Posts in Emerge 2017

How Virtual Reality is Helping Grow Africa’s New World Wonder

What do global decision makers and an 8-year old Senegalese girl have in common? It turns out that they can inhabit the same space despite the many miles between them.

The initiative in question is an ambitious 8000 km long natural wonder termed “The Great Green Wall.” Their shared experience comes from a VR film entitled “Growing a World Wonder” led by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in partnership with Surround Vision. But they’re also the first to tell you that VR isn’t the answer to everything. “I know many people talk about VR as the ultimate empathy machine – but for us it wasn’t so much about empathy but about inspiration to see and hear the world from another human’s perspective. I think in that sense. VR breaks the square frame of traditional narratives,” says Alexander Asen, Communications Officer at UNCCD. To craft a compelling narrative, Alex and his team decided to place people at the center of the action, rather than simply speaking to the story through reports and visuals.

Graphic map of the northern half of Africa, showing the green wall initiative's participating countries

(National Geographic)

In order to raise public awareness of the project, the UNCCD considered innovative methods beyond the typical marketing campaign. When they first conceived of the idea in 2015 ahead of the Paris Climate Conference, VR was in its infancy. “VR allowed us to bring what was happening in the field on the edge of the Sahara desert – to the very heart of the conference,” says Alex. The film is told from the perspective of a young girl named Binta, who relays the story of a community on the forefront of climate change. Her village of Koyli Alpha in Senegal is part of the ambitious Great Green Wall project, which aims to bring food, jobs, and future for the millions that live in desertified areas. The film follows her as she tells the story of how the climate has changed the landscape and lifestyles of those in her village, resulting in famine and exodus. However, the ending is much more hopeful.

Screen shot of the "Growing a World Wonder" on YouTube


What was the result? Growing a World Wonder “has been part of a broader lobbying process which incredibly, has led to $4bn of funding for the project over the next 5 years,” according to Alex. In addition, the Sengalese Minister of Environment invited Binta and her grandfather Moussa to a major conference on the role of African Ministers in growing Senegal’s Great Green Wall. There’s still much more to be done, however. Alex and the UNCCD team plan to leverage VR more widely with decision makers at key events, as well as with communities along the Great Green Wall to build awareness. Other opportunities to engage with the broader public include video platforms such as YouTube, showings at theatres like Paris Imax, and immersive education experiences with Google expeditions.

VR experience at Emerge 2017

“The real power was that we could connect global decision makers with the very communities whose lives they could change, to allow them to walk in their shoes – which was an incredibly powerful tool,” says Alex. Creating public awareness of social initiatives such as the Great Green Wall requires a different approach that inspires and entertains individuals, rather than simply educating them. In doing so, we can feel better connected to the future that we all want to build together.

Credit to Alexander Asen from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) for his help in developing and reviewing the content of this article.


Photo of Katherine Li Katherine Li is a current MBA student at the University of Oxford – Saïd Business School. Prior to Oxford, she worked with early stage Bay Area, San Francisco, start-ups to enable future growth and is passionate about innovation, technology, and healthcare.

“We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it”

I had the pleasure of spending my weekend at Emerge 2017. A conference created by the Skoll Centre and the Saïd Business School at University of Oxford, focused on exploring big ideas that are disrupting and challenging unjust systems and practices.

Opening Plenary: Andy Middleton

Opening Plenary: Andy Middleton, Project Slipstream

Each session I attended has laid out a blueprint of what is needed to ‘invent’ the future. Although, we cannot say for sure which particular idea or business will eventually become the status quo, these principles should still be universally applicable. The four themes which stood out most to me are:

  1. Leveling the playing field
  2. Useful innovations
  3. Measuring Impact
  4. Building relationships
Going beyond measuring financial returns with Karim Harji

Going beyond measuring financial returns with Karim Harji

Leveling the playing field

We don’t have to look very far to see just how unfair life can be. Unfortunately, the success of many has come at the expense of others. However, there is a growing awareness of the privileges enjoyed by some which give them unfair advantages, as well as conscious effort to want things to change. This was most powerfully demonstrated through the conversations around Universal Basic Income (UBI). Listening to the speakers share their thoughts both for and against UBI was thought provoking and insightful; however, what was more surprising was seeing what was unfolding online. As tweets sharing the ideas from the speakers began to show up on Twitter, it didn’t take long to see just how passionate people are on the topic. There is an undercurrent of deep desire for change, and although we can’t yet agree on how to bring it about, it’s a conversation which can’t be ignored.

Useful Innovations

Sometimes scientists and entrepreneurs can get carried away with cool ideas that don’t actually bring about much value to society. This was not a problem amongst the community at Emerge 2017. I was blown away by the volume of people who are creating new technologies that not only have great economic potential but also great social impact. This was demonstrated through the pitch competition. The eventual of the competition winner of SafetyNet Technologies blew me away. They have invented a device for fishermen which attracts the fish they hope to capture and repels any other species. While listening in awe of the pitch, I couldn’t help but to calculate just how huge the environmental implication of the startup really could be.

Nadia Laabs from SafetyNet Technologies, pitching at the Emerge Pitch Competition

Nadia Laabs from SafetyNet Technologies, pitching at the Emerge Pitch Competition. (Photo by Fisher Studios)

Measuring Impact

I’ve always been taught that “what we measure, we improve” and my experience in business and nonprofits has proved this to be true. The operating system of society seems to geared towards measuring money and influence. There are so many reasons why this is the case, however, I believe that part of the explanation is easy both are to measure. All that is required is to check our social media follower count or look at our bank balances. However, a constant conversation throughout Emerge was being aware of what impact a company or programme is having, followed with the thoughtful scrutiny on how valuable those impact metrics truly are. The session lead by Purpose Capital’s Karim Harji was extremely useful to me, where he introduce the “Theory of Change” concept as way to work out how to measure less obvious social impact metrics.

Panel for Show me my money: How to take ownership of the effects of your pension

Show me my money: How to take ownership of the effects of your pension

Building Relationships

Probably one of the oldest clichés in business is the saying “your network is your net worth”, although there is truth in the statement. Huge amounts of value can be gained from building a network; however, the key isn’t just about the quantity of the relationships but also the quality. I loved that one of the keynotes of the conference was focused exclusively on teaching us how to build stronger relationships. If we are going to create meaning change in society, than relationships with every stakeholder is going to need to be at the centre of our work.

As a whole Emerge 2017 was an amazing experience. I’ve been challenge to think about my life and business in new ways. I’ve also been inspired to not limit the ambitions and to work to the largest scale I can regarding the impact I can make. Hopefully with these new tools and ideas, I can play my part in inventing the future we all want to see.


Claud Williams Claud Williams is a brand consultant, public speaker, and social entrepreneur. He currently serves as the Executive Chairman of the social enterprise Dream Nation, which is re-inventing personal development for millennials.


Conversation: An Untapped Resource?

Over the weekend, the halls of Saïd Business School were flooded with entrepreneurs, technologists, journalists, performers, and students for Emerge, the Skoll Centre’s annual conference on social innovation. As could be expected from such an eclectic mix, many quickly found themselves making new and unexpected connections, often an eco-cup of coffee. However the question of conversation was far from confined to the conference hall or corridors of the Business School. Several sessions addressed the importance of connecting with others be it across the social, economic, geographic, or political divide.

In panels on human trafficking and the Refugee Crisis, audiences were urged to speak to others in their local communities in order to combat human rights violations and to remind us that victims – be it of slavery or conflict – are people first and foremost. In the first panel, speakers Chris Blythe, Emilie Martin, and Anja Meinhardt spoke of the prevalence of human trafficking, quoting reports by the International Labour Organization and the Walk Free Foundation that 40.3 million people were victims of modern slavery in 2016 alone. Personal recollections of where speakers and audience members were when news of The Oxfordshire Grooming case broke, brought home the speakers’ points that trafficking happens everywhere. The later discussion on how we can help those affected by the Refugee Crisis not only challenged definitions of both ‘refugee’ and ‘crisis’ but also called for a change in narrative in order to focus on interacting with and respecting individuals in order to create systemic change and promote inclusion. With a palpable frustration regarding policy, the panelists shared their stories of how they came about leading grassroots or entrepreneurial initiatives to help refugees integrate and maintain – or regain – their dignity.

Justice in Motion’s moving piece on human slavery was a definite conversation-starter.

Justice in Motion’s moving piece on human slavery was a definite conversation-starter.

During the Sunday morning Mustard Seed pitch session, eight startups spoke to the audience about the incredible work they are doing around the world. Nadia Laabs of SafetyNet Technologies took home the prize but two other initiatives focused on using technology to connect individuals in order to help each other. Language Amigo’s Macarena Hernandez de Obeso connects Spanish learners with Latin American youth for transnational conversation classes. Jyotveer Singh Gill, an NHS Communications Specialist dubbed ‘‘the Sikh Mark Zuckerberg’ by the media, created AnonCare, a compassionate social network which connects people from all over the globe to provide wisdom and support in times of need. Described as an ‘accidentally global’ initiative, the average response time is ten minutes. Both showcased how new technology’s most exciting features are not pages of code but rather the humans and connections at the heart of it all.

After last year’s American election, Henry Tsai found that Americans had lost their ability to have conversations with each other. His solution was to create Hi From The Other Side, a simple platform connecting Americans from across the political spectrum and encouraging them to have a conversation at their local Starbucks.  Initially just a Google Form, the idea took off. The platform had thousands of sign ups in a matter of weeks and new users are facing a lengthy waiting list. Emerge participants were able to give it a go in one of the final sessions of the weekend. Within minutes people were paired up and sharing details such as what they had wanted to be growing up through to their views on immigration policy. In the session Q&A, one participant commented that she had shared more than she expected she’d ever share with a stranger. The ability to share and to speak to those who are different from ourselves were key recommendations, echoed in the event’s final keynote.

As the conference drew to an end, Peter Drobac, the newly-appointed Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, shared the impact a conversation had on his own trajectory towards becoming a world-renowned global health implementer, educator, and researcher: ‘A single moment or conversation can change the course of your life and can happen at any time. Be open to it.’

Image of Speed Networking

Attendees were quick to put their skills into practice during the popular Speed Networking lunch sessions. (Photo by Fisher Studios)


Solene van der Wielen - Comms Champion for Emerge 2017Solene is a History graduate from the Universities of Warwick and Oxford. She uses her research and writing skills to help social enterprises better understand, address, and communicate human needs in the United Kingdom and internationally.

Shaping the systems and practices surrounding us

We live in a time where we have the tools necessary to make a difference and impact the many systems surrounding us but sometimes we fall short of tackling the big challenges. Through discussions, conversations and exploration, the Emerge conference facilitates the sharing of knowledge and inspiration between members who are already part of the social impact drive in their own communities and participants who want to get involved. At the same time, remembering that we have a responsibility towards the environments that get affected.

“What would you do if you couldn’t fail”

 Andy Middleton set the tone and started off the opening plenary highlighting the need to

create networks of people in diverse places and be more focused on the real challenges affecting us. His work at Project Slipstream focused on preparing future generations to be more aware of their environment and food consumption, while teaching them the tools to be able to take on big goals to change the world.

During the panel on “Finding pathways through the sustainable growth paradox” the main discussion was about designing waste out of the production cycle and utilizing the finite resources that are available to us today. Due to the shift in mind set and awareness levels over the last decade manufacturers are now having these conversations and being held accountable for their unsustainable practices. Claire Mueller from Ananas Anam emphasized the fact that growth isn’t just about the financial sides, it’s about having a positive social impact and being able to sustain your business as you grow. While Joe Murphy from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reminded us that it wasn’t a zero-sum equation, businesses can have a social impact while creating profit.

How to create the political system we want now panel

“Figure out why you want to do it” Aaron Bartnick

 Politics is also one of the most influential systems affecting our lives right now. During the “How to shape the political system we want now” session, Alex Starritt of Apolitical shared his advice on driving change in the political system by getting in touch with others who are working on the same things and asking them for help. Aaron Bartnick, a current Saïd Business School student and Skoll Scholar, gave actionable tips on how to be at the forefront of political change by running for elections yourself.

“Learn to listen to what the future is saying, and hear the stories that are merging”

21st Century Medici Affect Panel

“Learn to listen to what the future is saying, and hear the stories that are merging” Prof Shelley Sacks, Oxford Brookes University (Photo by Fisher Studios)

Throughout every session there was a call for collaborative work. This was especially the case in the “21st century Medici: creative spaces and creative collisions” session that dived into the benefits of collaborative work to create a cross pollination of ideas. The session brought together an economist, an artist, a philosopher and a scientist to talk about the work they’re creating and how they’re overcoming the barriers and politics that can challenge meaningful collaborations.

Keynote: James Rutter and Rosie Brown of COOK

Photo by Fisher Studios

Rosie Brown of COOK

Photos by Fisher Studios

The conversation continued with Rosie Brown and James Rutter from COOK sharing how they changed the system of their company through fostering an environment of relationships. They have been able to grow “The Cook Kitchen” using warm relationships as a business strategy and exploring their purpose.

Mental Health Panel: Chris Underhill, Tatiana Taylor Salisbury, Geoff McDonald

“I just want everybody in every workplace to feel they genuinely have the choice to put their hand up and ask for help” Geoff McDonald (Photo by Fisher Studios)

“I just want everybody in every workplace to feel they genuinely have the choice to put their hand up and ask for help” Geoff Mcdonald

Throughout our social impact journey, we need to be mindful of our own mental health and remember to take care of ourselves. A ground breaking session on mental health put into focus the importance of self care and mainstreaming mental health in our societies. Geoff Mcdonald passionately emphasised the need to de-stigmatize mental health.

Closing Plenary: Peter Drobac

Peter Drobac, director of the Skoll Centre (Photo by Fisher Studios)

The last remarks by Peter Drobac, director of the Skoll Centre, brought the whole two days into perspective with a call to action about the power of equity in creating equality of opportunity. He advised social entrepreneurs to understand the problem they’re trying to solve first before taking action. Peter stressed that the best leaders are led by the community they are serving and urged everyone to practice extreme humility in their journeys.

“Rather than saying No, ask How” ~ Peter Drobac Director, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship


Khadeja Ramali - Comms Champion for Emerge 2017Khadeja is currently an MA student at Soas University of London. She co-founded Project Silphium, which was launched to create a digital space for Libyan women to share their stories and have their voices heard. She is also a Geophysics Graduate from Imperial College London and worked as a Geophysicist in Libya for 5 years.

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Getting the best out of Emerge 2017

We are getting excited for what’s going to be the biggest Emerge yet! As ever it’s going to be energetic, dynamic, and jam-packed with sessions, lunchtime activities, film screenings, VR experiences – not to mention the opportunity to connect with 500+ like-minded change makers over the course of two-days.

So, how do you make the most of it?

If you have a ticket for the weekend or just Saturday or Sunday – here are some top-tips on getting the best out of Emerge 2017!

Before Emerge

Prep.  Take a look at the programme online which is now complete with the session descriptions and speakers. Get familiar with the range of sessions available and those who you want to meet.

During the Event

Get your free cup! This year we are making Emerge more sustainable, so there will be no other coffee cups available apart from your free Emerge 2017 cup made of Bamboo! Collect yours with your name badge and programme at registration.

Arrive in time. This year we have some great sessions, and have introduced some new track styles (hello Experience, How To, and Mixed-bag), so even if you don’t get a seat in your chosen session, there’ll be three others to choose from. You’ll be spoilt for choice!

Get social. Share your #Emerge17 experience on the Twittersphere! We want bite-size insights, photos, and shout outs to add to our Storyfy highlights post-Emerge.

Chill. If you need to take some time to get away from the hustle and bustle, retreat to our “Zen Zone” for some quiet time. And if it’s not just you that needs to recharge, then each of our Zen Zone pods also have plug sockets for your device.

Network. There are so many ways to meet amazing people at Emerge, whether it’s during coffee breaks and lunchtime sessions, or at our Collaborations Clothesline. But if networking isn’t your strong point have no fear; our lunchtime Speed Networking sessions are the perfect way to meet those like-minded folks looking to connect!

After the Event

Carry the torch. We hope that you will be inspired to act on the learnings you had and the connections you made during Emerge 2017. We encourage you to keep the flame alive and be sure to get to work and create the positive change you wish to see in our world!

See you soon.

Emerge Image Collage

5 reasons to come to Emerge 2017

Emerge is a social innovation conference. But it’s not your average conference. It’s a place to get inspired, to meet the amazing people making a difference, and understand how you too can make the world a better place.

Here are our top 5 reasons to come to Emerge 2017 on 11-12 November.

1. So.Much. More.

An Inconvenieit Sequel

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is the inaugral Emerge 2017 pre-conference screening. Showing on Friday, 10 November at 17:30.

Golly. Emerge, now its ninth year, has grown even bigger! With 20+ sessions, nearly 80 speakers, a debate, a pitch competition, and now 2 film screenings, we’re pretty sure you will find something that sparks your imagination and inspiration.

2. Learn skills to take positive action. Now!

Learning Skills at Emerge

We know that harnessing that energy is important for us to go out and make impact in the world. That’s why this year we’ve added “How to” sessions to our programme. From the political system to how to measure your social impact, learn the tools you need to drive positive change.

3. Meet those paving the way for positive change.

Meeting experts at Emerge

One of the great things about Emerge, is that it brings together a mix of leaders who are already creating positive change, and those who want to get involved.

By chatting to speakers after their sessions, meeting a soul-mate during the Speed Networking, or grabbing lunch with an expert at the Speaker Hosted Tables – Emerge is a great place for serendipitous collaborations.

4. Open a dialogue.

Having a dialogue at Emerge

Too often we can sit within eco-chambers – conversing with those who take the same view as us. Well no more! We are encouraging you to spark up some healthy debate with your fellow Emerge attendees to challenge our perceptions and take a rounded view.

During the Emerge Debate, we will be arguing the proposition “business is the best vehicle to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”. Hear the arguments from experts, and have your say when the proposition is opened up to the floor!

In our final Sunday session, Red+Blue=Purple: a new kind of dialogue, learn how to have conversations with those who think differently to you. It’s a chance to step out of your comfort zone and learn how to find connections with your fellow humans.

5. Get a free cup!

Free Cups at Emerge!

source: Unsplash (Matt Hoffman)

We take sustainably seriously. So that’s why we have done away with plastic water bottles this year. To replace them, we are giving each attendee a free sustainable, reusable cup made of bamboo!


Join our team!

Call for Emerge volunteers

Join our warm and friendly team, and be a part of the Emerge crew!

We are looking to recruit Event and Communications Volunteers to help us run the 2 days of Emerge. Be prepared to muck in and work hard (there is limited time off between sessions), but you will be rewarded with a free ticket to Emerge and also to the Saturday Night Emerge Dinner.

**Applications closed**


What is my time commitment?

You will need to be available on both 11 and 12 November (Saturday and Sunday) for the full day, and you will also need to be available for a 1.5-hour briefing session on Thursday, 9 November at 12:15. Communications Volunteers will additionally need to be available for a 30-minute briefing (date and time TBC).

Is it paid?

Unfortunately, volunteers are not paid, but they will receive a free ticket to Emerge and the Saturday Night Emerge Dinner.  Plus, for Event Volunteers, we’ll try to arrange for time off in your schedule if there is a particular session you want to go to.

Who can apply?

Anyone! We are looking for those who will get stuck in, be friendly and helpful, and have bags of energy to get you through the weekend!