, according to Nielson’s 2015 Global Corporate Sustainability Report, gobally, not only were millennials 13 percent more willing than the general population to spend more on a product that comes from a sustainable brand, but also 81 percent of them reported they even expected their favorite companies to make public declarations of their role as a corporate citizen to do business ethically. 

Compared to their parents’ generation, younger people have an easier time acknowledging and agreeing that individuals are not entirely defined by or limited to a single nationality, but are all connected as global citizens. 

According to the Pew Research Center, while half of those aged 50 and older said being born in one’s country was very important to national identity, only 23 percent of those aged 18 to 34 said the same thing. 

“Young, talented people often possess curiosity and a unique ability to think outside the box. They can rethink in ways that people entangled in organizational structures and systems cannot,” said Besenbacher. 

“Their ability to rethink is urgently required in a world where everything is constantly changing and where we face so many major global challenges; climate change, water scarcity, obesity, etc.”


Through a very thorough vetting process, UNLEASH garners talents who are innovative, willing to work with peers and experts, passionate about solving the SDGs, and can show professional background in any of the four different roles: entrepreneurs; intraprenuers, meaning a role that improves or changes entities through R&D, business development or organizational changes; academia; and technical experts, which also includes skills in design and storytelling. 

Stressing its focus on unfolding new ideas, UNLEASH does not accept applicants who already have their own specific idea for a solution to the SDGs and are planning to pursue it further during the lab. Also, UNLEASH does not accept teams, but individuals only. 

For the past two labs held first in Denmark and second in Singapore, many university students have participated in and explored different themes each year. 

With travel and accommodation expenses covered entirely by UNLEASH, students arrive in the host country and attend the opening ceremony, where they not only meet their exceptional peers and soon-to-be teammates, but also listen to and physically meet with global leaders, investors and field experts. 

“We relished then, as we do now, in this unique opportunity to provide our students with a platform to share their expertise in systems thinking, policy, climate and environmental justice, community based planning and participatory processes with like-minded young experts in other fields of study and personal backgrounds,” said Leonel Lima Ponce, the acting academic coordinator of Pratt Institute Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment’s MS in Sustainable Environmental Systems (SES) program, which participated as both facilitators and talents in the past two years and will be participating this year.

Then, in assigned teams to work on solutions within their chosen theme or SDG, students go through the next five or six days of innovation process designed by UNLEASH and Deloitte, a multinational professional services network.

During this process, teams explore the themes, define specific problems and come up with preliminary solutions, and consult and test with experts. Then, they refine their solutions and present them in front of peers and panels of judges and mentors. 

For this year’s lab, the themes are SDG#3 Good Health and Well-Being, SDG#4 Quality Education, SDG#6 Clean Water and Sanitation, SDG#7 Affordable and Clean Energy, SDG#9 Industry and Infrastructure, SDG#11 Sustainable Cities and Communities, SDG#12 Responsible Consumption and Production, and SDG#13 Climate Action. 

Themes for UNLEASH Lab 2019

“At UNLEASH, we ask the talents to spend a lot of time on honing in on the problem they want to solve in order to make sure that they are actually aware of all implications and that they have sufficient knowledge to come up with ideas on how to solve the issues,” said Besenbacher. “By having different perspectives from a diverse group of people, you get more informed and creative solutions.” 

On the last day, at the closing ceremony, among the presented solutions within each theme, the top solutions advance to present their solutions to experts and investors. Then, differing each year in number and type, rewards are given out. 

According to Besenbacher, for the past two years, the talents have continued to surprise each other, field experts and investors with their innovative ideas — from detecting HIV through chewing gum to education through VR to creating new, nutritious products made from fish that would normally just be discarded as by-catch. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

Students participating in UNLEASH 

Joining in UNLEASH’s vision, students from all over the world are forming global networks, garnering real financial investment and broadening their global perspectives. Though participation is not guaranteed, universities are also supporting UNLEASH by nominating candidates.  

Last year, two students from the Erb Institute of the University of Michigan participated in the UNLEASH lab in Singapore. 

Their very first task was to build a duck using a small packet of yellow and red Legos in 45 seconds. Seeing a thousand ducks, each built uniquely and laid on its owner’s palm, the two students quickly realized what they were about to be a part of in the next few days. 

“This exercise epitomized what UNLEASH is all about: convening a diverse group of people from all over the world and drawing on their unique experiences and skills to create robust solutions to challenges,” Ellen Abrams and Greg Phillips, both a dual degree candidate in MBA and MS in Environment and Sustainability candidates at the Erb Institute, said in an article they authored. 

The same year, from the Environmental Change Institute of Oxford University, four students participated in the lab. 

“Being part of UNLEASH 2018 will mark the culmination of my time, energy and efforts researching islands and energy at Oxford University and is a formative chance for me to share my expertise – and I can likewise learn from others wishing to share theirs,” Kiron Neal, one of the four students, said in a statement

At UNLEASH, many talents can learn and meet with investors and business leaders who can help them turn their ideas into reality. 

From the University of Cape Town, two talents — Jessica Fell, a researcher at the Future Water Institute, and Dyllon Randall, a senior lecturer in water quality engineering — participated in the lab in 2018. 

According to the University of Cape Town News, Randall, who applied to UNLEASH with his work on resource recovery from waste waters, said he most looked forward to meeting experts in various fields and think tanks with other young innovators. 

Participating in 2017, Amar Nath Shaw, an alumnus of the Master’s program at the Collaborative and Industrial Design (COID) of Aalto University, Helsinki, said in a COID interview that he “learned that it’s very essential to pitch and present your ideas properly to convince investors/jury, since coming up with an idea is essential, but having a proper business plan to execute it is equally important.” 

And very unique to UNLEASH Labs, talents learn to explore the SDGs in the eyes of the locals of the host country. 

In 2017, six students from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) participated in the lab. 

According to SIPA news, students in their own assigned teams were sent to different parts of Denmark for several days. Stephanie Ullrich, one of the six students, stayed at one of the country’s folk high schools, where the locals prepared meals with locally grown organic food. 

Students also presented their SDG solutions in a marketplace with both the country’s local community and industry professionals. 

Participating in the lab the same year, four students and two staff members from George Washington University (GW) were not only inspired by their peers, but also by how the host country and its locals were building a culture around sustainability. 

Denmark was “the perfect host country,” Ariel Kagan, a senior program associate at GW and one of the six participating talents, said in a statement. Ranking as the fourth most environmentally-friendly country, Denmark is considered a leading nation in sustainability. 

Having participated in both Denmark and Singapore, facilitators and talents from the Pratt Institute can understand and approach SDGs in a truly global and inclusive way. 

“UNLEASH has provided our students with an international opportunity to expand their knowledge base through this type of collaboration, which has expanded their perspective of global problems related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” said Ponce.


For those attending this year’s UNLEASH lab, there will be two new exciting announcements. UNLEASH will be piloting two new tracks, UNLEASH+ and UNLEASH Storyteller

The first track is designed for previous talents and their teams to come back to the lab for five days to further develop and fully prepare to launch their solution with a full business case. Facilitated by Emmy-nominated experts, the second track brings 20 young and passionate storytellers, such as journalists, photographers, and filmmakers, to brainstorm new ideas on how to tell stories of global challenges and the people trying to solve them. 

Going into its third year, UNLEASH is only getting started. The challenges are daunting. But, the world is big and so are UNLEASHers’ skills, creativity and passion. Based on what he’s already seen these talents do, Besenbacher doubts that he will be disappointed anytime soon. 

“The UNLEASHers constantly impress me, and I am thrilled to see how their solutions create real positive change in the world,” said Besenbacher.