The Themes of 2017

Each year UNLEASH works with different themes. This year’s themes are Education and ICT, Energy, FoodHealth, Sustainable Consumption & ProductionUrban Sustainability, and Water. Under each theme there will be sub-themes and a number of actionable insights to guide the innovation work. An actionable insight is a fact or observation that sheds light onto a problem and helps to set the context from which one can brainstorm and develop possible solutions. Each theme will feature 5-7 sub-themes and related actionable insights.

The below list provides the starting guidelines and further sub-themes and actionable insights will be added. These are not all inclusive, but are made to help get you started. You are welcome to come with your own insights in other areas within the themes.

Education & ICT

ACCESS TO EDUCATION: Despite significant progress since 2000, an estimated 59 million children of primary school age and 65 million adolescents of lower secondary school age – of whom girls remain a majority – were still out of school in 20131. Poverty continues to be one of the most significant factors when it comes to access and inclusion and exacerbates gender gaps. The problem of access is even greater for learners with disabilities2 and for displaced communities3.

TEACHER SHORTAGES: By 2030, 3.2 million more teachers are required to achieve universal primary education4 and 5.1 million more will be needed to achieve universal lower secondary education5. More than 70% of primary schools and 90% of secondary schools face shortages of qualified teachers in sub-Saharan Africa6. Effective teacher recruitment, professional development, remuneration, resources and support structures are essential to ensuring quality educational outcomes for students.

LITERACY AND SKILLS: Many school children are not acquiring basic knowledge and skills. More than 50% of the 250 million primary-school-aged children who have spent at least four years in school, cannot read, write or count well enough to meet minimum learning standards7. There is also a globally acknowledged skills gap for STEM related jobs8.

PERSONALIZED LEARNING: Matching teaching to individual student learning levels has a direct and efficacious impact upon learning, especially for students with disabilities (see Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities). At the same time, less than 5% of teachers globally are trained in ICT that could enable personalized learning modalities and better integrate students with disabilities into the classroom. If students with disabilities are included in the design and implementation of these learning systems, it will prevent the problem of having a separate system for special education students to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

SKILLING PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES:  Of the 785 million working age people with disabilities worldwide, it’s estimated that only 20% currently participate in the workforce9. People with disabilities are less likely to be employed full time, more likely to be unemployed, and significantly more likely to be economically inactive than peers without disabilities10. Workers with disabilities are underemployed, paid less, and are more likely to count among the working poor with poorer career prospects11. This workforce exclusion costs between $1.37 to $1.94 trillion of the global Gross Domestic Product and is borne across society, including business12.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE & LEARNING:  Bill Gates suggested that leveraging AI within education could provide students with the individualized guidance they need to learn more effectively.  Early R&D in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and deep learning systems has produced intelligent tutor systems that can track the mental steps of a learner during problem solving, diagnose misconception, estimate a learner’s understanding of material and organize and synthesize educational content based on the individual needs of the learner. The power of an AI classroom is the ability to provide automated, intelligent personalized learning, but these AI education systems must be built from the ground up to meets the needs of all users.


RENEWABLE ENERGY: If all planned coal plants in six countries – China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Pakistan – are built, they would over their lifespan account for “almost all” of the global carbon budget that the world cannot exceed if it is to meet the 2°C goal1. While the share of coal in China’s energy mix will decrease up to 2030, Vietnam’s will almost double2.

FINANCING: Over 30,000 solar-powered irrigation units were installed in India 2015-2016, more than doubling the previously installed capacity. Diesel pumps for irrigation are still widely used and substituting 50% of the country’s diesel units with solar alternatives would require loans of approx. US$15 billion3.

DECENTRALIZED ENERGY: 1.3 billion people lack electricity, many experience frequent outages. Reaching universal access to electricity by 2030 will require that 70% of rural people gain access through decentralized systems4. Electrification is strongly correlated to economic growth, but the multitude of sources and types of systems, including mini-grids and pico-systems, presents challenges of inefficiencies, financing, grid management, distribution, storage, and ownership.


WASTE AND SPOILAGE: About 30% the food produced every year, or approximately 1.3 billion tones, is lost or wasted, with fruits and vegetables having the highest wastage rates.  In industrialized countries, consumers and retailers waste an estimated 222 million tons of food each year, while in developing countries the wastage often comes during production1.

NUTRITION AND FUNCTIONAL FOODS: While most developing countries have the raw materials to produce functional foods both for domestic consumption and international exporting, they lack a clear regulatory framework for production, quality control, sales, and certification of these “hybrid” food products2. Meanwhile, despite nutritional benefits, no generalizations about consumer choices regarding functional food consumption have been determined3.

CONSUMER DEMANDS: 75% of the 8.5 billion people projected to be alive in 2030 will have mobile and internet access, changing the way people purchase and consume foods4. Technological developments will spark increased demands from consumers, in areas such as environmental footprint, product variation and tailoring, convenience in ordering and delivery, experience retailing, transparency and traceability, and health benefits.


MEDICAL SUPPLY CHAINS: An estimated US$2 billion worth of unexpired medications discarded at long-term care facilities in the US, while at the same time one in four adults can’t afford prescriptions1.Meanwhile, an estimated 40% of the 1 million health centers in developing countries are stocked out of supplies or medications2.

CONNECTIVITY: Remote patient monitoring, telehealth and electronic medical records constitute some of the largest market opportunities related to delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals, in developing as well as developed countries. The spread of eHealth solutions intensifies the challenge of interoperability, across platforms, devices, apps and databases3.

PREVENTION: Research shows that providing psycho-social stimulation curriculum, age-appropriate toys, and parenting advice in children under five can result in these children become adults who earn 25% more than their peers, have a higher IQ on average, and are less likely to suffer from depression. Despite this, Latin American and Caribbean countries spend three times more on education for 6 to 11-year-old children than on education for children under age five4.

Sustainable Consumption & Production

RESPONSIBLE SUPPLY CHAIN: Corporations with global supply chains have the potential to generate growth, employment and skill development through their operations and sourcing. However, cross-country production, short lead times, and short-term buyer-supplier relationships can make supply chain visibility difficult, both for internal and external purposes. This reduced supply chain visibility creates challenges for corporations to meet their responsibilities within human rights, labour rights and the environment.

WATER-USE: For the fashion industry, access to water is essential for cotton cultivation, textile dyeing and finishing. Every kilogram of textiles requires on average 11,000 litres of water throughout the production cycle, and in a world of scarce resources, where textile production is often located in water scarce regions, this presents a growing issue that needs to be addressed.1

CONSUMER BEHAVIOUR: There is a huge gap between what consumers say, and how they act when it comes to ‘buying green’. A vast majority of consumers say they are willing to buy green, however sales statistics indicates otherwise with little indication as to why there is this discrepancy. This presents a difficult challenge for the companies, but it also offers great opportunity to change consumer behaviour and make a difference.2

CIRCULAR ECONOMY: The fashion industry is responsible for a considerable throughput of materials. Today, 350,000 tonnes of textiles are consumed annually in the Nordic region, and if the current trends continue, the consumption will increase to 450,000 tonnes annually by 2020. Only one third of all new textiles put on the market are separately collected for reuse and recycling.3

Urban Sustainability

URBAN PLANNING: By 2050, urban areas will account for 70-75% of the world’s population equaling 3 billion more people than today. 60% of the areas expected to be urban by 2030 have yet to be built. As existing cities sprawl, people move to the urban fringe without services, amenities and infrastructure are largely due to the absence of urban planning strategies and legislation at the national or sub-national level.

URBAN MOBILITY: Automobile sales are expected to increase from 70 million a year to 125 million by 2025 where more than half of them will be bought in cities. The result of following this trajectory can lead to a doubling of the current global fleet of 1.2 billion cars by 2030. Meanwhile, congestion is already close to unbearable in many cities and can cost as much as 2-4% of national GDP, by measures such as lost time, wasted fuel, and increased cost of doing business.

SUSTAINABLE BUILDINGS: 1 billion new housing units are needed to house the world’s population by 2060. Already now, buildings use 40% of raw materials globally (3 billion tons annually). When the buildings are demolished, almost all materials are down-cycled. This calls for a switch towards a circular economic model for the construction (and demolishment) sector that takes the environmental and economic opportunities of a fully digitalized building sector into account.


WATER TREATMENT FACILITIES: Water and waste water treatment facilities use 2-4% of the total electricity used in the US. While electric utilities have been focusing efforts to improve efficiency and provide grid services, water and waste water treatment utilities have been disconnected from these efforts. Water utilities’ lack of a relationship with electric utilities, coupled with low financial incentives for providing grid services, has limited the effort to improve energy efficiency1.

WATER ACCESS:  More than 50% of the 663 million people worldwide who lack access to safe water live in Sub-Saharan Africa, predominantly in rural areas. This leads to poor health due to various water-related illnesses. However, access alone is not enough to guarantee better health. Insufficient hygienic practices can lead to the contamination of safe water after it leaves the water point, making it unsafe to drink. Disinfecting or chlorinating water can prevent contamination after leaving the tap, but these treatments do not encouraged users to behave in a more hygienic way, which would improve their overall health in the long term. Another contributing factor to the lack of access to safe water is insufficiently maintained water supply systems, where the responsibility and economic commitment for maintenance is unclear, or the lack of maintenance is “invisible” or uninteresting for the user and authorities. Mitigating these challenges requires a multidisciplinary approach.2, 3, 4, 5

GROUNDWATER DEPLETION: Groundwater is the primary drinking water source for 1.5-3 billion people and provides 42% of global water for agriculture6. Replenishment is a slow process that can’t keep up with usage, depleting water table levels across the world. New ways of using existing sources and/or developing new sources are to supply human consumption, agriculture and industry.