Moving the needle to leave no young person behind

Anshul Sonak, Intel’s Regional Director (Innovation and Education, Asia) and Youth Co:Lab Champion for Youth Empowerment discusses the need for an innovation-based model of youth development that truly empowers young people.

 

We are witnessing deep shifts in our hyper-connected yet increasingly uncertain, ambiguous and complex world. Changing demographics and growing pressure on the earth’s resources; the blurring boundaries of cyber, physical and biological systems; the explosion of new technologies like nanotech and artificial intelligence; the knowledge and data boom; and drastic changes in the nature of jobs and work, are now creating a new type of divide called innovation divide. This is far deeper than just the digital divide, which has been discussed a lot in the past few decades. According to the Global Innovation Index – which measures the innovation divide between rich and poor – the top 10% high-income countries outpace the rest of the world. Not surprisingly, many South Asian and Sub-Saharan African countries fall in the bottom quintile. However, what worries me more is that the burden of this divide is increasingly falling on youth, especially on those who are marginalized.

There are two important aspects that contribute to the innovation divide:

  • Innovation Asymmetry: The power of innovation is distributed unevenly. Based on data from Oxfam, the world’s richest 1% acquired 82% of the wealth created last year, while the poorest half of humanity (3.7 billion people) got almost nothing. We know that innovation capital generates more wealth, as it contributes to 42% of GDP in 16 OECD countries, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). Moreover, the top five tech giants carry enormous power over our lives.
  • Innovation Inequality: The impact of innovation is also unequal worldwide. Young people in the 15-24 age bracket – who are often the most vulnerable – feel this innovation divide keenly. One quarter of the world’s working poor are in that age bracket, and although many are online, those who are still off the grid have not yet experienced the real benefits of technology innovation and development. There are also many other layers (such as ethnicity, geography and economic background) that contribute to this inequality, forcing them to be left behind. For example, many women and girls are not seeing the life-changing benefits of new technologies. According to the WEF, it will be 118 years before women have the same career prospects as men. No country in the world has closed its gender pay gap completely. Women are already under-represented in tech jobs, and it is expected that the impact of job automation on women will be considerably higher than on men.

Thus, neither the source of innovation is evenly distributed nor is the impact of innovation equally felt. To overcome the innovation divide, we must build an economy for ordinary working people and youth, not just for the rich and powerful. No young person should be left behind, as today’s youth will be tomorrow’s innovators and problem-solvers in the face of new and existing challenges like climate change, the energy crisis and ageing societies. In any global debate on this topic, it is often said that we need new models of education, and new employment and innovation mindsets to prepare youth for lifelong success. McKinsey and Company’s Innovation Matters report outlines that skills and education yield a 47% better return than knowledge capital (such as intellectual property and brand equity ). Investing in human capital is the best decision that society can collectively make. So then, what is stopping us? What is not working?

Two paradoxes come to mind:

  • The jobs paradox: On the one hand industries are struggling to hire the right people, while on the other hand, young people are not able to transition from education to employment, resulting in unemployment and underemployment, as well as related economic and social losses. The nature of work is changing with the proliferation of robots and automation. The de-coupling effect we are seeing due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (that is that productivity gains are not necessarily correlated to the number of jobs created) will only amplify these issues. Similarly, the conversation on the new social contract required between youth, employers and governments around ‘good job-good work’ is still new in many societies. As a wider problem, young people are struggling to have their voices heard.

  • The skills paradox: Future skills in the age of the new human-machine partnerships (where there is a need for collective intelligence) are going to be different than in the past. It is estimated that 65% of children who entered primary school in 2016 will end up working in jobs that do not exist today. By 2020, more than a third of core skillsets of most occupations will be made up of skills that are not provided by traditional education systems today. The conventional model of ‘learn to work’ (school – college – apprenticeship – work – retirement) will have to be replaced by ‘work to learn’ (continuous lifelong learning while working).

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Mark Bonchek, Chief Epiphany Officer at Shift Thinking, summarizes what these trends mean for young people:

 “Ours is the first generation in history with a need to update our mental maps within a single generation. The old models are rapidly becoming obsolete. This creates a challenge of not only learning, but rather unlearning. For example, this may be the last generation that needs to learn how to drive a car".

So, what is the way forward? How do we move the needle?

Well, in order to move it we need to reinvent the way we see the needle of youth development itself. A future model could fit tidily into five Es: Engagement, Education, Employability, Entrepreneurship and Economic growth. It is widely agreed that education should change to accommodate the skills needs of the future - the question is how. What is really needed is a new model that demystifies and democratizes innovation and  fosters leadership among youth. Youth, when given the opportunity, have shown an immense potential to solve real problems and address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) using new technologies. Any youth empowerment program must integrate tech skills (such as social, mobile, or analytical skills) and innovation skills (such as design thinking and rapid prototyping).

To engage young people more effectively, we should encourage the use of learning spaces that promote these skills rather than confining education to the traditional classroom. Social innovation labs and challenges for youth around the world are experiments worth continuing and scaling up. Youth collaboration and co-creation spaces that help them learn and apply such skills in their own local community contexts (wherever they come from) will help make innovation more inclusive and accessible. Such spaces can foster a new leadership and innovation mindset that combines  the “growth”, “maker” and “team” mentalities. And that mindset will help build a data-driven collective intelligence between human minds and learning machines. This should result in a new entrepreneurial culture where youth can take more ownership of sustainable development at both the macro and micro levels. Hence, even the design of such living laboratories should be catering to both macro and micro needs. Only then can youth create and sustain innovation, which will in turn generate local wealth and help communities overcome the trap of inequality.

The sustainable and inclusive development of youth is our collective responsibility, because when future tech is harnessed by truly empowered young people, our societies can collectively leap. We must make governments, academia, businesses, civil society and local community leaders more aware of how to enhance this process of empowerment through innovation, and in doing so we will help move the needle so that no young person is left behind.