For a better future for children and young people, we need to innovate

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Henrietta H. Fore, Executive Director, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)


  • Years of progress towards Sustainable Development goals has been dramatically interrupted by COVID-19.
  • We need to work with children and young people to improve mental health and the causes of mental ill-health.
  • This will mean partnerships between non-profits and business, new funding streams, and an innovative approach.

We are living in a world in which growing inequities are acute and problem-solving outside pre-existing structures is a must. A world that moves toward a digital future at the speed of light, leaving billions in the dark. Years of progress towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been dramatically interrupted by COVID-19. It’s time to ask ourselves if we are doing enough to meet the 2030 deadline for achieving the SDGs.

In practice, what will that take?

Include children and young people

For starters, children and young people need us to support them as the agents of change in their own lives. A recent poll done in partnership with Gallup, showed us we have a generation of young people who are 50 per cent more likely than adults to believe that the world is becoming a better place with each generation.

Despite their optimism, they express restlessness for action on climate change and are struggling with feelings of depression and anxiety. Yet, as we clearly hear in the #OnMyMind global conversation, young people are passionate that many causes of poor mental health are not inevitable.

Let us prove them right. Alongside youth changemakers, the World Economic Forum, Salesforce, and a range of partners, a global entrepreneur challenge will be launched on UpLink in 2022 to use digital technologies to improve young people’s mental resilience and wellbeing globally.

Nurturing adolescents’ realistic optimism is step one. In parallel, we must do all we can to encourage their design and technology skills development. We should encourage the entrepreneurial mindset necessary to tackle the challenges they face in their daily lives and in an increasingly unpredictable future.

Upshift is a programme doing just this in over 40 countries and with a projected reach of over 15 million young people by 2025. Young innovators are finding pathways to disrupt climate change, including using algae to combat carbon emissions and addressing social equity gaps they identify as central in their communities.

With approximately 60 per cent female participants, the Upshift programme is also intentionally addressing the reality – even in middle and higher-income countries – that only 14 per cent of girls who were top performers in science or mathematics expected to work in science and engineering compared to 26 per cent of top-performing boys. Let us collectively commit to dramatically increasing the percentage of female Artificial Intelligence professionals (currently only 22 per cent) designing the algorithms that impact all of our lives.

Build alternative futures together

Partnerships between nonprofits and business must be grounded in shared values, common action and joint accountability for results while balancing inclusion and sustainability in all business models and impact goals. We share a few promising examples below, but we need more partners to align and more ideas for building alternative futures together.

Learning Passport with Microsoft illustrates what can be achieved with a shared goal of equity. The mobile and offline platform has made high quality, flexible learning possible for 1.6 million children in 13 countries, even where reliable web connection is unavailable. Used widely to keep children learning when schools around the world closed due to COVID-19 containment measures, the platform was recognized as one of TIME’s 100 Best Inventions in 2021.

With the support of several partners including Ericsson, the UNICEF and ITU, the Giga initiative has mapped over one million schools in 42 countries, toward a goal of connecting every school to the internet. Using these, scientist and artist Nadieh Bremer created a striking collection of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that represent the world ‘above’, the connected schools, and a pale world ‘below’, reflecting the unconnected schools. The proceeds from the sale of the “Patchwork Kingdom” NFTs will help fund a shifting landscape in which all students are brought into the vibrant world above.

Using data from the Giga initiative, scientist and artist Nadieh Bremer created 'Patchwork Kingdom', which represents the world ‘above’, the connected schools, and a pale world ‘below’, reflecting the unconnected schools.
Using data from Giga initiative, scientist and artist Nadieh Bremer created ‘Patchwork Kingdom’, which represents the world ‘above’, the connected schools, and a pale world ‘below’, reflecting the unconnected schools. Image: Giga

Alongside Finland and ARM, we are also creating a safe playground for disruption with tech entrepreneurs, youth, and data ninjas. Challenging the trendy concept that describes a company valued at over 1 billion USD as a “unicorn”, join us to build blue unicorns — ventures that impact 100 million children’s learning adventures, in a safe, ethical, and nurturing ecosystem that promotes gender equality, non-discrimination and inclusiveness.

Unlock public and private capital

When we are talking about reaching hundreds of millions of children, the movement of public and private financial capital cannot be overlooked. As the Minister for Sweden’s International Development Cooperation, Per Olsson Fridh, says: “International development cooperation must be catalytic and innovative.

Traditional aid alone cannot solve the challenges facing the world.” In partnership with the development finance sector in Finland, we are working to unlock more public and private capital to drive impact for children, including a child-aligned impact fund worth hundreds of millions of Euros.

Another 2022 demonstration of success will be the design of a digital literacy equity outcomes fund, announced at the Generation Equality Forum where $40 billion in financial commitments were pledged for gender equality results within five years. The fund holds the promise to support every girl to be a tech trailblazer, grounded on existing investment flows of more than $21 billion in relevant school-to-work transitions in emerging markets.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve digital intelligence in children?

The latest figures show that 56% of 8-12-year-olds across 29 countries are involved in at least one of the world’s major cyber-risks: cyberbullying, video-game addiction, online sexual behaviour or meeting with strangers encountered on the web.

Using the Forum’s platform to accelerate its work globally, #DQEveryChild, an initiative to increase the digital intelligence quotient (DQ) of children aged 8-12, has reduced cyber-risk exposure by 15%.

In March 2019, the DQ Global Standards Report 2019 was launched – the first attempt to define a global standard for digital literacy, skills and readiness across the education and technology sectors.

Our System Initiative on Shaping th Future of Media, Information and Entertainment has brought together key stakeholders to ensure better digital intelligence for children worldwide. Find our more about DQ Citizenship in our Impact Story.

UNICEF is also paving the way in the public sector in our use of blockchains to increase efficiency and transparency. With support from the Ethereum Foundation, we are using our CryptoFund to invest in technology startups within the global south. To date, 2,527 ETH and 8 BTC have contributed to 18 investments developing open-source, digital public goods.

Embrace change and failure

At the heart of every child is innovation — a natural curiosity that is universal. Together let us dare, like children, to think big. Let us be bold in challenging the prevailing norm that equity goals are pursued as a “levelling up” to the pace of the digital revolution. Closing geographical, gender and generational digital divides must set the pace of the revolution.

Let us make mistakes as we innovate, and challenge each other. Only then will we live up to our best effort toward a truly equitable, inclusive and sustainable world.

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