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The energy was infectious at the National Incubation Centre, in Islamabad, where young people had gathered to design solutions for the start-up ecosystem in Pakistan. The event was first of its kind organized by UNDP Pakistan that used design thinking—where young entrepreneurs shared their challenges with stakeholders and worked with them to co-create solutions. The event was part of UNDP’s Regional Youth Co:Lab initiative, which supports young social entrepreneurs in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s ‘youth bulge’ offers a unique opportunity for socioeconomic growth as a large population of energetic, creative and tech-savvy young people can play a major role in sustainable development. Through its Youth Empowerment Programme, UNDP Pakistan is engaging thousands of young people to harness their dynamism and unlock their hidden potential, empowering them to solve their own problems. The programme utilizes design thinking sessions to respond to young people’s needs, encouraging inclusion and innovation by making young people part of the solutions and experimenting with ideas for improved results.

Moreover, the event provided an ideal opportunity for start-ups to network with technology managers, academia, government representatives, community leaders, players from the private sector and development agencies.

A series of events under the Youth Co:Lab in Peshawar, Karachi and Islamabad initiative engaged around 400 young participants throughout the country, with local gatherings in cities followed by the national event. The three local events were conducted in the form of “pre-sessions” that engaged young aspiring entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds, with special focus on vulnerable youth and women. The participants identified challenges and opportunities through group activities with representatives of government, start-ups and the private and development sectors. Together the groups proposed solutions for fostering a start-up ecosystem in Pakistan.

Solutions focused on addressing cultural barriers for young entrepreneurs through outreach to change mind-sets and encourage young people to consider entrepreneurship as a viable career option; educational reforms; improved diversity; online and physical information access centres for start-ups; community financing models and an over-arching policy nurturing start-ups in Pakistan. One group proposed the development of an online portal for start-ups to access relevant information; another recommended developing a entrepreneurship focused curriculum for school children. Yet another focused on nurturing start-ups in the health sector. UNDP Pakistan will take forward some of these solutions as part of its programme activities in order to improve the start-up ecosystem in the country.

As the solutions proposed by the groups show, when young people are engaged in design thinking sessions, they are empowered and their creativity is harnessed for action in support of socioeconomic growth. Youth Co:Lab in Pakistan offered not only a glimpse of what an entrepreneurial young population can achieve, it gave clear ways of providing the tools for achievement.

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