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Opportunities and challenges around digital transformation for young people in Asia and the Pacific

By Marte Hellema, Youth Co:Lab

Photo: Owen Winkel

Digital transformation is impacting us all. With lockdowns and restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever before, it is a process we are all part of in some shape or form. It brings many opportunities, especially for young entrepreneurs, to do business in a new and exciting manner. However, it should not be underestimated how much effort this requires and that those options are not always open to everyone.


At times used as a blanket term to cover anything related to digitalization, digital transformation most commonly refers to the adoption and integration of digital technology, processes, and tools into the way businesses and organizations run and deliver their products and services. To be realized, it requires a fundamental cultural shift in the workplace and forces both employers and employees to adjust their skills, knowledge, and attitudes.


One age group that is commonly expected to benefit and flourish from such changes are young people. They are considered to be digital natives. People who have been born in the digital age and do not know or have experienced pre-Internet times. A commonly held perception is that being a digital native, having been born with all digital platforms and tools at your disposal, has automatically granted this generation an intuitive understanding and ability to utilize all online platforms and tools to their fullest potential.


And for many this is the case. Digital skills, literacy and transformation give young people, especially social young entrepreneurs many opportunities. To offer services, to develop products, to make innovations and to drive the change in their communities that they could not realize otherwise.



Linecare, for example, is developing digital health solutions such as mobile telehealth and cloud-based electronic health record (EHR) measurement tools to eliminate inefficiencies and reduce the costs of traditional healthcare delivery models that prevent many from accessing essential services.


A global survey conducted in the immediate onset of the crisis found that youth-led enterprises were much more likely than adult-led enterprises to switch to online sales.


More recent research conducted by Youth Co:Lab, an initiative by UNDP and Citi Foundation, found that of the over 375 young social entrepreneurs surveyed one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, 92 percent had implemented mobile or digital solutions to respond to the crisis. Compared to pre-pandemic times, 77 percent reported that they had increased their level of digitisation.



The social enterprise, ClearPlate, has developed a mobile application of the same name, which uses AI to scan a user’s plate to recognize when no food remains. If the plate is clear, it rewards users with points to claim prizes or pass on a charity meal. It helps users of the app to contribute to minimizing food waste in a fun and rewarding manner.


However, with an estimated 160 million young people in Asia and the Pacific not in employment, education or training, the pressures of adapting to the needs of the workplace are enormous. It is a fallacy to consider all young people in the region to be a homogenous generation all with the same access, innate digital skills and knowledge. This misconception runs the risk of both underestimating the support they need to adjust to the new online reality and to leave those that fail to get onboard behind.


The reality is that not all young people are equally able to adapt to the demands of digital transformation. An estimated 30 percent of the world’s youth do not have any access to the Internet, leaving them not just vulnerable to unemployment and poverty, but facing a rapidly increasing digital divide.


For those who do have regular access, there is a big gap between using social media platforms and the Internet for social or even educational purposes, and having the skills needed in the workplace, much less those needed to run your own business.


That is why, among other things, Youth Co:Lab, through its Springboard Programme, offers online learning modules to young people to address these needs. These free modules allow users to learn at their own pace and include courses on topics such as: crowdsourcing, how to organize events online, and video story boarding.

But we go further than that. We directly reach out to young people, especially from vulnerable or marginalized communities, and support them in their learning and capacity development to be able to gain the 21st century skills needed to survive and thrive in the modern labour market. Through the National Dialogues, our accelerator programmes, and specific projects targeting particular communities.



Mymizu’s water refill app provides users the location of shops and cafes who let you refill your water bottles for free. The app also enables users to track how many plastic bottles, CO2 emissions, and money they have saved by refilling instead of buying bottled water.


Digital transformation offers us all the chance to work differently. Constant developments in technology and digital solutions mean that this requires perpetual learning and adapting. Young people tend to thrive in this environment. Many young social entrepreneurs are jumping on the chances they are offered. But this is by no means the case for all nor an easy process. Making it that more important we support those that have no or little access to the Internet and for those who to gain the skills and knowledge needed to succeed.


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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 countries in the Asia-Pacific region to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.

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