Life Books and Peace Machines

An exercise in fantasy pushed creative thinking to the extremes, setting a theme for the UNLEASH 2019 opening ceremonies

SHENZHEN, CHINA — You know how, sometimes, you’re at the bus stop and you have this great idea — an epiphany — and you know it could make a significant difference in the world and do some good, and then, well, you forget the idea before you can write it down?

You will never have to worry about that again with Life Book, a new app that automatically records your thoughts and ideas when you have them!

That was just one of the new ideas that young talents — convening from 162 countries under one roof for the first time at UNLEASH Innovation Lab 2019 in Shenzhen, China, last night — presented in the UNLEASH opening ceremonies, in a session guided by Big Muse leader Peter Himmelman.

Of course, such an app as Life Book is not realistic, in that the technology to “record epiphanies” is far from possible…yet. But Himmelman’s exercise in creative thinking challenged the 1,000 young global talents to, in just a few minutes, come up with an idea for social good not bound by limits, such as the laws of nature, physics, or reality. So teams comprising young leaders from six continents offered ideas like Life Book; Good Vibes (an app that allows a happy person to give some of their happiness to a sad person and balance everyone, everywhere); and Peace Machine (a product that sows peace instead of conflict).

These fictional, fantasy ideas were the perfect ice breaker and palate cleanser for a cohort about to embark on a week-long journey that is absolutely bound by the laws of nature and physics and reality, but in that regard is even more challenging. As a UN IPCC report noted in October 2018, we have just 10 years to make significant inroads toward achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — particularly on SDG13, Climate Action — or we face devastating, irreversible consequences. So the task ahead for the UNLEASH talents is very difficult.

But with an Opening Ceremony like last night’s — which featured encouraging words from high-level UN thought leaders, political leaders from the host city of Shenzhen, and even former UNLEASH talents — this year’s class of UNLEASHers were given a gentle entry into the grinding process.

The evening started off with a bang — or banging, as a local Chinese drum and acrobat troupe gave an electric, pulsating performance, bursting in red colors.

That was followed by a series of heartfelt, encouraging speeches from the Vice Mayor of Shenzhen, Wang Lixin (who was the first of many to note how the city is known for its astonishing ideation execution, commonly referred to as “Shenzhen speed”) and from UNLEASH Founder and Chairman Flemming Besenbacher (who cited the standout stories of some UNLEASH alumni, including Hama, an educator from Iraq who left his home country for the first time to take part in UNLEASH 2017 in Denmark, and Daniel, who fled his native Burundi during the conflict there and took part in UNLEASH 2017 as a refugee living in a Kenyan refugee camp).

Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of the UN Secretary-General’s Global Pulse data campaign, gave the talents a sobering reminder that, collectively, the UN’s 193 Member States are not progressing toward achieving the SDGs in a timely way — and that no country is on track to achieve SDG5,Gender Equality, by 2030 — and that without achieving SDG5, none of the other SDGs can be achieved (a line that received the first big applause of the evening from the crowd). But he offered hope in that there is room for optimism, especially if the talents of #UNLEASH2019 contribute disruptive, game-changing solutions.

Dr. Alaa Murabit, a Canadian-Libyan medical doctor who is also one of 17 high-level UN SDG Advocates personally selected by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, spoke passionately about power dynamics and the importance of representing diverse communities in endeavors such as UNLEASH. “Think about one person in your community while you are here at UNLEASH,” she counseled, “to whom you will hold yourself accountable.” Murabit also passed the torch to the younger generation in her own family, by bringing her 18-year old younger sister Mariam with her for the thousands-mile journey from Canada to Shenzhen.

Perhaps most usefully, the talents last night received crucial counsel from UNLEASH alumni from the previous two editions, such as Ryan from the Philippines who noted “You are going to fail — and that’s okay” (as you can learn from the failure), and Huram, a Pakistani Dane, who advised all participants should “leave their expert hat at home and approach every conversation with humble curiosity.”

After the Himmelman exercise in fantasy and a dinner of authentic Chinese cuisine, the evening finally ended in a raucous dance party, as Himmelman (a Grammy-nominated rock star) played guitar for a series of rousing vocal performances from talents, including Liberian crowd pleaser Goto Cooper. Good Vibes, indeed.