There is often a wealth of untapped problem-solving potential hidden within young people – at UNDP we wanted to harness this for positive social impact. We teamed-up to design an initiative that would empower young people to become active agents of change within their communities by offering them the driving seat in the search for new, more effective and sustainable ways of achieving positive development outcomes and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
A youth-focused innovation challenge offered an approach that could harness the creativity of young people and give them the space to identify the problems within their own communities and come up with innovative ideas to overcome these. In return, UNDP would support young people in tackling the challenges they felt were of high importance in their communities and teach them new skills to refine their creative solutions.
Initially after the launch of the challenge, we eagerly scanned the applications for “moon-shot” style proposals; but didn’t seem to find them. However, our initial disappointment quickly turned to appreciation as we saw that we had a whole cohort of “puddle jumps”. What we were seeing was the context-specific nature of innovation; it represents a broad spectrum of new ideas and ways of working; it isn’t just future-style technology!
For those young people who were selected through the innovation challenge, we offered them a two-day face-to-face training that exposed them to concepts of innovation, and leadership while providing them with practical support in refining their ideas and determining how best to implement them and measure their success. This approach facilitated youth engagement and empowerment, provided them with practical tools and problem-solving skills, and helped build a network of young problem solvers for UNDP to continue engaging with in the future.
The challenge, held in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in the final quarter of 2018, was a chance for us to test the approach with the objective of replicating across other provinces in 2019. With evidence-based iteration and scaling being a priority, and UNDP prioritizing the use of innovative approaches for impact-oriented and youth-led solutions, we wanted to critically asses what worked and what didn’t to ensure we embed these lessons in future innovation challenges.
In a nutshell, here’s what we did, what we learned and what we want to improve:
· Be clear on what the problem is: we wanted to keep the challenge open and broad, but this resulted in many applicants identifying the problems but not proposing solutions! In future, we will frame the application as a call to action around specific thematic areas which we can then support young people in developing innovative solutions for.
· Use targeted outreach: the innovation challenge was targeting semi-urban and rural youth with low digital literacy levels; so along with two ‘hard launches’ that garnered interest and publicity, we partnered with Viamo, a global organization with expertise in ICT4D, to push out SMS messages with links to the web application form. Further, we used female influencers on social media to publicize targeted posts – a strategy that proved effective for increasing the number of female applicants. In the future, we could test using robocalls to publicize amongst remote and illiterate youth. An interface of the application form in Urdu was also in place and applicants (if illiterate) had the option to call and seek help for their applications. This led to wider outreach and greater inclusion of young people and women in the process.
· Be flexible in how you provide support: the 2-day mentoring workshop for selected youth focused on basic idea development and goal-setting; this face-to-face interaction with the young people showed us they have great solutions up their sleeves but lack skills, confidence and resources to articulate and pitch them. In future, we want to integrate principles of design-thinking and additional training on communication skills (writing and pitching) to help develop their ideas.
· Closing the loop: as we have further rounds of the challenge, we must dedicate resources to building a community of young problem-solvers, connecting them with future mentoring, capacity building and funding opportunities. We would like to explore the possibility of creating a digital platform of resources based on the broader portfolio of youth empowerment and entrepreneurship work under UNDP that could be leveraged for all future innovation challenges.
Overall, hosting the challenge allowed us to test a new approach for positioning young people as the central drivers of innovation for transformative social change. It offered us the flexibility to adapt our approaches during implementation and highlighted the importance of empowering young people as active members of their own communities by giving them the space to voice their challenges and offering support for youth-led solutions to these. It’s an approach that empowers young people to become agents of change in their communities while meeting UNDP objectives of driving collaboration, innovation and youth engagement around solving development problems. Youth-led innovation will be critical to overcoming development challenges of the future and we hope to see more positive results as we roll out two further rounds of the challenge in 2019.
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 moon shots are bold, visionary inventions and technological breakthroughs, while “puddle jumps” are important, incremental advances that support the most marginalized and ensure no one is left behind. The concept was coined by MIT’s Jason Prapas.