COPENHAGEN, Denmark - In August, 1000 millennial leaders from around the globe convened in Denmark to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing our world.  Global poverty, lack of safe water, unsustainable energy consumption, high rates of disease – all were in the spotlight at the inaugural UNLEASH Innovation Lab hosted by the United Nations (UN) and a wide range of partner corporations like Deloitte, Bestseller, and Grundfos.  The event was designed to foster and grow innovative solutions to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global development agenda until 2030.  I was among the inaugural class of selected “SDG talents,” bringing to the water track my experience with Initiative: Eau, WASHMobile, and our innovative research projects.  Serving as the only talent with ties to Burkina Faso, I was happy to bring our commitment to the communities with which we work onto the international stage. 

UNLEASH was ambitious from the outset, concentrating individuals from all areas of the globe, in all stages of career, and from a wide spectrum of beliefs and backgrounds. It delivered on its promise to harness the power of aggregation, allowing for cross-pollination of ideas. UNLEASH was itself not only an in-person innovation summit, but also an infrastructure for innovation support to enable long-term project success and growth.

During this unique assemblage of global knowledge and experience, talents were grouped within each of the six themes around specific problem framings, allowing for multi-faceted solution ideation for these complex global challenges.  I was a member of the data-focused water team.  Others on my team included Felix Knipschild of WASH Note, Andrea Cominola of Politecnico di Milano, and Kevin Fries of the University of Michigan; each featuring a strong background in data sciences and the water sector.  Together, we identified a lack of communication channels and insufficient incentivization to share water data as significant obstacles to enabling efficient provision of drinking water in cities.  In light of this, we developed a proposal for the Open Water Data Index (OWDI), a benchmarking and monitoring tool to promote stakeholders to use data collaboratively to end unnecessary resource waste. OWDI is intended for local governments as it enables them to prioritize improvements in the quality, accessibility, and impact of collected data. 

Culminating with presentations by the Crown Princess and Prime Minster of Denmark, the UNLEASH experience demonstrated two key takeaways that are relevant for Initiative: Eau.  First, it highlighted the sustained importance of data and data-informed decision making in the water sector.  Within the sector, it remains not just a problem of collecting reliable and up-to-date information, but also of incorporating this information into legislative and developmental decision-making.  Data is a veritable tool that can prevent inefficient use of available funding and can enable streamlined water provision in cities, globally; however, data for the sake of data is a waste of valuable resources.  This reaffirms Initiative: Eau’s approach.  We consistently link data collection to demonstrable infrastructure improvement efforts.  As such, we utilize data to achieve increased access to safe water and reduced rates of water-borne disease. 

Second, UNLEASH highlighted the role that for-profit ventures must play if we are to achieve the SDGs by 2030.  Social enterprises have long been touted for their potential to be socially impactful and financially sustainable.  As well, many large corporations have created corporate social responsibility programs in efforts to promote the use of corporate profits to promote community development.  Nonetheless, given the monumental size of the SDGs, it is clear that such support from the private sector still requires amplification.  The enormous support of UNLEASH’s partner corporations, namely in the form of the event’s multimillion dollar budget, makes it clear that advancing business interests and being leaders in social responsibility are not mutually exclusive.  By collaborating with dozens of corporate partners, the non-profit organizing body was able to bring together the diverse talent and resources needed to launch this ambitious decades-long initiative.  This is relevant to Initiative: Eau as it demonstrates the value of collaborations with for-profit entities through the resources and expertise they bring to the table.  At Initiative: Eau, we collaborate with several for-profit companies, like IDEXX Laboratories and 3M, but given the promise of creating stronger corporate relationships, this remains an area of intense activity for us. 

I left UNLEASH inspired by the incredible individuals I met.   I was energized by the vigor and brilliance of this powerful collective dedicated to working for the “bottom billion.”  I left Denmark confident that together we can achieve the SDGs and eradicate extreme poverty within our lifetime.