November 9, 2017

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Participants from SIPA display school pride at Denmark conference
Participants from SIPA display school pride at Denmark conference

Six SIPA students took part in the inaugural UNLEASH Conference 2017 held in Denmark earlier this year. The nine-day innovation lab, which kicked off in Copenhagen, aimed to create real and scalable solutions to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the United Nations.

An international nonprofit organization that sought to bring worldwide contributors together in support of the SDGs, UNLEASH joined with multiple co-sponsoring organizations to gather 1,000 young students, academics, entrepreneurs, and technical experts from across the world to collaborate on the issue of SDGs.

The event drew diverse participants from 129 countries. Representing SIPA were Elizabeth Font MPA-DP ’18, Camila Jordan MPA-DP ’18, Jeff Lepley MPA ’18, Ronak Maheshwari MIA ’18, Jorge Salem MPA-DP ’18, and Stephanie Ullrich MPA-DP ’18; each student was chosen through a competitive application process or nominated by a Columbia University-affiliated organization.

Ullrich described the event as “a hackathon for sustainable goals.”

Participants were broadly divided into seven thematic groups devoted to energy, water, food, urban sustainability, health, sustainable consumption and production, and ICT [information and communications technology] and education. Ullrich and Lepley, for example, took part in a lab that focused on consumer behavior within the energy sector.

While the heart of the conference was a five-day “innovation lab,” participants also experienced local culture. They were divided into subgroups based on area of interest and sent to different parts of the country for several days.

Ullrich talked about the experience of staying at one of the country’s folk high schools, where meals included locally grown organic food.

Danes “are very community oriented,” she said. “The Folk High School philosophy is about developing your mind, your heart and your body. In the morning we would do singing, and they would give us short talks on a variety of topics to stimulate our creative minds.”

Over the course of five intensive days, the teams defined the problems they sought to address, brainstormed creative solutions, created prototypes of their enterprises, and finally tested their ideas.

Technical and facilitator mentors guided the students through every stage, encouraging them to think around stakeholder analysis and customer analysis when finally pitching their solutions. The audience for the pitches included peers, a technical panel of experts, and representatives from governmental bodies like the San Francisco Mayor’s office and the Danish parliament.

Students also got to present their solutions in a marketplace which engaged with both Denmark’s local community and industry professionals.

Ullrich said the “challenging and very creative process” was equal parts “fun and hard work.”

Jordan said she most appreciated the “rich and universal” exchange of ideas. Given that cities are becoming more and more global and diverse, she said, the global perspective of UNLEASH was very valuable.

“The diversity is an asset,” she said. “The end result is much more resilient [versus], say, a one-sided perspective.”

UNLEASH organizers said they plan to create community platforms and networks so alumni of the project can continue working with each other and pursue mentorship and funding opportunities. The nonprofit hopes to host the conference annually.

Ullrich said she and Lepley continue to work on their idea.

“We built a mock-up marketplace—like an Airbnb for clean energy,” she said, “whereby we can go to this website and choose between a variety of people producing clean energy like a wind energy producer in upstate New York or a hydro farmer in Iowa. The platform allows you to view the producer’s profile, read about their personal stories and look at what price they offer so consumers can shop and compare.”

Ullrich told SIPA News that she looks forward to using the lessons of UNLEASH in the Dean’s Public Policy Challenge and Creating a Social Enterprise class taught by Sarah Holloway.

— Neha Sharma MPA ’18