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1000 participants. 150 facilitators. 9 days. 1 location.
That’s the United Nations UNLEASH, an annual program that started in 2018 (and will continue to 2030), where 1000 young leaders from various fields (and from over 160 countries) come together to generate new, game-changing solutions that address specific Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets.
EWB Australia’s Technology Development Lead, Andy Drain, attended as a facilitator of UNLEASH in Shenzhen China in November 2019 with a focus on SDG9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure. Here, Andy shares his experience.

(Pictured: Dr Andy Drain next to the project planning board at UNLEASH 2019, where all 22 teams in the SDG9 group planned their projects and project review meetings). 

In 2018, I attended UNLEASH as a participant, working on solutions to reduce road fatalities in rural Myanmar as part of SDG3: Good Health and Well-being (read more about my experience as a participant). This year, I found myself working as a facilitator of SDG9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, and facilitating the Sustainable Infrastructure sub-theme, with a focus on community participation. To guide collaboration, UNLEASH has developed a useful innovation process which involves Problem Framing, Ideation, Prototyping, Testing and Implementation and a toolkit full of useful activities. It was an incredible week of learning, synthesising, designing and communicating with some of the most talented people I have met. Here are some of the highlights and challenges from a rollercoaster week of action!

All participants and facilitators for SDG9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure


  1. Supporting a team to create a new platform for crowd-sourcing environmental data in the Pacific Islands as a way of increasing available information for private investment firms and in turn increasing private investment into renewable energy infrastructure in the pacific. This team was made up of an engineer, property investor, a sustainability consultant, a development practitioner and a UN staff member. What a team to work with and learn from!
  2. Supporting a team to create a new community advocacy tool for use in large roading projects in Uganda (as part of the Ugandan Government’s Vision 2040 Strategy). Currently, large roading projects prioritize improving travel time between major locations at the expense of peri-urban and rural communities. This team developed a tool that combined GIS data, construction plans and community inputs of locally valuable locations to provide communities with clear information for advocacy ad decision making and developers with a streamlined environmental and social impact assessment (required for all roading projects)
  3. Hearing inspiring speeches from Nobel Peace Prize Laurates Professor Muhamed Younis and Ms Leymar Gbowee. Professor Younis spoke about the humble beginnings of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and how Grameen has expanded into the USA to support communities which banks traditionally do not lend to. His advice to the crowd was to think creatively, challenge the status quo and utilize the power the young generation has been given through information and communication technology.

A team of participants working hard to identify the root causes of 3-hour commutes for business process outsourcing staff in Manilla, Philippines


  1. Late nights, a lack of access to the wider internet in China and supporting five teams with very different projects and contexts (Fiji, Uganda, Afghanistan, Nepal and the Philippines). This required a lot of leveraging of my EWB network, other UNLEASH participants and of course coffee!
  2. The next steps for each of these projects will be vital if they are to have real impact. As the excitement of UNLEASH fades, teams will need to reassess their projects, challenge assumptions and begin working on detailed designs, prototypes and real-world testing. This will be a huge challenge, but one that I hope EWB can play a part in

1300 people watching the final presentations of the top 16 teams at UNLEASH, selected from almost 200 teams across the program

My experience at UNLEASH has taught me the importance of meaningful root cause analysis and building strong multi-disciplinary teams. It has also reaffirmed that EWB Australia has a large role to play in meeting the SDGs. Creativity is great, but feasibility, delivery and long-term support are vital for real, positive impact.