My Memorable Time Participating in this Global Innovation Lab in Shenzhen

The UNLEASH Delegation is made up of a diverse congregation of 1,000 talents from 162 countries chosen among a lot of 18,000 based on our insights and experience. We come from different backgrounds–the academe, the private sector, the development sector, and the government. We’re introverts, extroverts, feelers, doers, thinkers, but what unites us is the desire to make an impact in our communities and the world.

From November 6-13, 2019, we gathered together in Shenzhen, China, to come up with viable solutions that will address the world’s biggest challenges, in support of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The Chain of Events

On the first day, we converged for the Opening Ceremony, in which we listened to speeches from UN leaders such as Dr. Alaa Murabit, went through a creative experience by musician Peter Himmelman, and enjoyed the company of fellow talents during an evening networking session.

Talents were grouped according to the Sustainable Development Goals we are most passionate about (8 out of the 18 SDGs were selected as themes for this year’s run). I was part of SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure. Each SDG had a different work venue and accommodation within the city. Our track was sponsored by Tencent WeStart, and we held our activities in their headquarters in Shenzhen’s HiTech Zone.

Within SDG 9, we were divided into groups of five to six. There were thirty groups in total. I belonged to a cross-continental group of five people–I, from the Philippines, and the rest were from Kazakhstan, Denmark, New Zealand, and Nigeria.

On the third day, we kicked off the Innovation Process, in which each team is tasked to come up with a solution–which may be in the form of a product, a service, a movement, or a framework–to address one of the major challenges relevant to the assigned theme.

From an assigned insight, we had to come up with a clear problem statement using the Theory of Change framework, define our user/s, ideate on possible solutions, conduct market research, choose the best one, and work out a business model. This process took five days, and it involved the help of facilitators and experts from different industries, trained by Deloitte and Chemonix International, the main institutional partners for this event.

After the five-day sprint, we had to pitch our solutions (we were each given three minutes) to a panel of judges, and the rest of the teams in our SDG. Each one makes a vote based on a set of criteria, and two teams will be picked to pitch again in the Dragons’ Den, in which a number of esteemed guests, including a Nobel Prize Laureate, will judge.

All teams had the chance to test and get feedback (or funding!) for their ideas in a marketplace setting, where each team sets up a booth to showcase their solutions. That evening, we proceeded to the Dragon’s Den to cheer for our track’s chosen representatives.

On our last full day, we processed the experience in an Innovation Wrap-up and concretized our plans to implement our solutions. We then proceeded to the Shenzhen Concert Hall for an awards show and closing ceremony, followed by a farewell party for the talents. Keynote speeches were given by two Nobel Prize Laureates, Leymah GBowee, a peace activist and women’s advocate from Liberia, and Muhammed Yunus, educator and founder of Grameen Bank of Bangladesh.

A couple of impressive facts about the city of Shenzhen

In thirty years, a small fishing town of 30,000 had grown to 20,000,000 people.

  • Despite being thirty times smaller, it has the same Gross Domestic Product as Beijing.
    • It is China’s first special economic zone, as high-tech makes up 33% of its GDP. ⁣⁣⁣
    • 90% of all the world’s electronics are made in China’s Guangdong province, and Shenzhen is part of it.
    • 30 is the mean age of its population, which means it is made up of a young, dynamic workforce.
  • The Silicon Valley of Hardware, it has an enormous maker culture because of the accessibility and cost efficiency of the parts needed to create products.⁣⁣⁣
    • A retail hub in Huaqiang North is home to over 5 square kilometers of electronics. ⁣⁣⁣
    • Prototyping in Shenzhen takes only two months, compared to six months in San Jose, California. ⁣⁣⁣
    • It’s known for its ‘Shenzhen Speed’, where everything is two times faster. ⁣⁣⁣

A Couple of Things About My Team, #amBISHN


We are five people from different continents, different MBTI profiles, different professions, different strengths, and global experience, which makes a diverse set of ideas and perspectives. Those are givens, but ultimately, what made a difference was how we worked together. ⁣

  • Unlike the typical business culture I’ve grown used to, we embraced radical candor. Each of us was expressive and openly critical, at the same time, willing to understand each other’s point of view. We called each other out when one of us is losing focus. We patiently explained or reminded ourselves if the small and big objectives when one of us, or everyone, is at a loss. The tension from disagreements made us uncomfortable, but we managed to give way and support other ideas. In times of intense pressure, we found a way to pick up, dust off, settle on a decision, and move forward.
  • We fostered a culture of optimism. When morale was dipping, we took breaks, ordered milk tea, and made the effort to stay positive. Those little things kept us going. We did not point at each other when questioned, we always stood for the team. Ultimately, what amazes me is how everyone had kept the same perseverance and enthusiasm throughout the process, despite their ideas being rejected or set aside. Each one was more than willing to step up when the situation called for leadership. ⁣

⁣For the first time, I experienced what it is truly like to work with a dynamic, high-functioning superteam. I felt invigorated. My mind became more malleable because there are more than a hundred ways to interpret an insight, what is clear and true for me may be vague and false to another. I learned to listen before I conclude. ⁣

The Innovation Process and our Solution


Lower cost and easier access to resources accelerate innovation. I hope that, apart from making hi-tech solutions that multiply China’s growth, it looks outward and supports global solutions that make an impact. ⁣⁣

The product of five days of hard work arose from an insight about traffic congestion in Metro Manila, one root cause is the clustering of economic activities in central business districts. This causes a detrimental impact to the daily commuters and motorists who spend two to eight hours each day traveling for work: social—time away from family, economic—lost opportunities from a micro and macro level, and health—from exhaustion to sickliness, emotional—other factors causing stress and anxiety. ⁣

⁣Free-flowing ideation followed by a rigid assessment led us to our proposed solution: BUILDin—repurposing unused properties to create satellite office spaces for big employers and SMEs, stimulating local economic growth, creating inclusive employment, and mitigating the negative impact of traffic congestion.⁣

Executing BUILDin requires plenty of groundwork and might not be easily scalable. It requires further market research to crystallize the concept. But in just five days, we have built a skeleton for tangible solutions to a problem that exists, and that makes a strong start.⁣

The innovation process: Insight —> Problem —> Ideas —> Solution

  1. Take your time to define the problem. From a broad statement, exhaust the deeper causes by repeatedly asking why, how, or what until you can extract no more. Then, narrow your focus down to one compelling problem statement.
  2. Define and describe your user well. If there is little conviction about her needs and wants, chances are, you will have a hard time evaluating the usability of your solution. This is the critical ingredient for defining your only-ness, your unique selling proposition. The empathy map makes an invaluable guide.
  3. When ideating for solutions, it’s a sin to hold back. Throw away clichés. The dumbest, wildest, craziest ideas must come up to open, loosen and stretch your mind in order to see things with childlike wonder. Do not halt. Do not question. Do not halt, do not question. Dance to afro beats. Take a solitary walk. Draw, or paint, or sing your ideas. Fly with them. Take them to Mars. Ask the aliens what they think.
  4. When choosing top solutions, however, bring those ideas to the ground. Be ruthless in gauging how viable, feasible, and usable each solution is. Explain why they will and will not work. Cross-breed it with other ideas, if better. Choose the most exciting option that ties neatly with your problem statement, to which people’s response would be, “that makes so much sense, why had this never been done before?”

Such is how organizations can begin to make sustainability more than just a campaign and build it into their business model. The clarity of the problems they want to solve, the depth of their empathy, and the power of their solution are crucial to making real, lasting impact.

It Added Incredible Value to My Personal Development

  • It is (finally) clear to me what sustainability is all about. Believe me, I’ve been using the buzzword without really comprehending what it means to create a lasting impact. It’s fascinating to see how organizational models and frameworks that have long been used for profit and productivity can be used for wide-scale development outcomes. This appreciation sparked in me the desire to teach others, who are in a position of influence–business leaders, policymakers, and advisers, to behave more intentionally. (I shall go in-depth on a future post.)
  • I’ve read about innovation models and well-drawn frameworks, but having gone through the experience firsthand allowed me to embrace the process and its elements all the more. Cross-cultural collaboration, free-flowing wild ideas, and empathy to the 10000th left me so empowered that I feel a sense of duty to bring the experience home and to pass it on to others, too.
  • My uniqueness has an important place in this world. The organizers did a great job of grouping us with those of other strengths and backgrounds, such that we complement rather than compete with each other. I have always been my toughest critic. I constantly doubt my ability in a lot of things but UNLEASH allowed my strengths to shine. On the other hand, it also discouraged me from labeling people with limited information, namely, what’s on the surface.
  • My learning trajectory went off the roof! I vicariously experienced different development contexts upon hearing stories about sustainability initiatives in Denmark, or the United Kingdom, or South Africa. Barbuda would be wiped off the map in fifty years given the pace of climate change. I didn’t know about Afghanistan apart from Bin Laden, and how successful protests in Lebanon that began with a 170-kilometer-long human chain. I met a semi-mad scientist working on 3D-printed food and mass distribution of protein capsules in Africa, and a Gambian who could speak Chinese more fluently than I can. I couldn’t sit quietly for more than ten minutes because I didn’t want to give up the chance to learn something totally foreign. People held master’s degrees or PhDs, and the college kids are so enlightened that I increased my brain quality by at least 20% by just being around this intellectually-capable crowd. I went home with new information stored in my brain, which may be buried underneath a pile of everyday to-dos for a while, but will never go away.
  • The international network is vast, and it only opens up more doors for inspiration, innovation, and collaboration.

Hats off to the organizers for successfully pulling it off!

  • UNLEASH is a non-profit organization, supported by large institutional funders like Carlsberg group.
  • In 2019 it held its third run, with the first two in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Singapore, respectively.
  • For more information, visit and apply to be one of this year’s talents!