Now more than ever, we must amplify youth voices in digital development

by Shalin Jyotishi, Senior Analyst, Education and Labour, New America and Fellow, Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum

Access to affordable, reliable, Internet connectivity and digital literacy is no longer a “nice to have” for nation states. The COVID‑19 pandemic has illustrated the crucial role of high‑quality broadband access in advancing the physical, social, financial and emotional wellbeing of people all around the world.

Whether for access to health care, support with schooling, the means to work remotely, or support in combatting mental health fatigue amid the pandemic, digital technologies connected via the Internet have proven indispensable in nearly all facets of life.

By extension, communities with robust broadband connectivity have weathered the peaks of the pandemic far more effectively than those without it. In parallel, the need has become paramount to bring youth to the forefront in the ongoing digital development conversation.

While Millennials and Generation Z are often referred to as “digital natives,” they are more often than not left out of the dialogue and actions that drive digital development forward.

Now more than ever, youth should be given an equal seat at the table in conversations around digital development. A fundamental tenant of user‑centred design is that the end‑users of a given technology or service are the masters of their own experience. While governments, corporations, civil society groups, and other stakeholders sometimes study the perspectives of youth, there is a great deal of value of learning directly from the lived experiences of youth who have experienced the digital divide firsthand.

Deliberating with digital natives

All stakeholders active in digital development should make use of substantive strategies such as co‑design, public engagement, and inclusive deliberations. Public‑private stakeholders can turn to initiatives like ITU’s Generation Connect to identify models, best practices, and regional digital development youth advocates, as a key step towards consultations on a digital inclusion strategy that is, indeed, inclusive of the youth perspective.

More broadly, stakeholders can turn to the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community — a valuable platform to which I belong. With a network of nearly 11 000 young leaders under the age of 30, this vast and valuable community works through 448 city‑based hubs to drive local‑level dialogue, action and change, including around digital development issues.

In August 2021, the Global Shapers Community collectively contributed to and published the Davos Lab: Youth Recovery Plan — a ten‑pillar approach to pandemic recovery focused on the welfare of youth. Two pillars relate directly to digital development, signalling the demand from young leaders around the world to incorporate youth perspectives in this crucial field.

As Raashi Saxena, a youth engagement advocate and Global Shaper from the Bangalore Hub, told me in an interview:

“For a digital society to be open, safe, and empowering for everyone involved, we need to co‑create policies for the digital age that put the interests of people first. Youth mirror the social fabric of our society, providing a holistic view and understanding of Internet governance that will be key to bridging the information‑parity gap.”

Building a youth‑centred ecosystem

Public‑private stakeholders need not reinvent the wheel. In recent years, many organizations have produced resources to aid stakeholders with empowering and including youth perspectives in all aspects of digital inclusion and digital development.

Saxena recently contributed to a Youth Internet Governance Forum that published 12 Youth Recommendations for a Sustainable Internet, a paper published in March 2021 as part of the Mastercard Foundation’s Youth Forward Initiativefocused on advancing a youth‑centred ecosystem in Africa in a post‑COVID‑19 world.

Last year, the joint Lancet and Financial Times Commission on governing health futures for 2030 published a landmark report on what it means for children and young people to grow up in a digital world.
The report underlined the significance of digital transformation as a key health determinant.

In many ways, the pandemic has hit the accelerator of global digital transformation — affecting the way we all work, play and live.

Now more than ever, as nations around the world consider recovery plans and post‑COVID opportunities, youth need to be afforded the opportunity to shape the digital future they will inherit.

As a researcher, writer, policy strategist, and member of ITU’s Generation Connect Visionaries Board, I’m honoured to stand alongside colleagues from the ITU Partner2Connect Coalition, the Global Shapers Community, and several other youth‑focused advocacy and digital development organizations to elevate the perspectives of young people. The youth perspective will be key as we work collectively to advance true digital inclusion.

Onward for a more inclusive, digital future.


This article was first published in ITU News Magazine No.6: Digital Youth.

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