What to do when you’re innovating with 1,200 people from 160 countries

Five lessons from working with 1,200 people to progress the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

Abram El-Sabagh
4 min readDec 2, 2019

It was my first time at UNLEASH as a facilitator. I was excited and nervous for the week ahead. I wasn’t sure what to expect, let alone what to wear.

A bit about UNLEASH

UNLEASH a global innovation lab, which gathers 1,000 talents annually to collaborate on solutions to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In 2019, UNLEASH was held in Shenzhen, China from November 6–13.

The 1,000 talents are split into teams of 3–5 people from around the world and asked to tackle one of the SDGs.

The lessons I learnt

Here are five lessons I learnt during my time facilitating an intense and rewarding week!

1. Agree on your values and goals

The teams that worked well together were the ones that allowed each person to express how they wanted to work, what expectations they had, what they wanted to achieve, and what they were willing to do for the team. This didn’t mean that team members didn’t disagree, but it meant they could quickly resolve any issues because they had articulated their shared values and expectations. Team members could also hold each other accountable because they had already set up the foundation of how they will work together.

Take a break and breathe

2. Take a break and breaaaaathe…

The week-long innovation lab was very intense and challenging. Often teams would work from 8am-10pm, with small breaks in between. As each team progressed through the innovation process, they presented their progress and were either asked to review their work or progress to the next stage. Each team was also challenged by their diversity of cultural backgrounds, experiences and expertise. This meant that teams needed to take the time out to relax, exercise, sleep well, and eat well. Teams that kept an eye on their health and well-being and took care of themselves were more resilient in the face of challenges.

Celebrate your wins

3. Celebrate your wins

The diversity of teams showed. To celebrate a win, some teams went out for drinks, others took time off, and other teams decided on a team activity to experience together. What mattered wasn’t what each team did to celebrate, but that they celebrated.

Enjoy your journey

4. Enjoy your journey

Because of the pressure involved in being in the presence of 1,000 others from more than 160 countries in such a prestigious event, it means that people are more likely to get serious and work hard. Although this is important, UNLEASH was also an opportunity for people to have experiences they have never had before — like being in a different country, taking time off work to collaborate with others from around the world, and meeting new people from across the globe. This meant that it was really important to view this opportunity as a journey, and not only focus on the goal of creating a new idea to shift the needle on an SDG.

5. More than anything, be yourself and share your story

More than anything, it was important to be yourself and share your story. Because of the diversity of cultures, backgrounds and experiences, it was really important for each person to be themselves and share their story. This meant that during the week, our eyes were opened to things that we had never come across. For example, I was introduced to the Cochabamba Water War in Bolivia, and it opened my eyes to the importance of water to our communities.

Illustrations courtesy of https://undraw.co/



Abram El-Sabagh

Human-centred designer. ThinkPlace. Designing for positive outcomes.