July 04, 2018
5 min read

Young talent Unleash-ed on the world’s toughest challenges

A thousand young minds from all over the world gathered in Singapore for Unleash, one of the world’s largest sustainability innovation programmes.


Young people from over 110 countries gathered in Singapore to tackle the world's big sustainable development challenges. Image: Temasek

When she was growing up, Halimah Yacob, the President of Singapore, drew water from an outside tap and washed in a communal bathroom in the village. There was a pecking order for using the bathroom in the morning, she told participants at Unleash in Singapore in June.

“The first to go were the men, because they had to go to work. Then the children, because they had to go to school. Then the women, who did the washing and cleaning. That was my generation, but now in Singapore we have clean water piped into every house.”

Finding simple, affordable solutions to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—a set of targets that seek to create a clean, green and fair world by 2030—was the ultimate aim of this year’s edition of Unleash, an eight-day global innovation jam that brings together more than 1,000 young minds from all over the world annually.

Unleash was a partner programme of the 2018 Ecosperity conference which gathers business leaders and innovators to explore sustainability topics with a business focus.

“Last year, the big driver was high tech. This year, it has been much more about how we serve the community and solve specific community problems with low-tech, easy-to-implement solutions that don’t cost too much,” said Unleash director Henrik Skovby, adding that the expenses of all participants were covered to ensure the programme was accessible to all.

With one tenth of the world’s population living on less than US$1.90 a day, ensuring that sustainable development solutions are inclusive, affordable and accessible is critical to achieving the SDGs, he said.

Diversity unleashed

The key to finding such solutions was embracing diversity, said Skovby, noting that this year’s programme drew people from over 110 countries.

We are blindfolded by the fact that we live in different societies. If we don't interact, we don't realise what the issues are.

Kamal Kassim, Unleash participant from Nigeria

“By bringing in diversity, we bring in resilience. Whatever idea you come up with is being tested from all kinds of angles because you have people from different countries, professional backgrounds, cultures and biographies,” he said. 

Diversity enabled participants to share best practices from their respective countries and understand where solutions are needed most, said Kamal Kassim, an Unleash participant from Nigeria. 

“We are blindfolded by the fact that we live in different societies,” he said. “If we don't interact, we don't realise what the issues are. If you live in a society that has no problems, then you don't have projects; you don't have things to work on.”

Kassim’s team created a hybrid solution to tackle Nigeria’s waste problem. It combined several technologies that can turn waste into usable, high-value by-products and clean fuel. This earned the team the Unleash award for multisector partnerships. 

“We got the idea because I shared what is actually happening in Lagos [Nigeria’s capital city of 20 million people],” he said. “From there we realised that it doesn't just pertain to Lagos, but to many other developing countries.”

Slum in Lagos, Nigeria. Participants at this year's edition of Unleash looked for solutions to solve specific community problems such as waste issues, hygiene, sanitation or social exclusion. Image: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Solutions where they are needed most

Among the most memorable solutions were those that sought to help the world’s poorest and marginalised communities. The Sani Hive, which won the award for global scaleability potential, is one such solution. Seeking to improve access to hygienic sanitation in South Africa’s slums, the Sani Hive uses an integrated urine treatment system to produce fertiliser and compost.

Another idea titled ADYA addressed the lack of physical activity among women in India, which places them at higher risk of getting non-communicable diseases such as diabetes or heart disease. 

“Many girls in India cannot afford to go to the gym, and even if they could, they wouldn't be allowed to exercise in a saree. They also feel uncomfortable working out in front of men,” said a member of the Spice Girlz team, which won the award for gender equality. 

To tackle the issue, they designed a social franchise run by women who are trained to be fitness instructors and take advantage of unused facilities including offices and school spaces on weekends. 

By replacing the gym with unconventional rented spaces, they are able to offer classes at a fraction of the usual costs, and by training female trainers, they empower and enable women to earn extra money.

Bringing an idea to life

Creating solutions at Unleash, however brilliant they may be, does not automatically mean that they’ll be implemented.

“Solutions have to be monetised. There are many great ideas, but if it is not self-sustaining then it’s not sustainable in the first place,” said Maggie Lee, the market transformation manager at World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Singapore. 

“Teams need to keep working on their ideas. Whatever you create in five days, it's very hard to get investment immediately,” said Skovby, explaining that teams that pursue their ideas beyond the Unleash programme can receive ongoing financial backing from the event’s partners.

“There is plenty of capital in the world. Right now, it is just not being directed to the right places—and that’s what we want to change,” he said. 

“Every team idea has a different pathway,” he added. “It's not like a team receives a massive amount of money and then it's done. You need to put it into the right hands, and that's what we try to do.”