The changemakers of tomorrow: How young people are at the forefront of innovation

By Jaz Low

Savinda Ranathunga, Regional Youth Project Manager of UNDP Asia Pacific shares how young social entrepreneurs are realising their digital solutions.

Former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” The keys to brighter and better days have fallen into the hands of our young fledglings, and it is up to the next generation of movers and shakers to be the change they wish to see.

Youth Co:Lab, an initiative co-led by UNDP and the Citi Foundation, is here to help. As the largest youth social entrepreneurship movement in the Asia Pacific, it provides learning, knowledge, mentorship, and grants funding resources for young startups. But the above is only a fraction of the work they do, alongside initiatives such as engaging with policymakers and working with external partners to empower young innovators to bring their solutions to life.

Savinda Ranathunga, the Regional Youth Project Manager of UNDP Asia Pacific, highlights case studies of inspiring social enterprises in the region and how these young people are extraordinary examples of Roosevelt’s words.

Tackling climate change

From Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future demonstrations in protest of climate inaction, to the Sunrise Movement’s condemnation of pro-fossil fuel politicians, young people are at the forefront of climate change activism.

Hong Kong tech startup Carbonbase is not shying away from the renewed interest in global warming. They have taken achieving carbon neutrality into their own hands, with one of their projects centered around an app that gamifies carbon footprint tracking and green behaviour promotion.

The app includes a number of features.

First, users can record their day-to-day activities and the app will inform them of the carbon dioxide equivalent of their actions. For example, dining at a restaurant or watching a movie at the cinema would rack up a certain amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Users can refer to this data to reflect on their habits and make lifestyle changes.

Second, the app operates on a mission-driven reward system and gifts users with points when they complete carbon-friendly tasks. Examples of these missions include taking ten train rides or having less than four cups of coffee in a week.

Users can exchange the points they accumulate for prizes, such as vouchers or discounts for climate-conscious brands. This creates a reward cycle that incentivises them to continuously embrace eco-friendly practices.

Food scarcity and malnutrition

Young people are also tackling the perennial problems of food scarcity and malnutrition. Smart Farms Fiji is turning to hydroponic farming, a method of growing plants directly in nutrient-rich water, to strike these two birds with one stone.

Small Island Developing States like Fiji may be at risk of food insecurity due to their isolated location from the rest of the world, GovInsider previously reported. Hydroponics is vital in “ensuring that people have easy and quick access to a local supply of food,” Savinda says.

Smart Farms Fiji developed an at-home hydroponic kit to target populations residing in remote areas of the island. The kit contains seedlings, a water tank, hydroponic pots, soil nutrient solutions, and a step-by-step guide.

“This initiative was especially helpful during the pandemic when countries restricted exports and Fiji had to turn to domestic production for adequate and nutritious food,” Savinda shares.

Improving public service delivery with AI

With youth political participation steadily on the rise, it is no surprise that young people have taken a keen interest in improving public services.

Filipino startup AI4GOV dreams of championing more efficient and responsive public service delivery, improving citizen engagement, and heightening public trust. They specialise in developing AI-powered chatbots on messaging apps to achieve this.

AI4GOV’s public service bot connects Filipino citizens with their local governments, allowing them to access livelihood training opportunities, social assistance programmes, medical help, and business permit applications.

By placing public services at the people’s fingertips, citizens no longer need to travel to town halls to access crucial information. “This not only helps them to save time and transportation money, but also makes sure that they do not miss out on benefiting from relevant social services,” Savinda highlights.

The bot also enables greater democracy as users can provide feedback to improve public services and inform policy-making with ease. In turn, public servants can directly respond to citizens through the platform, which leads to a shorter turnaround time.

Pivoting to the pandemic

The young social entrepreneurs behind AI4GOV have also demonstrated adaptability by applying their chatbot infrastructure to address the pressing needs of the pandemic.

The KontraCovid bot helped members of the public to conduct self-assessments on whether they were at risk of contracting the virus. Additionally, it provided information on preventive measures against Covid-19 and answered questions pertaining to the quarantine implementation in Luzon, an island in the Philippines.

A survey conducted by Youth Co:Lab in 2021, to understand Covid-19's impact on youth-led enterprises, found that the pandemic had negatively affected 92 per cent of enterprises. “But in spite of all odds, many young people continued to demonstrate incredible resilience and an eagerness to serve their communities,” Savinda notes.

Mental health

Aside from creating helplines during the global Covid-19 pandemic, youths tackled another issue that they were deeply passionate about – mental health.

Moner Bondhu is a mental healthcare social enterprise that provides affordable and accessible counselling services in Bangladesh. Cognisant of the debilitating effect of the pandemic on mental well-being, the team established a free 24/7 tele-video counselling hotline that served over 18,000 people in the country.

“The hotline won’t solve all problems, but it helped to solidify the power of human connection in an era when many people were suffering in solitude,” Savinda says. “Moner Bondhu also helped to address the cultural stigma surrounding mental health in Asia by getting more people to prioritise this often overlooked issue,” he adds.

Adolescents are the hope of tomorrow and are representing the future at every level. From climate action to mental health, the Youth Co:Lab is helping young social entrepreneurs across Asia Pacific to create the world they envision.