We used to think that the best way to present a case study about sustainable development was through a document of about 3 to 10 pages or a PowerPoint presentation of about 20 to 40 slides. Over time, however, we found that using interactive 360-degree videos and the power of virtual reality (VR) brings the case study to life, as it provides our participants with more immersive and experiential learning.

Presenting case studies using 360-degree videos and VR tools

We realized this opportunity when we brought several UN leaders to a site visit to a couple of cities in a country whose economic development had been largely dependent on mining lignite coal for centuries. Lignite coal is one of the dirtiest coals to mine as it produces significant environmental waste every year.

We brought UN leaders to this in-person site visit to build their skills to lead their teams in achieving sustainable development results at the country level. We also provided them with training from subject matter experts to increase their knowledge around sustainable development topics, especially on complex concepts such as the interconnectedness of sustainable development goals. transboundary and intergenerational issues, and several complex challenges often characterized as wicked problems.

We knew we found an alternative to presenting case studies when our participants told us they wished they could let their teams, counterparts in the government, and partners at the country level experience the insightful site visit.  We then realized that we could convert document-based case studies and site- visits into  virtual reality tours.

Challenges for learning experience designers

The case study dilemma involved a  government that was required to close its coal mines by 2030. This meant the city needed to rethink and reimagine their future without mining and keeping the coal underground.

For us as learning experience designers, we asked ourselves how to capture the dilemma through a virtual reality tour and present the complexity of the challenge to fire up the learners’ curiosity and have them  ask the right questions. We started recreating and reimagining the full-day site visit as a 20-minute virtual tour. I had eight weeks to deliver the product. I started the project in mid-January 2020, and the product was completed by early March. Three days after I completed the project, our Chief of Operations sent a message to all staff that we should all stay at home and that all in-person missions and training delivery were  suspended until further notice due to the rapid spread of COVID-19.

I cancelled my mission to the Regional Forum for Sustainable Development. Twenty VR headsets were sitting in my office, which we had to return since we could only use them in an in-person setting.  My manager  asked me this question as we all started working from home: “What do we do with the virtual tour, Paulyn?”

 I could have said we should wait until the pandemic is over, but it was unclear how long it would last. So, I converted the virtual tour into an online tour where we used an online event platform to embed all the interactive 360-degree videos. I acted as the tour guide and asked the participants to watch the film together. We created a watch party around the tour and built spaces for discussions after watching the film together.

We launched the online tour using 360-degree videos in June 2020 during our first virtual UN Summer Academy and ran it again in 2021 as a side event for the UN Summer Academy Trend Talk. The virtual tour of a transforming city was rated the highest out of the sixteen Trend Talk sessions.

We partnered with UN Climate Change to bring the virtual reality tour to COP 27 in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt. The climate change conference brings together 45,000 people worldwide to take action on climate change. We can happily share that, based on the feedback we got,  our UNSSC virtual reality learning experience was successful at the Resilience Frontiers at COP 27. Participants noted how they felt that they were in the city and that the affected people were in front of them. More importantly, those who participated in the VR experience were brimming with insights, questions, and ideas. We provided a safe learning space where these could be shared with people from different backgrounds and various geographical locations.  


People looking through VR devices

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The future of VR and interactive 360-degree videos for sustainable development and climate action

This experience with virtual reality and 360-degree videos taught us that there is huge potential to use VR and 360-degree videos to present case studies on sustainable development concepts. Our experience at COP 27 and the UN Summer Academy where we launched the online version and VR version of the interactive 360-degree videos was our proof of concept. I also learned, however, that a solid and good storyboarding process is extremely crucial when using 360-degree videos and VR in complex and political discussions aimed at  achieving certain learning objectives. Second, it taught us that there are still some inclusivity issues with VR headsets.  They are not always user  friendly for women wearing hijabs, people with big hair, and users who have  challenges with of migraines and vertigo. But there has to be a way to make the technology more inclusive, and I believe augmented reality has the potential to fill this gap.

Overall, we were able to test the proof of concept by using virtual reality to present case studies and drive sustainable development concepts for practitioners and leaders. I also see the potential of  using VR and the whole XR experience in allowing learners to reimagine a desired future. In this experience, they can see  themselves in a world that is more equitable, peaceful, and sustainable. This learning experience can empower them to truly believe that achieving our desired future is possible.  .  

It is important to highlight that it is not about using the latest and fanciest learning technologies but using them to unleash the potential of trainers and students. Potential which they would otherwise not unleashed. It is about sharing narratives and creating dialogues around technologies to fire up people’s curiosity and passion which leads them to ask the right questions and take action.

The big task for learning experience designers is figuring out how we can leverage learning technologies to help design the future.

If you are interested in the virtual reality experience, we invite you to contact us at sustainable-development@unssc.org.

This blog is an updated version of the presentation at the OEB Global Conference in Berlin, Shaping the Future of Learning, which took place from 23-25 November 2022.