The Obama White House
11 min readOct 9, 2015

People already have extraordinary solutions in progress to our most complex challenges. Let’s find them and get the job done.

by Megan Smith, U.S. Chief Technology Officer

On September 27th, the world came together and adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (‘SDGs’) — 17 global goals for dignity, prosperity, and justice for all people and the planet. This newly launched framework is the result of years of hard work by the best and brightest from many of our governments, in consultation with civil society organizations, business, and academia. We’ve given ourselves a 15-year deadline to positively transform our communities. And it’s going to take all of us, working side-by-side, to get the job done. So on Day 1, we decided to get started.

The 17 Global Goals for dignity, prosperity, and justice for all people and the planet. Each goal has a robust set of targets and indicators to help measure progress.

Together with a broad-range of collaborators*, we launched the Solutions Summit — a cross-functional, catalytic network that marks the beginning of a grassroots effort to lift-up and progress the work of exceptional innovators: technologists, engineers, scientists, and systems architects, who are already developing solutions that address one or more of the global goals. In August, colleagues at UN-NGLS invited the world to share their solutions via a web-form which posted responses to an open tracker in real-time.

In two short weeks, we received more than 800 submissions from individuals and teams from over 100 countries.

UN-NGLS then facilitated an independent selection committee of 8 industry experts — from Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, North America, Africa, and Asia — combed through the projects and surfaced 14 women and men to best represent the solid pipeline of solutions originating from every corner of the planet.

14 women and men, hailing from 6 continents, came to UN Headquarters on Sunday 27th of September to share their solutions-in-progress.

Meet the Solution-Makers

Whether it was the princess-engineer-founder from Burkina Faso or the visionary entrepreneur who also happens to be a radio host for an audience of 2 million small-holder farmers — their solutions captivated us and pushed us to think harder about how to come together and collectively progress these and other extraordinary efforts already underway.

Below is a round-up of the tremendous work being driven by 14 Solution-Makers — followed by the full Solutions Summit video with each of their 3-minute lightning talks recorded live from UN Headquarters.

Agnes Nakirya | African Prisons Project | Uganda

In Kenya and Uganda 90% of the prison population cannot afford a lawyer, 60% are on remand, and it is not uncommon for a decade to pass without a trial. The African Prisons Project works to reverse these trends by training prisoners in common and criminal law. Some are learning to write their own appeals while others are even representing themselves in court. One graduate of the program stated ‘the way we came in is not how we are now’. With pride in his eyes the graduate says ‘behind prison walls, there are brains, brains that can move mountains.’

The African Prisons Project upgrades the legal knowledge of prisoners & increases empathy across the prison ecosystem.

Tarik Nesh-Nash | Legislation Lab | Morocco

Who could forget the winter of 2010 when citizens around the Arab World took to the streets to demand justice? As the world watched these events unfold, local citizens quickly began creating new participatory tools to push for better democracy. Tarik Nesh-Nash, of Morocco, started an experiment to see how technology could augment the democratic experience. Based on his work in the Arab world he launched Legislation Lab, a cloud-based, global platform for citizen participation in the legislative process. Legislation Lab is a multilingual, user-friendly, customized platform designed to give citizens a voice in the legislative process. From Iraq to Chile, organizations are using this platform for a more inclusive engagement with government.

Within two months,, the Moroccan constitutional crowdsourcing initiative, was visited by more than 200,000 people and received more than 10,000 proposals.

Christian Benimana | African Design Centers | Rwanda

African cities are experiencing unprecedented rates of growth — adding an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people every day — and are in dire need of primary infrastructure capacity. The continent’s urban population will rise from 400 million today to 1.2 billion by 2050. Christian Benimana, of MASS Design, is leading the roll-out of ‘African Design Centers’ — an initiative to revolutionize infrastructure built on the continent through an​ interdisciplinary, field-based program that addresses the current dearth of professional designers, with a focus on human-centered, ecologically and socially sustainable design​. “Imagine,” he says, “African cities as the most resilient cities on earth, created by Africans for Africans.”

African Design Centers focus on integrating local tradespeople into the design and build process — in a movement called Local Fabrication, or LoFab.

Xi Li | Baidu Recycle | China

The hazards and complexities of recycling motherboards and circuits mean much of China’s 3.62 million tons of electronic waste ends up in landfills. The UNDP-Baidu Recycle app helps users at the household level price and recycle their electronic products by connecting them to certified waste recycling and dismantling agencies across all major cities in China. The app seeks to effectively integrate the informal sector into the legitimate e-waste processing industry. When a user takes a photo of their electronic waste, the app gives them the name, category and estimated scrap price for the item. Users in certain cities can arrange a pick-up of their obsolete home appliances by a certified recycling partner of the project.

The Baidu Recycle App is working to change consumer behavior and improve the health outcomes of millions of workers in the informal sector.

Beno Juarez | Floating Fab Lab | Peru

Beno Juarez grew up in the Peruvian Amazon jungle. His family moved to Lima when he was 9. It was the juxtaposition of the freedom of the jungle and the challenges of the city that led Beno to begin exploring inclusive innovation. Beno and his team across South America are in the process of launching the world’s first Floating Fab Lab. The Floating Fab Lab will provide an answer to climate change, production and consumption cycles, and social inclusion, through integrating the latest digital manufacturing technologies with the rich cultural and natural diversity of the Amazon.

The world’s first Floating Fab Lab will serve as a testbed of the intersection between the latest technologies in digital manufacturing and ancient ecosystems and cultures.

Susan Graham | Biocarbon Engineering | United Kingdom

Global forests are under increasing pressure from over-production of lumber, strip-surface mining, and increased land usage for agriculture and urban expansion. Every year 8 million hectares of forest, equivalent to 7 billion trees, disappear around the world. Destruction of these critical ecosystems is occurring at a faster rate than restoration, because traditional planting techniques are too slow, too labor intensive, and too expensive. Susan Graham, a UK based engineer, believes she and her team at BioCarbon Engineering have found a solution that will help to reverse the damage humanity has done to the world’s forests. The team is using emerging technologies to plant one billion trees a year using unmanned quad-copters, remote sensing mapping, and high-velocity, aerial planting systems.

The founder of BioCarbon Engineering, Lauren Fletcher, explains how the team is using emerging technologies to plant one billion trees (~570,000 Hectares) per year.

Princess Abze Djigma | AbzeSolar | Burkina Faso

Mossi Princess Abze Djigma, a mechanical engineer, founded AbzeSolar to provide women and youth with the means to create a better future for themselves — “If you educate a girl you educate all of humanity.” AbzeSolar S.A., based in Burkina Faso, scales the use of sustainable energy solutions in the sub-Saharan region to eradicate poverty through energy and heating products, financing, cooperation, training, and employment. The ‘Initiative MAMA-LIGHT for Sustainable Energy’, launched by Abze empowers communities to organize, manufacture, implement, maintain, and use sustainable solar energy and other renewable energy solutions to create jobs and to grow their local economies.

AbzeSolar provides solar lighting, solar energy and solar water heating solutions across 3,500 female-run cooperatives in Sub-Saharan Africa in collaboration with UNDP.

Lalit Sharma | Freshwater Recharge Wells | India

Groundwater salinity is a widespread problem around the world with adverse consequences on health, soil quality and overall ecosystems. Lalit Sharma, a civil engineer in India, has found a simple and effective way to create freshwater pockets for potable use within saline aquifers. Lalit has worked in villages in India to develop an innovative technique that creates a pocket of freshwater within a saline aquifer. By digging the recharge well deeper and extending height, the well creates hydrostatic pressure and pierces the saline water even in very shallow aquifers — creating a pocket of freshwater. The water is then extracted via a hand pump and run through a Biosand filter to make it safe for use.

The design of the Freshwater Recharge Well is completely open source.

Sanjay Banka | Banka BioLoo | India

There are an estimated 100 million households in India that do not have access to toilets, and 50% of people are forced to defecate in the open, posing health, safety, and environmental hazards. Open defecation also contaminates local water supplies. To address the problem, Banka Bioloo provides ‘on-site’ human waste treatment facilities, using its environmentally-friendly toilets. The toilets use bio-digester technology (patented by the Indian Defence) that ‘eats-away’ waste and produces biogas that can be made into fuel and pathogen-free effluent water.

Nearly 600 million people in India defecate in the open; Banka BioLoo offers an affordable, sustainable alternative to improve health and security.

Bart Weetjens | APOPO HeroRATS | Belgium

APOPO, a Tanzanian-based social enterprise that develops and implements rat-based detection technology, nicknamed “HeroRATs” for humanitarian purposes. APOPO uses a locally available species, the African Giant Rat, because of its favorable temperament, long life span, and the fact that its size makes it easier to safely train for detection tasks. The HeroRATs have already helped make 1 million people safe from the threat of land mines and have screened over 130k people for TB in mega cities across Africa. APOPO has ambitious plans to scale both solutions to impact over 10 million people in the next 15 years.

This video demonstrates how an African Giant Rat is trained to correctly detect tuberculosis.

Annamarie Saarinen | BORN Project | United States

Eight babies die every minute due to lack of detection of serious health conditions, including the top killers for infants: pneumonia, sepsis and asymptomatic congenital heart defects. Annamarie Saarinen, co-founder of the Newborn Foundation, leads a global health initiative leveraging mobile pulse oximetry technology to combat neonatal mortality. This targeted education-and-implementation project offers low-cost, effective screening for the most common, life-threatening conditions in newborns. The project aims to reduce preventable newborn deaths by 25–30% and improve health outcomes by 75% through earlier detection of serious health conditions.

The Newborn Foundation has successfully shifted policy and rolled out universal pulse oximetry screening for newborns across the United States and is running pilot trials across 50 delivery sites in rural China.

Rainer Sternfeld | Planet OS | Estonia

Data is powerful when it leads to climate action and better decisions for a sustainable future. However, most public Earth observation data is difficult to find, access and use. Governments and industries around the world have invested in acquiring data , but those datasets often go unpublished or unused. The Planet OS mission is to provide better access to the world’s public and commercially sold environmental data. By bringing digital data resources to the fingertips of the world’s governments, private enterprises, scientists and citizens, Planet OS wants to develop a planetary nervous system that’s capable of informing and motivating responsible action.

Planet OS indexes the public web for geospatial sensor datasets.

Laura Boykin | Computational Food Security | Australia

The cassava whitefly is responsible for vectoring the plant viruses that have caused two on-going and devastating pandemics, Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD) and Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD). Estimates for resulting production losses in nine East and Central African countries have been put as high as 47% and the areas affected are continuing to expand, resulting in hunger, recurrent famines and annual losses of more than US$1.25 billion. Laura Boykin, a computational biologist in Australia, works to empower smallholder farmers and scientists in sub-Saharan Africa to increase the cassava crop yield by protecting them from the whitefly marauders. Laura uses genomics and high performance computing to study the speciation of whiteflies to ensure the farmers protect themselves from the correct whitefly species, ultimately increasing food security in the region.

Laura works with African scientists throughout East and Central African to anchor the use of high-performance computing for food security and to build on-the-ground capacity.

Nnameka Ikegwuonu | ColdHubs | Nigeria

Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu, a Nigerian farmer, social entrepreneur and radio presenter grew frustrated with mounting losses of small shareholder farmers. Local farmers were losing up to 45% of their crops. His project, called ColdHubs, addresses the cold storage needs of farmers by combining the well-established technologies of photovoltaic energy supply and compressive cold generation with a novel concept of pay-as-you-need storage. It was developed to help the 470 million farmers and retailers in developing countries who do not have access to reliable cold storage. ColdHubs are modular, solar-powered cold rooms that provide 24/7 off-grid storage and preservation of perishable foods. They are installed in farms and markets within the reach of smallholder farmers and retailers. A ColdHub extends the shelf life of perishable goods from 2 days to 21 days, dramatically changing the lives and fortunes of local farmers.

Nnaemeka recounting the story of how the clock continues to tick for the tomato.
We were joined by a powerhouse audience of senior policymakers with the means to pave solid regulatory foundations, investors who care deeply about long-term change and impact, industry leaders who are able to deploy quickly and at scale, and civil society leaders with strong, grassroots community networks.

The Workshop

After the sequence of quick-fire presentations, we distributed into small groups of 8–10 people per table. In our teams, we spent two-thirds of our time on ‘Yes, and…’ brainstorming for each project. ‘Yes, and…’ gets us into a generative mindset where we add and help (e.g. identifying people and resources to help the solution to scale, whether in terms of manufacturing, management, or investor advice, or with technical expertise). The remaining third of our time or less was spent on ‘Yes, but…’ — offering constructive critique that all good ideas need and exploring potential blindspots where there could be space and opportunity for a creative pivot.

We need you

We invite you to dive deeper into the projects with the full event video below. You can hear these heroic women and men describing in their own words the potential of their solutions and how they are already making tremendous strides towards scaled impact.

Solutions Summit Event Video. Cover Photo: Ryan Panchadsaram, Megan Smith, Susan Alzner, Puneet Ahira, Kathy Calvin, Susan Myers, UN Special Adviser Amina Mohammed, and Ambassador Macharia Kamau.

The inaugural Solutions Summit would not have been possible without stalwart advocates across the United Nations and United Nations Foundation — leaders who launched this effort in a way we’ve never seen before. We worked in lock-step across our teams at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, the Kenyan Ministry of Information Communications and Technology, the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Chilean Ministry of Economy — Innovation Division. The United Nations Foundation also brought together a founding group of partners made up of Project Everyone, Dell, Caterpillar Foundation, Guggenheim Partners, BNY Mellon, Mastercard, Intel, and Rockwood Asset Management to get the effort started. This group will continue to push to the fore the networked approach of cross-functional teams surfacing our best talent and driving progress on their solutions.

Practice makes permanent; and even in the few days since we went live, our Solution-Makers are getting valuable feedback and support — and we are already starting to see signs of this method taking on a life of its own.

We invite you to join us in being part of our extended network. Replicate this idea: source your local Solution-Makers, lift them up, and progress their work by convening a supportive network. It will take the best of our talent rapidly iterating and collaborating with others, in order for us to create the change we want to see in our world. Let’s get the job done.

Global Goals Launch at UN Headquarters. Animation and Projection Design by 59 Productions.



The Obama White House

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