Road to Addis: Empowered youth for inclusive digital futures

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Today’s decision makers increasingly recognize an important role for young people in helping solve the most formidable challenges now facing humanity. This is especially true in the mobilization of digital technologies to ensure a prosperous, equitable, sustainable future.

“Young people will inherit a world that’s been dramatically reshaped by today’s technological advances,” says Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). “Engaging in a dialogue of equals is going to help each generation understand the challenges that the other faces.”

Youth inclusion in planning and decision making, she adds, should “ensure that digital remains a positive and catalytic force in building the world that we want.”

Resource empowerment

Youth are often called “digital natives” or natural adopters of technology. Yet, 2.2 billion children and young people under the age of 25 lack an Internet connection at home, points out Jayathma Wickramanayake, United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth and member of ITU’s Generation Connect Visionaries Board.

“[W]ithout having the resources to get connected, young people will not be able to take part in discussions around digital development, developing digital solutions, pursuing opportunities online, and expanding their knowledge and skills,” she says.

According to Sinead Bovell, Founder of WAYE (Weekly Advice for Young Entrepreneurs – a platform helping young people build careers in technology) and Generation Connect Visionaries board member, failing to prioritize digital resources and access “will have rippling effects for generations to come.”

As the world becomes more digitally dependent, those who remain disconnected could face increasing exclusion, warns Tijmen Rooseboom, Ambassador for Youth, Education and Work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands. “Without decisive action, the digital divide can become the new face of inequality.”

Engaging marginalized youth

Roman Gojayev, a member of the Youth Rights experts group at the European Youth Forum and Generation Connect Visionaries Board member, calls for more attention to youth who are still offline, and for recognizing their access to the Internet and digital technologies as a right.

Devshi Mehrotra, CEO of JusticeText, adds: “One of the most incredible aspects of technology is that it can equalize access to opportunity and wealth. But even to this day, many tech organizations are not inclusive of the needs of racial minorities and those from low-income communities.”

Many governments are working with the private sector to avoid marginalizing younger citizens.

In St. Kitts and Nevis, for example, the government has partnered with telecom companies to provide free Internet access to youth across the island state’s 17 community centres, which have provided crucial connectivity those without Internet connections at home during the pandemic.

“Within our national ICT centres, we established innovation hubs,” explains Akilah Byron-Nisbett, the country’s Minister of Health, ICT, Entertainment, Entrepreneurship and Talent Development. “We see them as cradles of digital creativity and position them to deliver training in emerging and ubiquitous digital tools.”

Many youth organizations welcome the idea of innovation and community hubs as enablers of digital inclusion, where youth get connected first.

When connectivity is limited, shared terminals may provide valuable interim access, notes Ahmad Alhendawi, Chair of Global Youth Mobilization and Secretary General of the World Organization of the Scout Movement.

“The solution to digital inclusion is not binary,” he says. “I don’t think we have to wait for full connectivity for everyone in their homes.”

Equipped for the future

Securing access to the Internet alone is not sufficient to equip youth for a future in which digital technologies will underpin every industry and society. Young people need to develop the skills and know-how to navigate and leverage the digital world.

Another crucial piece of the puzzle is to make funds available for young people to pursue tech entrepreneurship.

“There’s a lot of mentorship available to us, but not enough people who are willing to take a bet on us, our abilities and our ideas,” notes Mehrotra. “Universities can start off by giving just a small grant to help kick things off. The amount of confidence that gives young people is absolutely invaluable.”

Seats at the table

The most overlooked element of empowering youth – though arguably just as important – is involving them in decision-making processes.

“It often felt like the future was coded by seven people in a room that I couldn’t access,” Bovell reflects. “And when I further looked at who was in those decision-making rooms, none of them looked like me, none of them had similar experiences to mine.”

According to Kevin Frey, CEO of Generation Unlimited, young voices can be heard by current decision makers if youth representatives are positioned strategically in the governance and staffing structures “where decisions get made and where resources get allocated.”

Technology holds the promise of unlimited potential for young people, Frey notes. The question for today’s decision makers is whether they will seize the opportunity to connect children and youth who currently remain offline, giving the next generation access to world-class digital learning and skills.

Generation Connect Youth Summit

Generation Connect aims to engage global youth and encourage their participation as equal partners alongside the leaders of today’s digital change, empowering young people with the skills and opportunities to advance their vision of a connected future.

As part of this initiative, youth representatives from around the world will have an opportunity to engage and exchange with today’s decision makers at ITU’s Generation Connect Youth Summit on 4-5 June 2022, ahead of the next World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC).

ITU’s Road to Addis discussion series leading up to the next WTDC continues on 20 September with a Partner2Connect meeting on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly.