What is UNLEASH?
I’m going to be in Singapore for eight days for an Innovation Lab, UNLEASH, which unites and sponsors travel and accommodation for 1,000 young professionals from 106 countries and divides them into 8 large grouped-themes based on the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs) that the Talents are working towards in their careers and studies. The participants of UNLEASH are modestly called “talents” and they submitted an application of their personal & profesisonal history and a sample project proposal. The larger themes are than further divided to teams of four to six people, who will spend 8AM to 10PM (even until midnight) for seven days together problem framing, brainstorming, documenting, and pitching a development project. I’m familiar with the SDGs, because UNESCO is concentrated on SDG4 on Quality Education. I am grateful to Anthony from UNESCO for sharing this opportunity with me when I visited with him in Yangon, Myanmar in September, 2017.
UNLEASH Day 1 – May 30th 2018
The morning started with me sleepwalking to and through the airport in Saigon, covering my face and body with a shower towel while sleeping on the plane ride to Singapore. I only woke up again when we bumped down onto the island. I continued sleepwalking through immigration and baggage pick up, SIM card purchasing, and finally, I met the volunteer coordinators of UNLEASH at the bus stop in Terminal 2. Waiting for the shuttle to the campus, I met a few people living in Thailand, Cambodia, Denmark, Brazil, and Kazakhstan. Then we rode a chartered bus to the university for the welcoming ceremony. It was cool to overhear some of their stories working in development in Thailand and the Congo.
As we whizzed through the impeccably organized streets lined with flowers, trees, and grass. I gave Singapore the pet name, “the sleepwalking city”. Everything is so well organized here that you don’t need to use all of your senses just to walk down the street – like in Saigon. The lack of sensory abuse makes me feel like I’m just sleepwalking around.
After arriving at the green impeccable campus at National University Singapore, I went into the main hall for the opening ceremony, which ran from 2 PM to 8:30PM. The ceremony and its 1,000 strong global audience was energizing! The global audience was like I was in the United Nations, some talents we’re wearing the traditional clothing of their homelands and traveled from across the world to be there (some even traveling 40 hours). With all different backgrounds, skin colors, motivations it was a paradise of diversity. They had a number of speakers from Development Agencies and impact investors speak to us about, Global Collaboration, Innovation and Problem-solving.
Two of the speakers really stood out. One was from Lego, and he facilitated an activity where all 1,000 Talents were given six identical Lego bricks. And they were all asked to make a duck in 45 seconds. After that asked to scan around for anyone who had made the duck the same way as they had. It was a great illustration of how we all approach the same problem differently. I loved the activity and decided to keep my duck as a memento from UNLEASH.
The second meaningful speaker was the founder of World Toilet Day. He talked about how his mission had no money and had no influence, but how as a comedian he had influence or comedic power. He explained how humor and humility made World Toilet Day a United Nations recognized holiday. With a crowd of 1,000 people in front of him from around the world, he showed us our commonalities by asking us personal questions and asking us to stand up, if we had experienced racism, lost a loved one recently, experience sexual harassment, or farted during this ceremony. By making us stand up for these things, his speech connected us. He got a well deserved standing ovation.
We had a dinner and I introduced myself to a lot of different people. Of course, I had a strong case of imposter syndrome. But I hope that everyone else was feeling that way too. Some of the people I met were really leading amazing things, well some of them were students who were preparing to do amazing things, and some of the, like me, are cogs in the wheel of organizations that are doing cool stuff.
After the dinner, we had a dance party, which was a wonderful way to connect through music. I love dancing with Indian people because they are so free in their big swooping dance moves. Then we took the bus back to the dorm at UTown NUS where I spent an hour unpacking into my single fan-cooled room, finding some water from a vending machine, and walking around the beautiful and green campus at night.
Walking through the campus at nighttime and remembering all the new names and faces I met today, I have the sense that I’m back at college, but this time everyone is from all over the world. Everyone here is happy to be “back in college” for just one week to have classmates from Brazil, Thailand, Germany, Denmark, Kyrgyzstan, India, Cameroon, Nepal, Nigeria, and Sri Lanka.
I’m sleeping now before I have to get up in the morning for breakfast and the first with the Education Theme where we will learn about the process of actually developing proposals and split up into teams.
UNLEASH Day 2 – May 31st 2018
The morning started with me waking up with my fan on and feeling a bit sweaty. Then I went down and had breakfast, watered-down coffee, and good company amoungst the Talents. Today we divided by theme and we had a large group meeting before breaking into smaller groups for further instruction.
We began the day with by group singing Bob Dylan’s, “Blowing on the Wind” which is a haunting hymn for those interested in the human condition. During the breakout groups I met people from Nepal, Germany, Malaysia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, and the US. The special part os being in the first day of this first day of Hogwarts atmosphere.
There is a lot of work to do and the schedules are tight. I’m getting a sense of the Singaporean scheduling. They divided us into teams and from now on I will work with an Ecuadorian woman, a Ghanian woman, and an Indonesian man. I think I lucked out with the team.
I learned that I should take more pride in what I think and do. I presented a problem statement to the group of 30 and when it came time for a secret ballot to select problems for the teams to work on I withdrew my own problem. I learned later that I should have left it on the ballot, because it actually won enough votes to from a team. I shouldn’t have doubted my own idea. Anyway, the area we are working on is skills development which is a topic close to my work, feels important, and the team will be great.
UNLEASH Day 3 – June 1st 2018
At about 4AM the city was bombarded with a thunderstorm. I woke up in awe of how loud it was to hear the thunder echoing and crashing through the city like a wrecking ball. I fell back asleep until 7 – I’ll be starting my new job in Saigon just one day after UNLEASH ends.
After breakfast, the Education theme people met together to sing, “Imagine” by John Lennon. Much of the community building activities come from the Danish Folk school tradition and so we use singing, hugging, and personal questions as a way to open up and build a sense of community. After electing to be a part of the “ICT & Vocational” sub-theme within Education, we got to frame a few problems we were interested in solving and did a brief personality test to help us form into diverse times in terms of skills and personality. I met with my team which has two men and two women, an Ecuadorean, a Ghanaian, an Indonesian and myself. We discussed personal things as a way to get to know each other and we began to write a problem tree. It was fun to get to working together, reminded me of an intensive grad school project. I look forward to the ideation phase when we think of solutions to our problems – finally 🙂
Then we went in smaller groups to visit a Singaporean maker space. I was in awe of what facilities the Singaporean government gives its people, but at the same time, it seems like the Singaporeans are working ungodly hard. That is kind of sad. I even absent-mindedly said aloud, “thats sad”. I could be wrong, I them might have passion for this. Now we are headed to the Marina for a Dragon Boat Racing and a picnic.
The experience was similar to an orientation fair from the first day of university freshman year, had I gone to an extremely diverse global school. Floating amongst so many different people, I was aware that I needed to connect or talk to people. Sometimes I reverted to my first day of pre-school self and seek to be alone in a crowd of many new people. Although I am physically in the center, I am mental in the corner thinking, “ why am I not like them”. With some people, I just clicked and talked freely. This time in life, I don’t care too much what the people are like or how I will be perceived for talking with them. I just feel “this person is the person fate put in-front of me, better just talk and see what fate had in mind”. Sometimes the greater plan is just pleasantries, sometimes it is bigger than that.
After we got back to the campus on the bus, my team met again and went over the problem statement in the outdoor court. Our journey is guided by about 60 assignment cards that are optional for us to go through. The cards are an important reference point for all of us to go along forming our project proposals. UNLEASH is a big exercise in design thinking and so we are going through a design thinking ideation process that some teammates are already familiar with. I feel I should become a design thinking facilitator, just as a way to master this process for use in my life.
I’m focusing on the connecting to people, because in reality, the studies at grad school – or anything you do as a group, was just an engaging backdrop used to bond us together. I think UNLEASH also recognizes this and emphasizes that we need to build interpersonal networks to empower our future work. The most interesting part of UNLEASH is the diverse intercultural teamwork. I believe I am doing well contributing ideas to our innovation process and stepping back from my talkative and excited nature to let other’s speak.
In my mind, I’m trying to be more confident and social (remember I’m in the presence of people who work in UNICEF in Gaza, the World Food Program in the Congo, and run their own NGOs and startups in Africa. I hope that by the end of UNLEASH, I can get out of my shell more. To most people who know me, I don’t appear to have a shell, but there is actually even more brain noise in my mind than comes out of my mouth.
I’m really enjoying the conversations and atmosphere of higher-level thinkers. It’s a fantastic transition away from the dull responsibility driven world of work. I feel UNLEASH is helping me re-acculturate to my global, forward-thinking, articulate, and communicative peers. I’m at Hogwarts, surrounded by wizards.
TAKE A LOOK AT ALL THE SINGING @ UNLEASH
Sharing the dancing from the opening ceremony, singing during the morning sessions, and working the diverse working teams working into the final night, our team’s pitch, the final day poster sharing session, and the final singing at the closing ceremony.
UNLEASH Day 4 – June 2nd 2018
The morning began with the floor of my dorm room flooded from the previous night’s rain. I had left the window open all night to listen to the rain and thunder, and I let the sideways rain rain into the room. The morning meeting began with us singing, “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles and then breaking into our teams for more group work.
We spent quite some time reframing the problem statement – again and again. It was an exercise in mental logistic and communication. I realize that I share observations rather freely, without any intention of having them change things. I share in a sense without thinking. People then misunderstand that I am sharing my words as a means to exert influence. I remember that Toan told me that extraverts, those who think aloud don’t need to be listened to, only heard – I agree. I’m not in a group of talk-thinkers, so whenever I say something they assume that I have deeply thought about what I am about to say, that I have a motive behind saying it, and that I have expectations of being listened to. I think I need to be more aware of this, cause my words are throwing people off track.
Another thing is that some people on my team are rather process oriented which I sadly am not. They misinterpret my “sharings” or “word noise” as me intentional breaking the process to push my agenda. In fact, I am unaware or inconsiderate of the process and just sharing inputs. For example, they told me I was being a dictator, because I suggested a system of voting. I was unaware that the process already includes a process for voting. My process-oriented teammates misunderstood me as trying to change the voting system, but I just didn’t know there was a system to begin with. This is a further reason I should do some training Design Thinking so that this doesn’t happen again.
I also had some self-reflection when we talked about sorting potential topics. I mentioned a way of sorting our topics just because it crossed my mind that there were other ways of sorting the topics. In my mind, I wasn’t advocating we sort the topics differently – I was just thinking aloud. I confused the team, because they assumed I wanted to change the sorting process. I realize I need to stop speaking before thinking.
But that to me is as paradoxical, just like in quantum physics’ wave theory when particles react nanoseconds before their stimulus even began.
UNLEASH Day 5 – June 3rd 2018
Day 5 was the main work day and I was too busy to write about it here.
UNLEASH Day 6 – June 4th 2018
After our morning’s pitching activity, which we did good, all the talents were taken to the Suntec Expo Center to showcase their projects. I was impressed with the project posters and prototypes of new farming techniques in Niger, a new way of trying tomatoes in a mini hammock, a vending machine that can secretly give people condoms, a model for a smart city, an app to help girls talk about sexual health, and an eco-rating system for the year, and so many other amazing and ingenious solutions. When I saw everyone’s solutions as a whole, I further recognized how intelligent and inspiring everyone is.
To boil down one of the biggest inspirations, some people have a strong visionary personality type. I am impressed that those people got through the jading of adulthood and are still believe that real change matters and that they can make a modest impact on the change they want to see in the world.
For example, many of the Talents actively change to reduce the amount of plastic that they consume. I tend to fall into the cynicism that as an infinitesimally small faction of the “global 8 billion”, my plastic consumption doesn’t matter and I can’t make a change.
They don’t agree, not because they are mathematically aloof, but because they have the mindset that, “I matter”. What seems to make them go on with the low plastic consumption is just that belief, and each time they refuse extra plastic, they affirm to themselves that they matter. It is powerful to witness that – see more deeply into that mindset. I want to believe that about myself too.
What was our project?
We, Team Hero4, pitched an classroom facilitated video game that uses Ghanaian entrepenuaral role models to inspire young Ghanaians to feel less risk-adverse in starting their own businesses. This insight came from our Ghanaian teammate and the three teammates working in youth skills development. Here is quick look at our game’s prototype.
UNLEASH Day 8 – June 6th 2018
The final day of UNLEASH began with me waking up in the morning super tired, but also refreshed to have the work over. I spent the morning printing my new visa letter. Then we were all bused to the Suntex Expo Center for the grand closing ceremony. UNLEASH cost $7 million dollars and I imagine that the grand closing ceremony was to drive home the message to investors. UNLEASH is looking for another city to host its 3rd Lab in 2019. UNLEASH intends to continue moving from country to country, like the Olympics, until 2030 when the SDGs are reconsidered. The ceremony was opened by the Muslim, scarfed, female president of Singapore, an AI talking robot called Sophia – Dubai’s first non-human citizen, a Nobel Prize winner from East Timor, and Forest Whitaker the actor who played the Ugandan dictator in the movie The Last King of Scotland and a supporting role in the mega-blockbuster Black Panther.
I was very inspired by the words from the ceremony, I don’t think like I can change the world – I should at least feel like I can. Let my heart cook my brain.
I can change my attitude about how I feel about change in the world. I thought about my conundrum of, “Why don’t I dream bigger“. And I thought the whole time about how I will just re-frame the things I do in my life to be about bigger more meaningful impacts. Maybe if I squeeze all the juice out of this mindset, I can extract a drop of passion. After the closing ceremony, we had drinks, selfies, and time to exchange contact. Before we were bused to a nightclub Zouk for the closing party.
The nightclub was the most wonderful dancing experience I’d had in a club. We had a dancefloor with 50/50 men and women from all over the world. We all danced in different diverse circles that joined together and broke off like puddles collecting as they ran down a hilly driveway. The experience was wonderful to see Jamaicans, Indians, Europeans, Africans, Indonesians and all people dancing together. The dance floor was welcoming and supportive, everyone waving others from the sidelines to join in. I got a lot of compliments from people for my dance moves.
The dance floor was a place for me to shine. Dancing is an expression of the global language of joy. I had so much fun dancing with a girl from Sudan, men from Nepal, and two enthusiastic Indian women, dancing with everyone from everywhere in every way. Diverse in skin colors and homogenous in openness. I can’t describe how wonderful it was to dance with people from all over the world, celebrating their new friendships, the inspirations they found here, and the new passion that awaits them.
During the final day, my teammates and I enjoyed each other’s company. I was glad that after the storm we connected. The storm was necessary for me to have the sobering mental re-set I went through on the near-final night. I hope that I can see them again as the years go by. The world is just as big as it is small. I hope that I can stay connected with the people from UNLEASH, because they will remind me that someone invested in me as a change maker, that this experience made me want to “dream bigger”, and I saw what an ideal diverse society would look like.
In the end, I decided that dreaming bigger gives life meaning. Dreaming bigger in everything you do, can make you content, not in achieving results, but in feeling purposeful. After UNLEASH, I won’t look at my new job as proving I can reach the project’s KPI, but as my contribution to the goal of giving Vietnamese students the capacity to engineer solutions for their homeland.
I am inspired to reframe my life, if not more passionately, than more purposefully.
I put the photo of my teammates on my fridge to keep me inspired.