Economic Progress

3 ways to ensure innovation transforms the lives of the next generation

We can't afford to let the world's children fall behind. Image: Unsplash

Cynthia McCaffrey
Representative to China, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)
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Economic Progress

This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

We live in a world of unlimited potential. A world in which mass connectivity, enhanced mobility and technological progress are all happening at an unprecedented pace. A world in which fewer mothers and infants are dying in childbirth and more and more children are getting an education.

Yet for all the progress the world is making, many are still struggling. Poverty, conflict, violence, and confining social and gender norms are issues that still need to be resolved or eliminated.

For the 1.8 billion young women and men aged 10-24 today, several distinct challenges remain. While more young people are going to school than ever before, in many parts of the world the education they receive is of unacceptably low quality. In 2016, nearly 200 million adolescents and young people aged 12–17 were out of school and many had never started or completed primary education. In 2017, an estimated 21.8% of young people (76.9% of whom were female), were not in employment, education or training.

The burden is particularly heavy for those who are marginalized—young women and children facing gender discrimination, refugee children forced to flee their homes, and young people in remote or impoverished areas without access to basic essential public services, let alone digital connectivity. As progress is being made in some geographic areas but not in others, those who are left behind are finding it increasingly harder to catch up.

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Here’s where innovation can help. Emerging approaches and tools that come about as a result of new technology have an enormous potential to positively impact the lives of children and young people. When tested and applied in the proper context, they can help shape the future of children. Around the world, we are already seeing examples where this is happening.

In countries as diverse as Kyrgyzstan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Brazil and Mauritania, UNICEF is using high-resolution satellite imagery and applying deep learning techniques to map every school in order to provide real-time data that can assess the quality of each school’s internet connectivity.

The goal of Project Connect is to eventually create an observable metric of society’s progress towards enabling access to information and opportunity for every community on Earth. The data collected from the project will help inform programmatic decisions and help ensure that resources towards improving access are allocated to those who need them most.

Another example of innovation being applied to help the next generation is UNICEF’s collaboration with Microsoft and the University of Cambridge to tackle the education crisis impacting children and young people affected by conflicts and natural disasters. Under the new collaboration, UNICEF and its partners are working to develop a ‘Learning Passport’ – a digital platform that will facilitate learning opportunities for children and young people whose education has been disrupted by crises.

The ‘Learning Passport’, which will be tested in countries hosting refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons, is intended to make it easier to provide children on the move with the right level of education despite disrupted learning opportunities. Globally, 30 million children lived outside their country of origin in 2017. About 12 million children were refugees and asylum seekers. Millions more have been affected by international migration.

Innovative solutions can also be used to improve programmatic efforts. In China, for example, UNICEF is exploring opportunities with partners, including universities and the private sector, to co-develop technology solutions, such as the use of an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot to disseminate knowledge, collect feedback and measure programme impact. We want to continue working with Chinese technology companies for partnerships to leverage their digital platform, cutting-edge data security and AI for better ways of programme implementation and efficient on-the-ground solutions for China and Belt and Road Initiative countries.

The ways in which innovation can be used to benefit the next generation are innumerable. How can all of us make sure that innovation benefits young people? Here are three concrete ways to start:

1. Involve young people in every stage of your project. Young people are more than just the beneficiaries of innovation. They can also be partners in the development of solutions. Involving young people in every stage—from planning to development to feedback—ensures not only that your project keeps its focus, it also provides young people with a chance to be heard and equips them with real-world skills for the workforce.

2. Focus on delivering results for girls and young women. Data show that women are likely to be even more left behind because of the digital divide. The International Telecommunication Union states that globally, the proportion of men using the internet in 2017 was 12% higher than women while the GSM Association reports that women are 26% less likely to use mobile internet than men. Closing the gender gap means that we need to pay extra attention to making sure that girls and young women are gaining digital literacy skills and receiving opportunities to participate in the increasingly digital workforce.

3. Partner with Generation Unlimited, UNICEF’s global partnership to identify and scale-up solutions. Generation Unlimited aims to brings together public and private partners and young people to make sure that every young person aged 10-24 is in some form of school, learning, training or employment by 2030. If you have innovative solutions or technologies that can be developed, modified or scaled up to connect young people to education or new skills, let us know at

When we come together–public and private partners, and young people–we make innovation work, ensuring the best outcomes and future for us—and the next generation.

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