UNLEASH Innovation Lab: Unleashing the potential of games on UN Sustainable Development Goals

By Sara Cornish


Last month, I proudly represented Games for Change at UNLEASH Innovation Lab, the first-ever convening of 1,000 public and private sector leaders from 129 countries to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals. We spent nine days going through a facilitated process of problem framing, exploring development challenges from different angles, international perspectives and support from UN facilitators and business consultants. The program culminated with nearly 200 potential solutions being pitched to investors — many of which, I was excited to see, involved games, gamification, or game-based learning.
I was part of the Education/Information & Communication Technology (ICT) group, one of seven SDG topics including Water, Sustainable Consumption and Production, Energy and Health, with 200 other entrepreneurs, educators, technologists, development practitioners, and researchers. We were tasked with addressing the challenge of ensuring an inclusive, equitable and quality education, and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all, or SDG 4. Over a week spent living at a Danish Folk High School, one of 64 unique educational institutions located in Denmark’s beautiful countryside, we collaborated in small teams and sprinted through an innovation process developed by Dalberg and Deloitte.


My team of five tackled the thorny issue of teachers’ mental wellbeing in post-conflict states, after researching teacher professional development, retention, and support in these fragile communities with team members. Due to stigma and lack of awareness, as well as scarce development aid for teachers (the focus of funding tends to be on children), teachers often lack the knowledge and support structure to understand and care for their mental health and wellbeing. After desk research and Skype interviews with teachers in Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, and Cambodia, we presented the concept of an SMS-based chatbot to provide daily coaching to teachers through anonymous, relatable conversation, and resource sharing. Other pitched solutions included a Hindi literacy game, teacher attendance rewards program that was gamified to encourage participation, and a role-playing game to teach and empower students in developed nations to address the SDGs in their daily lives.
The final three days of the program were spent in Aarhus, a Danish port city honored as the 2017 European Capital of Culture. We presented our solutions for peer review and top projects were pitched to a group of investors in a “shark tank” style event. Although our proposed solution didn’t advance to the final round, we remain inspired by this challenge after our concept was validated by a number of colleagues from post-conflict states in the UNLEASH cohort. A handful of pitched ideas will receive investor funding; and for the rest of us, a global fund is being set up to support further iterations and SDG solutions. It is an incredibly ambitious program, applying a venture capital model to developing business that can deliver on the SDGs — with the great majority of its impact “yet to come.”
With support from a group of visionary business leaders and companies including Deloitte, Microsoft, and Dalberg, UNLEASH plans to host an innovation lab in cities around the world until 2030, leveraging a network that grows by 1,000 every year, providing an innovation methodology and support system for remote collaboration.
Achieving the SDGs will take investment of an estimated $5 trillion to $7 trillion per year until 2030, meaning we need solutions that are not only socially acceptable but also commercially viable. Solutions that challenge the status quo of energy, production, consumption, education, food and water, governance and business. Games present an opportunity to reach massive audiences, especially youth, to help advance sustainable development. For example, simulations like World Climate, a role-playing UN negotiation game, and Games for Change Climate Challenge winner Eco, a global survival game where the players collaborate to build a civilization and balance its ecosystem support learning and build empathy. Last month, UNESCO MGIEP released World Rescue, a mobile game based on the SDGs, as the winner of its 2017 Impact Gaming Challenge.


Games can also raise awareness and public engagement about issues such as gender equality and women’s empowerment (Half the Sky: The Game), climate change (Habitat the Game), peace and conflict (Liyla and the Shadows of War), the ecological impacts of city-building (Block’hood), and urban planning and development (Block by Block’s use of Minecraft). In March 2017, a beta test of Hive Mind 2030 was run at the Global Festival of Ideas with nearly 500 players. Here’s a recap of the gameplay by the developers Free Ice Cream.
There was substantial interest in games for SDG impact at UNLEASH, but it seemed like participants had little knowledge, understanding or access to resources to explore game development as part of a project strategy. I had conversations about the potential of games in post-conflict states and government policy negotiations, and games to support training in vocational schools and at village council meetings, with creative and entrepreneurial leaders from around the world and was inspired by their passion and unwavering belief that games can and do drive social change.
With this in mind, I am pleased to share a shortlist of resources from Games for Change and partners that can hopefully point the UNLEASH community in the right direction, whether you are interested in applying a game-based learning approach to your curriculum, gamifying a healthy food program, using Minecraft for urban planning, or some other brilliant SDG solution:

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