Social Innovation

3 defining characteristics of youth-led social innovation

A person scans the QR code of the digital payment services WeChat Pay at a fresh market in Beijing, China August 8, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter - RC2H9I9YYSZD

Funding needs to be equal whether the project is tech-led or not, and global or local in reach. Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Lucía Burtnik
Director of Innovation in Learning and Assessment, Eidos Global Community Interest Company
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  • Many areas of youth-led social innovation are under-exploited.
  • Youth-led innovations are often inspired by local problems which can be as urgent as global ones, but usually get less funding.
  • Young innovators can help youth unemployment as they tend to employ peers.

Stop for a moment and think of a young innovator. What came to your mind? What was the innovation? What did the innovator look like? And where were they at the time?

You can't invest in what you don't see, and you can't feel inspired if role models don't look like you. Showing young would-be innovators the real diversity of ideas and project-leaders out there sets them on a path to find the funding and the support they need to thrive.

In April 2019, Eidos Global launched the Social Innovation Warehouse, a programme created to build capacity among young social innovators with impactful projects, so they could become employers in a better economy.

Three cohorts into the programme, they started finding some unexpected trends and explored the reasons behind them.

Here are some lesser observed trends in youth-led social innovation:

1. Context trumps tech

At least when it comes to groundbreaking ideas.

How much "tech-enabled" or "tech-based" a project is usually depends on where the innovator comes from. For many communities around the world, there is little or no access to tech in general, even to a decent internet connection.

This has a direct effect on the kind of solutions a young person will be able to generate, and that hinders their chances to seem "exciting" for investors or grant makers.

There is no doubt that low-tech projects can still be mind blowing. Take Madiba&Nature, founded by Ismael Essome Ebone Madiba, aged 30, to help preserve the livelihoods of fishermen whilst also addressing the issue of marine plastic pollution.

The initiative builds boats from plastic bottles in Cameroon, so fishermen can still go out in the sea when resources are scarce.

2. A desire to better access to education motivates many

Based on data from our nomination process, the most pressing issues for youth are quality education (42%) and decent work and economic growth (38%), which are Sustainable Development Goals 4 and 8, respectively.

It was apparent in every call for nominations, and the reason is simple: 20-year-olds are immersed in the transition from education to work, and witness and experience the challenges and inequalities present in those spheres.

We need to make new definitions of success and impact for those cases in which large numbers and scale are not relevant.

Lucía Burtnik

Urged by the need to transform such realities, many projects aim to improve the quality of education provided in the local community.

From equipping children with knowledge, skills and abilities through STEM like Marisol Torrez, aged 25, with her Peque Innova in Bolivia, to the Latvian initiative Learn IT whereby 30-year-old Elina Ingelarnde fuelled a nationwide coding club, young innovators are aware that skills are crucial to create better opportunities for their peers.

3. Local issues first

It is no surprise that local issues and life stories are major catalysts for young innovators deciding to work on a project. It translates into bucket-loads of passion and highly localised, impactful solutions.

Take Nicole Ryan, aged 23, who started Alex's Adventure after losing her brother to drug misuse. She now educates thousands of young people in Ireland on drug consumption and abuse.

Have you read?

Randa Sandhita's Katalisator Muda Indonesia aims to change perceptions about conflict in a country where diverse communities have work to do in terms of learning to accept their differences.

A local problem is as urgent as major global ones, but usually they get less press coverage and minimal funding, making it very difficult for such initiatives to survive. We need to make new definitions of success and impact for those cases in which large numbers and scale are not relevant.

Youth employment: a path forwards

We often hear daunting statistics about youth unemployment: such as how young people are approximately three times more likely to be unemployed than adults, or that the pandemic and its economic consequences are going to hit young people the hardest.

Pre-coronavirus figures from 2019 are proof of this, with one in five of those aged under 25 classified as NEET (not in employment, education or training).

In the face of such grim prospects, our experience revealed that young innovators tend to hire peers, becoming key players to reduce youth unemployment. But they need support to achieve that – both legal and financial.

There are role models out there, and their backgrounds are as diverse as their ideas. Social innovators have many faces, whether Black, Muslim, Latino or non-binaries and come from all four corners of the world. They need and deserve to be in the spotlight.

If we want to create a more sustainable, fairer world as we navigate the COVID-19 crisis, we need to start sharing a more diverse picture, so more young people, policy-makers and investors can be aware of the opportunities that a new kind of economy – one based on seeking positive impact over profit – could bring.

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