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Unleashing youth-led digital innovation for climate action and sustainable development

As countries in Asia and the Pacific strive to achieve sustainable development against mounting climate change challenges, engaging youth in digital innovation is recognized as one strategy for accelerating climate action. But, why is digital innovation necessary and why are young people important stakeholders?

The 80th Commission Session theme study notes that digital innovations can support our collective effort for a “course correction,” decisively changing the way societies operate. In this, youth play a critical role due to their ability to rapidly adopt and utilize new technologies, and their innovative spirit, fresh perspectives and passion are vital for creating digital solutions for complex challenges.

For instance, young innovators from Terra Grow and CrossWork exemplify these attributes by designing simple, affordable and user-centric solutions with artificial intelligence and mobile applications—paired with real-time data—to enhance timesaving, resource efficiency and resilience.

Modus Operandi—a fintech company dismantling financial barriers for unbanked businesses—further illustrates how youth-led digital innovations can empower people with access to financial services. Meanwhile, in the context of climate change, microfinance carries further potential as a tool for grassroots climate change adaptation and mitigation in under-resourced communities.

Critically, digital technologies also empower youth to raise awareness and mobilize people around climate action through social media, online campaigns, and other forms of expressions. Unfortunately, there are barriers still preventing the full engagement of youth in digital innovation.

What are the barriers?

Digital divides: In contexts of underdevelopment and poverty, especially in rural areas, access to quality digital technology is limited. Gender inequality is also pertinent as socio-cultural norms may discourage young women from pursuing careers in digital technology and innovation. Similarly, insufficient access to quality education and training for digital literacy, entrepreneurship, and innovation can limit the pool of youth engaged in digital innovation.

Financial resources: Youth-led startups and innovations often struggle to take off due to limited financial resources and access to grants and other forms of finance.

Networking and collaboration: Youth innovators often lack established networks to secure mentorships, partnerships, and funding. A strong ecosystem connecting youth to like-minded partners and mentors is essential. Now, with these barriers identified, what are some solutions?

Addressing the barriers to youth-led digital innovation

Against these challenges, governments and other stakeholders in the region can pursue solutions such as:

Inclusive policies: Actively including youth in decision and policy-making processes that impact digital technology, innovation, and climate action can result in more youth-sensitive and dynamic policies. In Pakistan, the Ministry of Climate Change launched the 2023 “COP In My City Initiative” to amplify youth voices in climate policy decisions, with a special focus on digitally empowering girls and women in remote regions.

Collaboration and partnerships: Strategic partnerships between youth and government agencies, the private sector, academia, and civil society can foster new solutions. For instance, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology of India offers the Digital India Internship Scheme for students, with the view to enrich the implementation of its programs.

Supportive ecosystems: Likewise, establishing innovation hubs and incubators can nurture emerging talent. Viet Nam’s Open Innovation and Technopreneur Institute, for example, is creating an innovation and startup ecosystem for the next generation of technopreneurs, prioritizing green and sustainable technologies. Meanwhile, Singapore offers incentives and networks to startups and fosters a culture of information sharing.

Closing the digital divide: Investing in country-wide digital connectivity and digital education/training, alongside encouraging the participation of young women, can help close digital divides. For example, Kazakhstan—a country with vast rural areas—is investing in its digital infrastructure while its Tech Orda initiative aims to fund youth and other individuals to develop their IT skills.

For its part, ESCAP is collaborating with youth organizations such as YECAP to empower youth to leverage digital innovation. This included organizing the event “Youth-Led Digital Innovations for Sustainable Development and Climate Action in Asia and the Pacific” to shed light on successful cases of youth-led digital innovation and the support that enabled them.

A way forward

Through user-centric and targeted solutions, digital innovations can provide a necessary “course correction” for accelerating climate action, and youth offer their creativity and contemporary, digital-savvy approaches. Yet, various barriers impede fully leveraging their potential. Overcoming these barriers requires a mix of solutions that reduce inequalities and provide a supportive ecosystem for young innovators. Finally, by treating young people as indispensable partners, governments and institutions can harness their innovative spirit to develop digital solutions for climate action, sustainable development, and beyond.

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