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Unleash 700 million youth-led solutions for Asia-Pacific’s wicked problems

Beniam Gebrezghi, Programme Specialist, Civil Society and Youth, UNDP Regional Hub in Bangkok

Would you agree if I said that young people are better prepared now than any other time in history to engage with the world? My experience of serving the young with the United Nations Development Programme certainly says so.


Young people are more connected, more creative and more informed today than any previous generation. All over the world, young people are responding to present day challenges with innovative approaches and fresh ideas, building bridges and creating the world they want. They are leading development for themselves, their communities and their societies. A recent article published by BBC, titled “Five teens who changed the world”, sets proof to concept and makes one sit up to notice the power of young voices driving social change.


Over the past two years, UNDP together with Citi Foundation has been empowering young leaders to transform the world through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. We started off as a small, unassuming bottom-up grassroots initiative, called the Youth Co:Lab, led by a group of young social entrepreneurs, focusing on influencing individuals, institutions and systems.


I am proud to see us in our third year and launching Youth Co:Lab 2.0, firmly anchored in the Future of Work. As many others have done before us, our focus and attention is now shifting to developing approaches that lean on systems thinking and look at systemic change with a strong focus on the future, aka, making governments future ready, making policies future ready, making the workforce future ready and making workplaces future ready. 


We look to solve three emerging questions with Youth Co:Lab 2.0 and here is where you might be able to support: 


  1. How do we solve old problems with new solutions, when the tools we are using to solve are broken? How do we transform from a project to a systemic solution?

  2. How do we consolidate a fragmented ecosystem, develop a clear value chain, when silos, competition and KPIs prevent people from collaborating?

  3. How do we improve our last mile implementation and reach the bottom of the pyramid, when infrastructure, digital divide, finances and sheer knowledge is concentrated at the top?


In this highly uncertain and complex world, the need to constantly learn and adapt to new realities becomes inevitable. These fundamental questions are starting to influence how we reframe and re-imagine the future of Youth Co:Lab. To operate and understand distinct yet complimentary levels of change (individual, institutional and systems) is not easy; it demands different skills sets, networks and approaches. To solve for youth unemployment and the future of labor in a coherent, systemic manner means developing a new imagination.


Young people need positive role models, an ecosystem that enables them to take an idea forward and an enabling environment where policies and regulations help grassroots innovations and entrepreneurships, thrive. While we have over 500 youth-led SDG solutions focused start-ups and over 150 institutional partners, it is a far cry from the 700 million youth that we strive to empower.


We are not the first organization struggling to move towards a systems change approach, but it is good to walk this path with 150 partners, along with Citi Foundation and the Commonwealth Secretariat.


How do we solve old problems with new solutions, when the tools we are using to solve are broken? How do we transform from a project to a systemic solution?

Last week, the Commonwealth Secretariat and UNDP, brought together 50 policy makers, young entrepreneurs and academia in Singapore to collectively test how a systems approach can help us reach our vision and generate more impact. Some key provocations included: How do we define a successful systems change and what does success look like? How do we convince our bosses? What digital tools are available to help us map out complex systems change? To my surprise, amid liberating discussions, tools and toolkits, innovative approaches, and methodologies, it all still comes down to the power of the human connection, building trust and finding a common purpose. If you don’t invest in this first essential human building block, you will not get very far.


After piloting the first and second Government Innovation Lab in Hanoi and Singapore respectively, I am finally starting to realize that it is easier for a child to do this than an adult, as it simply boils down to un-learning. We need to unlearn, re-imagine and re-configure our actions in our quest to solve wicked problems such as the youth unemployment, NEET and the underdevelopment conundrum, currently holding 50% of youth in economic insecurity. There aren’t any silver bullets to be found but a common understanding that none of us have the right answers. This might be the single most important ingredient to unearthing complex systems with numerous dependencies, relationships, competitions. Complex issues such as youth unemployment must be interrogated and explored through the relationships between the stakeholders that comprise a system and how they give rise to collective behaviors. This is extremely challenging for governments and institutions, where behaviors are not steered for moonshots, discovery-oriented approaches, experiments and future scenarios of “unknown unknowns”.

After three days of discussions, the conversations ended very much where they started : building trust and relationships is fundamental to experimenting for the future; it is about understanding the drivers behind behaviors, unearthing and addressing the deeply entrenched mental models from which systems, trends, and activities are derived. There are no shortcuts. Complex, structural issues like youth unemployment in the context of a rapidly changing and increasingly globalized labour market cannot be fixed with single point solutions.

As we venture into the world of moonshots and un-known unknows, we will support our government counterparts in utilizing innovative tools such as systems design, sensemaking, portfolio design and design thinking, to identify the main leverage points for systemic change at national and local levels.

The Government Lab provides our partners with an opportunity to explore this challenging territory: a journey of exploration, challenging assumptions and collective learning. We welcome any partners willing to support, handhold and guide us in this journey.  


How do we consolidate a fragmented ecosystem, develop a clear value chain, when silos, competition and KPIs prevent people from collaborating?


Strengthening the ecosystem is a complex task, new creative solutions are needed to tie us together. The classic proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”, holds true for start-ups and entrepreneurs as, “it takes a very strong ecosystem to help a start-up succeed”. Partnerships and value chains bridge a siloed ecosystem but are hard to sustain. It requires courage, patience and determination and is rarely a ‘quick fix’ solution. Evidence suggests that such cross-sector ecosystem collaborations can be highly effective and sustainable when it is designed, developed and managed in a systematic way.


Youth Co:Lab is one such emerging initiative with over 150 partners from all sectors, jointly forming a web of formal and informal touch points to help accelerate the SDGs through youth-led solutions. Our attempt has always been to build a strong youth empowerment alliance to help young people succeed in their ventures and to provide a strong pre-incubation pipeline. Our pre-incubation programme, Springboard, is key to our success as we continue to bring partners together, through trust and shared values. In my view, single sector approaches have consistently proved disappointing - different sectors have developed activities in isolation, sometimes competing and/or duplicating efforts and wasting valuable resources.


Moving forward, we want to build the capacity (knowledge, resources, effectiveness, inclusivity etc.) of over hundreds of ecosystem partners (incubators, accelerators, academia, government, counterparts, private sector, youth organizations etc.) across the Asia Pacific region through a partnership focused platform (network of networks).


How do we improve our last mile implementation and reach the bottom of the pyramid, when infrastructure, digital divide, finances and sheer knowledge is concentrated at the top?


Reaching the bottom of the pyramid demands both dedicated and mainstreaming interventions as well as a systemic approach to empowering marginalized youth at the regional, national and local levels. The vision of “leaving no one behind” is one of the greatest challenges we all face. In 2019-20, we will bring partners together to explore how we can support each other through coalitions and networks and work together to design targeted interventions that stimulate new collaborations, introducing 21st century skills, enterprising tendencies and a pathway to progress. This is the time to expand our sense of what is possible and seek solutions that cut across traditional silos in government, private sector and society at large.

A new effort in this direction is the newly established youth-led platform set-up by Asia Indigenous People Pact in collaboration with UNESCO and UNDP and piloted in Chiang Mai,Thailand earlier this June. Indigenous Youth from 14 countries came together to explore grassroots innovations that drive social change through entrepreneurship. Our goal is to extend them a year-long leadership journey and connect them with partners, mentors and investors.

One such success story is Hostbeehive, an indigenous community-based social enterprise from Chiang Mai, Thailand that produces honey, coffee and tea using traditional farming practices such as crop rotation. The co-founders aim to sustain the vibrant bio-diversity of their forests. Not only is Hostbeehive producing these goods, they are also preserving indigenous knowledge and generating employment for local people.

Onwards and Upwards, we continue to ask the hard questions. A granular understanding of the underlying dynamics that prevent everyone in society to have equal access to opportunities that guarantee their wellbeing, is critical for us. We may have a long way to go in our journey to re-imagine the future but we are convinced that this generation of young leaders are the solution to many of the issues facing Asia and the Pacific. We believe investing in these 700 million young people today will lead us to 700 million SDG solutions, tomorrow.

Time we all #JoinTheMovement.


What is YouthCo:Lab

Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for Asia-Pacific countries to invest in and empower youth to accelerate implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. By developing 21st century skills, catalyzing and sustaining youth-led startups and social enterprises across the region, Youth Co:Lab is positioning young people front and center in order to solve the region’s most pressing challenges. In addition to supporting youth entrepreneurship, Youth Co:Lab also works closely with multiple stakeholders across the region, including governments, civil society and the private sector, to strengthen the entrepreneurship ecosystem and policy support to

better enable young people to take the lead on new solutions that will help meet the SDGs. In its second year (2018-19) Youth Co:Lab was scaled to 20 countries and territories in the Asia- Pacific region including Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, Philippines, Pakistan, Samoa, Solomon Islands, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand Vanuatu and Vietnam.

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