Supporting Youth-Led Innovation to Achieve the SDGs

A policy brief released by The Social Investment Consultancy in collaboration with SDSN (Sustainable Development Solution’s Network) Youth, builds on the first edition of the Youth Solutions Report (YSR), calling for greater understanding of the specific challenges that young people face in leading sustainable development solutions. It also highlights opportunities to better support youth-led innovation across all levels of stakeholder, from the personal to the institutional. You can view the full 9-page report here or continue reading below for a short summary.

Critical Agents for Change

3 years since the adoption of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the role of young people in helping to achieve these has become more and more apparent. Often perceived as simply part of the general adult population, the report highlights how those aged between 15-30 are still overlooked for their unique potential, despite representing approximately one quarter of the world’s population (US Census Bureau 2016). As a group they showcase a strong entrepreneurial work ethic while also being more likely than other demographics to support social causes they are passionate about. This unique mix of innovative thinking and compassion positions young people as critical agents of change in the successful implementation of the SDGs and beyond.

Four Key Challenges for Driving Youth-Led Innovation

Despite being a highly motivated group to ‘do good’ and affect positive change in their communities, the original YSR identified a number of barriers which young leaders felt were specific challenges to their growth. The findings were consistent globally, suggesting there is opportunity for international collaboration to better unlock this group’s full potential.

  1. Access to Finance and Human Capital: It is perhaps unsurprising that limited access to funding ranks highly amongst young people’s concerns when it comes to setting up new ventures. Financial capital is not only needed to ensure the operational integrity of new business right from the off, but also vital in growing on-the-ground resources such as staffing, building and office costs. An over-reliance on donations and volunteers causes its own challenges further down the line, as high turnover rates or a sudden retraction of support can be catastrophic to the growth of young enterprises.

  2. Mentorship: A lack of formal business experience and training can mean that complex regulatory frameworks are difficult to navigate. Partnered with restrictions on backing, applying for patents and setting up companies etc. and without the support of existing business leaders and mentors, young entrepreneurs can find themselves left behind, hindering their progress. For those youth working in the Science and Technology sectors in particular, access to academic mentors and partners has been regularly cited as an important under-resourced area.

  3. Visibility and Network Access: Youth-led initiatives often support local-level communities but raising awareness outside of these immediate networks can be a challenge. When trying to increase public support, young people face particular challenges in addressing those who are not directly affected by their work and don’t understand it. Without wider, more influential networks it can be difficult for young people to garner the credibility needed in order to cut-through with their message and needs. When looking at youth innovation on a global scale, it is also important to reference the impact of rural isolation and social inequality in reducing young people’s ability to access information and build networks, both vital for transforming ideas into actions.

  4. Regional Disparity and Knowledge Gaps: On a country-by-country basis, a wide variance in understanding, monitoring and evaluation of youth-led innovation has been identified globally. This has led to insufficient research and discussion on effective strategic approaches to support youth-led innovation, particularly in developing countries. Increased effort into these debates would help to better identify the nuances of different local communities and recognise how generalised guidelines could be adapted to create more effective outcomes. This in turn will help to cultivate a culture which actively encourages and champions youth innovation.

In Summary

The report helps to frame some of the most consistent challenges faced by young people globally when it comes to driving positive impact. The fact that the vast majority of findings were consistent globally, shows how international collaboration will be essential to provide more young leaders with the skills and spaces in which to flourish. The report also goes on to outline several solutions, many of which are more applicable to larger institutions, but that serve as a helpful reminder to us all on how we as individuals can work together to best promote and support the youth leadership we see around us.


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