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.

This past year at OpenIDEO, we've been leaning into the question: How might we not only design for community, but with community—especially with geographically dispersed teams? Collaborative design requires co-creation, deep listening, and bringing diverging perspectives and skill sets to the table. Over the last year few years, we've seen community members step into and co-design community leadership opportunities—from Community Prototypers facilitating prototyping sprints in our Challenges to Community Coaches who connect innovators to feedback and design tools in their region. Executing with distributed and virtual teams, however, is much trickier.

Building upon our foundation of community leadership cohorts, in 2019, we launched the OpenIDEO Community Fellowship. The Fellowship brings together a global cohort of dedicated community designers with human-centered design expertise to support Challenge participants in scaling their solutions. While embedded with the OpenIDEO team, Community Fellows co-create and implement program strategies to guide innovators through the design thinking process, while connecting them with resources, such as funding and mentorship, to deepen the long-term impact of their solutions. We are deeply grateful to this cohort for bringing their local lenses and design tools into OpenIDEO’s design practice. Interested in community leadership programs at OpenIDEO? Fill out this quick survey and we'll be in touch as opportunities arise.

Now, let us introduce you to the team, as they share their design tips for cultivating creative teams across continents!


Service and Social Designer | Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Learn more about Dima: LinkedIn, Instagram

Personal History/Inspiration

I was born in Beirut and moved to Paris to undergo my Graduate studies. Distance from Beirut gave me a stronger voice as a social designer. It was only after studying in Paris for three years that I felt, upon my return, how frustrated I was with a lack of public green spaces in my hometown. My designer’s mindset made me question my role as a citizen and gave me a unique voice to translate my frustration into a vision. The Beirut Green Project was born, a grassroots collective using a participatory design approach to elevate personal stories from the community and bringing people together around the idea of shared urban public space. Since that moment, I experienced the power of having intent in what you do, and that dedication can follow you wherever you go.

Professional Background:

As a designer, I’ve always been curious to explore different mediums to convey various messages, from painting to graphic design to motion graphics. But one thing that combines both my curiosity and compassion is working closely with people and designing attractive and effective experiences to answer to the world’s most pressing challenges. Service design can be a great way to find the right questions to ask, to listen to people’s needs and to translate them into sustainable projects. That path gave me the opportunity to work in very different contexts: enhancing the recruitment experience for Doctors Without Borders, understanding information flows and the spread of false information among the Syrian refugee population in Jordan, and introducing early childhood development learnings for the displaced in camps in Lebanon.

How did you become involved in OpenIDEO as a Community Fellow?

As an independent consultant, I started actively looking for ways I can apply my ethos to design research projects: how to apply a positive mindset to work on projects with heart, at scale. This exploration led me straight to the OpenIDEO community, where I got involved in designing and prototyping the the Community Coaches program, which accelerates feedback on their OpenIDEO submissions. We designed a 16 week experience for six Community Coaches from the four corners of the world, supporting pathways where the local and global community can grow and flourish. 

What’s been the most rewarding in your work as a Community Fellow?

As designers, we can often get lost in technical jargon and forget that the essence of the human-centered process is communication.  As a Community Fellow, I was involved in a Challenge imagining the future of online learning, where we invited participants who weren’t familiar with the design process to make their submissions and ideas more human-centered and impactful. It was rewarding to see that a few people not only embraced the open process but praised it and expressed on the OpenIDEO platform how good it would be to put our minds together and co-create.


Prototype, Prototype, PROTOTYPE! When designing any product, experience or service, prototyping with your users and community goes a long way. Instead of investing time and effort to build something perfect, focus on getting a fast prototype out in the world in order to test it and learn from it. Inviting your community to give you feedback on Google Docs or by watching a video of you acting out your scenario will help in doing many rounds of iterations and making sure they will use it and engage with your final output. 

Prototyping in action: on paper and with cups.


Systems Designer | Amsterdam, The Netherlands | Learn more about Itika: LinkedIn, Instagram

Personal History/Inspiration

Loss led to acceptance, acceptance to fearlessness, fearlessness to curiosity, curiosity to intent and intent to design. That’s my journey from a grieving child in the Himalayas to a passionate designer for the world.

Professional Background:

Ironically for me, to design is not to define the process but to just flow with it and let the answers emerge from the system. I’ve done that while designing for some of the toughest challenges we face today: sanitation and dignity in Asian villages, refugees and empathy in the Middle East, waste and ecology in Indian cities. I think because I was not meaning to design solutions all along but just listen to the problems, the answers emerged each time. The answer to the waste problem was designing decentralized composting products that make waste visible and beautiful. It led 3,00,000 citizens across India to keep 42 tons of wet waste out of landfills every day.

How did you become involved in OpenIDEO as a Community Fellow?

OpenIDEO had been my go-to platform since the early days of my design journey. It was the space that helped me learn from “glocal” (being both local and global) stories of design, impacting numerous wicked problems of the world. I formally joined the community when I supported an inspiring participant, Kumala, as a Community Prototyper in the Circular Design Challenge. Kumala went on to get funded for her idea, and is scaling it up as we speak. The impact of that engagement left me inspired by the infinite possibilities of designing communities that can support each other, and I continued to work and support OpenIDEO, eventually joining the team formally as a Community Fellow.

What’s been the most rewarding in your work as a Community Fellow?

My work as a Community Fellow on the Early Childhood Book Prize has turned into a working prototype that is helping me learn and contribute in the space of designing communities and their ethos. It has given me a chance to explore possibilities of how we can use global connectivity as a tool to share our universal and unique experiences with the world. My biggest learnings, insights and inspiration in this journey have come from Lauren Ito, the community designer I worked alongside on the OpenIDEO team for the duration of my fellowship.


Acknowledge the universality and celebrate the uniqueness. Universality: It often helps to start participatory design with acknowledging something that is universal to everyone, like the joy of eating your favorite meal or the stillness of watching nature. This adds a sense of comfort and belonging among the group. Uniqueness: Once everyone is comfortable, jumping to talking about and celebrating all the differences within the community upfront—like cultural rituals or geographic background—helps build a sense of inclusion and respect for each other.

"This is an illustration I had made of the Earth with the philosophy that the Earth holds various kinds of life forms (diversity) but is also a form of life in itself (universal).


Social Entrepreneur | Nairobi, Kenya| Learn more about Isaac: LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram

Personal History/Inspiration

Growing up kids in the countryside of Kitale (about a 7-hour drive from Nairobi), our parents always challenged us to step up and take ownership in running several family ventures as a way to create income to fund whatever goals we had. This was the beginning for me in developing awareness, curiosity, and genuine interest in people and their stories, challenges and opportunities, and having the excitement to connect the dots, re-imagine things and solve problems.

Professional Background:

My professional path has been around working and helping bring ideas to life as a builder, an enabler, and mentor. From starting a family venture at the age of 10, to solving problems in the food value chain, to tackling the skills gap challenge for Kenyan graduates, to working with early stage startups in Kenya and teaching entrepreneurship to recent over 100 college graduates looking to build ventures in Kenya, I’ve constantly strived to translate insights into scalable and sustainable solutions. I’m currently helping run an entrepreneurship and leadership training and accelerator program for early stage social entrepreneurs in Kenya.

How did you become involved in OpenIDEO as a Community Fellow?

I found my new home at OpenIDEO when I first submitted an idea for the Food Waste Challenge.  Ever since, I’ve submitted ideas for several other Challenges in multiple roles as a Top Contributor, a volunteer Cross-Pollinator, a Community Coach, and finally a Community Fellow. Beside all this, I volunteered as the OpenIDEO Nairobi Chapter co-organizer for 2 years.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work as a Community Fellow?

Before officially being on-boarded as a Community Fellow, I got the opportunity to be part of Gather—a convening for amazing OpenIDEO community leaders across the world. For me, this was a defining moment for what it means to belong and my role to my community and the world. It’s a constant reminder of why we do the things we do, and how the team around you shapes the energy within you and the energy you give to others.


When bringing together a diverse community or teams for the purposes of working together towards a goal, it’s helpful to find, curate, and nurture moments of genuine human connection throughout the journey. A great way to do this is to use ice-breakers, check in often, and utilize reflection prompts and story shares by community members.

Kicking off calls with an icebreaker can start the conversation on a positive note.


Product Designer | New Delhi, India

Personal History/Inspiration

My earliest childhood memories are of me scribbling mountains with my grandmother. Every time I doodle I am drawn back to those wonder-filled afternoons making me feel more like a five-year old now than I ever was. From working in a young healthcare startup to teaming up with OpenIDEO to run global design challenges, it is this child-like wonder that has 'un-shaped' me into a Design Mutant, the one that adapts, fills the gaps, and brings method to madness.

Professional Background:

Holding a cardboard box with a taped on phone screen and a clipped-on lens, the physician said with gleaming eyes, 'This is great. It will just work!' It is moments like these that make me cherish the process of design: making, collaborating, and solving problems. Operating at the intersection of people, technology and business, I have worked on projects ranging from designing simple agricultural tools to solving for complex systemic problems like monitoring pregnancies for safer childbirth.

How did you become involved in OpenIDEO as a Community Fellow?

It was through one of the many newsletters of May 2018 that I stumbled upon OpenIDEO’s Nike Design with Grind Challenge. My child-like wonder drove me to volunteer as a Community Prototyper, knowing little of what to expect. To my surprise, the Challenge community turned out to be a global bunch of amazing humans, and their energy rubbed off on me. Having dived in with uncertainty, I swam out having learnt so much and still hungry for more. When I heard about the Community Fellowship and the associated healthcare Challenges, I leapt for it, ready to explore a new facet of design and discover my role in this incredible community.

What’s been the most rewarding in your work as a Community Fellow?

"With OpenIDEO's two 2019 vaccine-focused Challenges—The Immunization Innovation Challenge and the Accelerating Immunization Coverage Challenge—I have been able to bring in my experience in healthcare to facilitate problem-solving for the innovators on OpenIDEO’s global platform. A Fellow's role is one of a creative leader, which is so much about supporting people and managing emotions. I have grown to be more caring, more open to sharing and learning to work with diversity. Working on a distributed global team has helped me develop my collaboration skills, and I’ve discovered new ways to connect at a human level—even when we are miles apart. In the course of discovering my role I have surprisingly uncovered myself, helping me grow as a person and as a designer.


Be it a thank you or a process or an idea or just sharing a thought across a remote call, sketching creates a tangible piece and a global language that makes communication seamless within cross-disciplinary groups. I say sketching or doodling, because it is a quick and dirty way to express oneself unlike drawing which is meticulous and well planned. I use the phrase “Doodle Do”: Do it to make the idea come to life and to make it actionable.

A peek into Manisha's notes, featuring plenty of doodles.

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.