UNGA 2019: A New Level of Urgency and Optimism

This year's UN General Assembly signaled a turning point for social change—a new level of urgency and optimism. Here are three key themes OpenIDEO's leaders, Jason Rissman and Luisa Covaria, think stakeholders across sectors should pay closer attention to.

In surveying the OpenIDEO community over the years—from Challenge participants, to Top Ideas, to members of post-Challenge accelerators—we hear again and again that innovators need mentorship and connections more than they need capital. We also know that systemic inequities leave many entrepreneurs behind, as they lack access to the support that comes from connections to powerful networks.

At OpenIDEO, we’ve been working to create the conditions for mentorship to happen at scale, aiming to offer hundreds of people access to this resource, while retaining the personal and meaningful nature of a smaller program. It leaves us asking ourselves what characteristics bring about a rich mentorship interaction, and in turn, how we can match and create conditions for those valuable relationships by the hundreds? We also believe in mentorship that goes beyond the traditional framework of “person with more experience” mentoring “person with less experience.” Instead, how can mentorship be used to bring power to voices that are necessary for the development of human-centered innovations?

OpenIDEO Principles for Mentorship Program Design

When designing mentorship programs aimed at maximizing equity and impact, these are the principles to which we hold ourselves accountable:

In 2019, we had three opportunities to build highly customized mentorship programs with these design principles at their heart. Here's how they looked:

1. Mentorship that Bridges Creatives and Technical Experts

Earlier this year, OpenIDEO partnered with the Hewlett Foundation to launch the Cybersecurity Visuals Challenge to elevate more representative imagery in the space. We shared this open call with a global community in hopes of engaging visual creators of diverse backgrounds. In doing so, we recognized that these artists may not have deep familiarity of the cybersecurity space and may need some guidance to ensure their imagery was rooted in technical accuracy. At the same time, we heard from technical experts that the cybersecurity space was deeply lacking in new perspectives and creative energy.

So, we invited a set of cybersecurity professionals to serve as mentors for the Challenge shortlist of visual creators. Twelve mentors supported the 25 shortlisted participants to ground their concepts within the technical field of cybersecurity. Each mentor hosted a video call to provide supportive and constructive feedback to each participant’s initial portfolio before they finalized their submissions. And, many of these collaborations continued after the initial feedback call.

As evidenced by excerpts from mentors and participants below, this program united creatives and technical experts to tangibly collaborate together on a specific Challenge in a very unique way. It not only energized them but also sparked reflection on new ways to approach the space. The visual creators came with ideas and skills to visualize them, while the cybersecurity professionals provided tangible feedback to improve the accuracy of the graphics in service of elevating quality images for this space.

Before and after: Mariah Jochai, an art director and winner of the Cybersecurity Visuals Challenge, iterated her submissions after receiving feedback from her mentor.

We heard directly from a mentor and mentee pair:

“The most valuable feedback came from our mentor during the mentorship call. I was urged to revisit the illustration and to convey the moth in flight to better convey the idea of a transfer of information during encryption. This feedback altered the illustration for the better.” — Mariah Jochai, Cybersecurity Visuals Challenge Winner

“It was great to be able to talk to the mentees and explain different technical concepts. I also got a lot of value out of hearing how non-technical individuals understand these concepts.” — Jonathan Barrett, Challenge Mentor

2. Mentorship by People with Lived Experience

More than 70.8 million men, women, and children are forcibly displaced worldwide today. To address the urgent needs of a global population severely impacted by the lack of peace, prosperity, and sound environmental conditions, we launched BridgeBuilder 2019 Challenge: People on the Move, posing this question to participants: “How might we, as people on the move and neighbors, build bridges to a shared future of stability and promise?”

We believe that the deepest experts are the beneficiaries themselves, those who have lived experienced or first-hand contextual understanding of a given topic. Knowing that mentors can be catalytic in empowering innovators around an issue, we tried a new approach to mentorship, in which we enlisted the support of those who had lived experience with migration and displacement, and connected them to participants for guidance and support.

There’s only so far you can go using a fully digitized platform,” says Ashley Tillman, a Community Manager at OpenIDEO. “This mentorship program has allowed us to create a more dynamic and human add-on, pushing our model to go deeper with teams.”

People on the move are systematically forgotten and not included in the design process of programs that are supposed to help them. To shift the power dynamic and to elevate refugees and migrants to a position of authority and expertise, we embarked on a collaborative partnership with NaTakallam, a language service startup—and previous Challenge winner—that was deeply and directly connected with people on the move. They helped ensure a diverse representation of mentors in terms of geography, age, and life experiences. The mentors, in turn, inspired both the innovators and our team push our thinking by helping us identify blind spots and understand complex issues from the beneficiary’s perspective.  

A due-diligence call between the Challenge mentors and the OpenIDEO and GHR Foundation teams.

3. Mentorship that Moves Ideas from Concepts to Tangible Solutions

While fiber cups are convenient for coffee runs or to-go drinks, too many of them end up in landfills and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and waste. Through the NextGen Cup Challenge, we called on innovators, suppliers, and designers to redesign the fiber cup by creating a widely recyclable and compostable cup that was recoverable on a global scale.

For this Challenge, we paired specific seasoned experts from a variety of relevant backgrounds—leaders who had vast expertise in the recovery, materials, and circular economy ecosystems—with the innovator teams to help them advance in a specific area in which they needed support. They had the opportunity to work alongside the mentors to share knowledge, ask questions, and advance their concepts. 

“For mentors, this was an opportunity to empower new talent in the field, keep a pulse on up-and-coming innovations, and help move us toward a more circular future,” says Program Lead Christopher Krohn.

After being matched with entrepreneurs based on their knowledge of the sustainability ecosystem and needs of the teams, mentors spent several weeks supporting the teams through webinars, 1:1 video conferences, and regular check-ins. Many of them including stayed on as mentors going into the NextGen Accelerator Phase, continuing to provide invaluable and specific feedback to the six winning teams depending on their product development stage.

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In our mission to address pressing social and environmental issues, we’ve found that mentorship programs can be designed intentionally, using tailored approaches best suited for each Challenge, to help innovators bring their ideas to fruition, faster. By encouraging innovators to achieve greater scale by iterating on their ideas, centering their models in the needs of users, and making space for growth and learning, mentors have become a crucial mechanism for systems change in multiple contexts—whether it comes designing better visuals for the cybersecurity space, improving the lives of refugees and migrants, or making a coffee cup that’s better for the environment.

Through our work this year, our team has found that the most successful mentorships are human-centered and symbiotic—a two-way street where both the mentor and mentee learn from each other. “Relationships are such an important conduit for change,” says Alex Nana-Sinkam, a Program Lead at OpenIDEO. “It's crucial to intentionally design mentorship programs that will create connections that not only benefit those involved, but bolster the ecosystem as a whole by increasing access and connection.”

There’s never been more momentum for change. As millions of young people flood the streets around the globe to demand urgent climate action, cities and social entrepreneurs have taken matters into their own hands. Feeling this rising bottom-up pressure, governments, corporations, and multilateral organizations, like the UN, are accelerating their efforts to address massive global issues. The UN Sustainable Development Goals have provided a clear framework for action, and they’re helping align more actors than ever in the systems change we need.

OpenIDEO’s leaders, Jason Rissman and Luisa Covaria, spent the week diving into events and conversations, and came back to our team (and now you, our community) with three main themes they wanted to share as we work together to build a better world:

1. Ownership.

Since kicking off the Climate Strike a year ago, 16-year-old Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg has been extraordinarily influential in striking up fierce conversations around climate change and inspiring millions of young people to start taking action. She delivered an unforgettable message at the UN Climate Action Summit, telling world leaders: 

"You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you." 

There’s a new urgency and commitment to addressing the climate emergency, and it’s translating into actors at all levels—from individual young people to national governments—starting to take more ownership. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated, “We have been losing the race against the climate crisis. But the world is waking up. Pressure is building. Momentum is growing. And—action by action—the tide is turning.”

Countries have moved past negotiation and toward ownership, showing up with their own commitments in unison with this year’s theme for UNGA: "Galvanizing multilateral efforts for poverty eradication, quality education, climate action, and inclusion." During the week, 77 countries committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and 139 banks—representing a third of the industry—signed up to align with the Paris agreement objectives. The UN member states also adopted a landmark declaration on universal health coverage. These are just a few of many examples of stakeholders proactively bringing forward their solutions. 


Sharing his observations from listening to diverse groups of Americans this past year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told the audience that he saw a “tremendous urgency and a tremendous spirit of do-it-yourself … a deep sense that it had to become a matter of personal responsibility right down to the local level.” Echoing his statement, we’re proud of OpenIDEO's globally connected innovators for taking initiative and developing a sense of ownership around local problems. They’re tackling issues related to food waste, people on the move, education, public health, circular economy, and so much more, with dedication and ingenuity.

As we move forward, how might open innovation be a conduit for increased ownership and visibility into the work different stakeholders are taking on? How might the work of so many of the incredible innovators in the OpenIDEO community inspire leaders to develop a mindset around design and prototyping in the work they are owning?

2. Technology

"We will have wonderful machines and dumb people if we don't invest more in education,” cautioned musician and entrepreneur, will.i.am, during a World Economic Forum panel focused on the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution—or the multiple technological revolutions that are transforming the way we live and work—to meet global development goals.

“It’s not about connectivity—it’s about access,” noted Kate Wilson, CEO of the Digital Impact Alliance at the UN Foundation. “How do we provide access to 50% of the world not connected to the internet? SMS and voice won’t do it. How do we create content and opportunities that are relevant?”

It's crucial that no one is left behind. While technological innovation is surely part of the answer, uneven access and unequal digital skills will lead to adverse effects. For tech to improve lives in a responsible and even way, and to avoid even greater increases in inequity, we'll need new models of targeted education, responsive innovation, and real cooperation between economic, political, and social systems.


Tech needs to facilitate inclusion in addressing societal problems, by involving those who are most proximate to the problems that well-intentioned new technologies are aiming to solve. We believe that collaborative thinking leads to greater innovation, and that including the voices of those with lived experiences will generate even stronger solutions. Open innovation is in its infancy, and we’re excited to help it advance to better surface and support the social innovators our future needs.

3. Collaboration

Today’s problems are interconnected, and only through systems change can we hope to make real progress. This will require more cross-sector collaboration than ever, but first, we need to improve how these collaborations are created and sustained. It’s time to introduce new models of collaboration that distribute leadership and allow all sectors to pitch in.

The SDGs have provided a powerful framework for what needs to get done, and some of the biggest players in the public and private spheres are putting their heads together to unlock the resources necessary to meet them. During UNGA, Google and the UN launched a partnership to develop real-time maps on weather patterns and SDG development activity, while the Gates Foundation and the World Bank announced a multi-million dollar commitment to support small-scale food producers in the face of mounting climate impacts.

Public-private partnerships are a necessary ingredient, as are new collaboration models that offer participants more shared ownership and flexibility.

The road to healthy collaboration is fraught with challenges, from getting past cultural differences to agreeing to common goals to making the long-term commitments needed for systemic change. Making collaborations work is hard work—it takes empathy, grit, and a real understanding that it’s the key to sustained progress.


We’re excited for open innovation to provide a unique opportunity to rally diverse stakeholders and together explore new possibilities. By providing shared learning opportunities, clear timelines and processes, along with compelling incentives, open innovation holds the potential to mitigate against these common obstacles and to quicken the pace at which solutions are being developed by scaling the design process globally. Direct competitors collaborating in a pre-competitive space to address environmental challenges is a promising sign, but we need to go further. We all need to adopt an experimental mindset as a collective and work to continuously improve our ability to collaborate.

The NextGen Circular Business Accelerator, which culminated in a pitch event at UNGA, was one such collaboration, with leading brands, industry experts, and innovators coming together to eliminate single-use food packaging waste by developing a more sustainable cup. 

It is incredible to be in a room where you can feel a community reach a turning point. This year at UNGA we felt that shift tangibly across fields and sectors. We look forward to a year of collaborations with our partners and community that reflect this movement. 

What Do We Hope To Accomplish?

The Rockefeller Foundation has partnered with SecondMuse and OpenIDEO to amplify the discourse on the state and the future of the world’s many food systems, and to empower communities globally to develop actionable solutions and become protagonists in their own food future. Creating a compelling, concrete and actionable Vision for the future of our food system requires a culture of collaboration that rallies industry, policy, academia, and society to act as one. When we come together, we can deliver sustainable, nourishing diets for people and the planet by 2050.

Why Food Systems?

Aside from air, food (including clean water) is the most vital resource for life on Earth. And when you look at the food systems data and 2050 projections, the future does look bleak. But Humanity has more knowledge, technology, social intelligence, and human capacity than ever before—all of which can be harnessed to create a food system that nourishes all people, grows the global economy, and nurtures a thriving environment.

A Systems Approach

The Food System Vision Prize invites organizations and entities (called Visionaries) to imagine a hopeful, inspiring Vision for their chosen Place—town, state/province, region, bioregion, watershed, or country—through a systems approach. The goal for the program is to develop Visions that reflect the views of different stakeholders and that address the following six Themes:
1. Environment
2. Diets
3. Economics
4. Culture
5. Technology
6. Policy

Our Goal

Successful Food System Visions will be stories of contrast. They will illuminate the difference among food systems as they exist today and as they could be in the year 2050 “if we get it right” (science, policy, advocacy, behavior, etc.). Visions will unlock inspiration, knowledge, networks, and innovative solutions that have the potential to transform the future course of humanity and the planet. The purpose of the Food System Vision Prize is to light the way for populations across the globe to realize a more promising, nourishing, and healthy future.

Sign up to stay tuned for updates!


1 . National Institutes of Health (NIH). Handout on Health: Atopic Dermatitis (A type of eczema) 2013. 2. NA Gandhi et al., Targeting key proximal drivers of type 2 inflammation in disease. Nat Rev Drug Discov. 2016;15(1):35-50. 3. S. Weidinger et al., Atopic dermatitis. Lancet. 2016;387:1109-1122. 4. T. Zuberbier, et al., Patient perspectives on the management of atopic dermatitis, J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2006;118(1):226-232.

Header Image © 2018, Lurdes R. Basolí / EFA Atopical Lives Project

SAGLB.AD.19.08.1277(1) | September 2019