My Experience at the UNLEASH Innovation Lab

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Last December, I got this wonderful opportunity to experience UNLEASH. 8 days with 1000 participants from all over the world and in the beautiful city Mysore was easy enough to attract anyone to apply but what transpired was so much more.

To anyone who doesn’t know about UNLEASH, it is a platform mobilizing youths to co-create a sustainable future. They organize three broad programs: Innovation Labs, Hacks, and Plus programs. I was in the Innovation Labs program where participants get to experience the UNLEASH Innovation Methodology. This is a collaborative innovation process based on human-centered design. It comprises of five steps: problem framing, ideation, prototyping, testing, and implementing. In the Innovation Lab we were focused on problem framing and ideation.

UNLEASH Participants working in SDGs 14 and 15 termed Source to Sink.

So, now my experience. It started with ease as a group of six participants from my country already connected on social media. We booked the tickets together, every one of us was assigned a task and I was the point person to communicate with the UNLEASH team if need be. The kick-off was amazing, the Infosys Mysore campus where we stayed was amazing. And then came Day 2. We had already been set up in a team based on our selected SDG and leanings.

My team consisted of five people representing four countries – Nepal, India, Uganda, and Netherlands. Up until this point I believe I had a very sheltered experience. Sure, I had worked on a lot of project which required team work and collaboration. But I believe it was interdisciplinary and we more or less understood each other’s way of thinking. But here first off, the cultural difference was right off the bat.  I and at the risk of generalizing Nepalese, are not direct. We tend to think of how our actions and words affect others and tend to beat around the bush. While this was not the case for others which is not to say it’s bad, it’s just different cultural background.

And then there was the task of selecting an issue to work on. I already had a pre-notion. I work in nature-based solution and wetland restoration and I came a bit prepared about what could be done. And coming off strong in this section made the team uneasy which I understand now, could take people off-guard. This innovation process is also not an accelerator for existing ideas, but rather a place for new ideas and collaboration.

And the theme I wanted to work on did not get picked. This was disappointing and the way I deal with disappointment is first getting my head straight and I don’t want to have conflict when I don’t even have a hold in my emotions. I went to my room early evening after our session completion, did some worked assigned from my room itself, got my head right, and marched the next day.

I believe the strong willedness was still present because it was difficult to get along even afterwards. The first day of the team meet was exhausting and the second frustrating. All ideas were slashed left and right, the first day criticism being an idea not being global enough but correspondingly an idea not being small enough. It got to a point when we started hauling blames.

‘Why are you even here if you don’t want to work in a team?’

‘Shouldn’t you have better knowledge on the subject before proposing this as an issue?’

‘This issue is your choosing, it’s your language, we cannot help in collecting primary data because we don’t speak the language’

This was intense but the open line of communication did help. Getting into this conversation why I was disappointed that my idea didn’t make it through but still I was trying to be a team player and working my best despite having no prior knowledge on the issue did get through. Late that night I wrote this in my diary about the experience –

“As UNLEASH is progressing I do feel working in diversity is difficult. I remember reading in an article before, a company thrives in diversity because the co-workers feel uncomfortable. But I never seemed to have worked on an actually diverse team before and this was challenging. From different culture, countries, backgrounds and such. I found it difficult and I do get the appeal to work with like-minded, similar background people.”

Eventually, we made it as a team. We passed the gates and got to pitch our idea and even though we didn’t make it to the final round I was happy with the idea that we presented. This was a sobering experience with the feelings of compromise, empathy, and ‘jugaad’ – a work around becoming more important than ever.

Looking back, if I get to have a do-over, I think I would not be too invested with my own ideas even if I had pre-formed notions. I would be more understanding of other people’s situation of where they are coming from.

The experience really changed the way, I envision to work. The technical know-hows and stuffs are needed but it’s the team spirit and empathy that will be the cornerstone of making a team work.

After the closing ceremony, everyone started parting ways the next day. All this time Mysore was bright and sunny and as if mimicking my emotion of bidding farewell to this amazing experience, the day turned gloomy. It felt sad to let go of the many strangers who had come to be friends.

One thing that I miss most is the fact that we could easily talk to anyone, no hesitation in sight. I am not the kind of person who can speak to strangers on the street. But here everyone was so open to conversation. I miss those lively chat. I would be having breakfast from someone from Vietnam and lunching with someone from UK! And the sweet sweet taste of Mysore Pak still makes me drool.

And I am happy to report UNLEASH participants coming over to Nepal do get connected. I have had two dinners with the participants. It’s a nice get together, reminiscing our UNLEASH days.

Anu Rai

I am an aspiring environmental researcher.

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