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UNICEF Executive Board

A changing landscape: Executive Board seeks innovative and practical technology solutions for achieving UNICEF’s mission



By Naomi Lindt

NEW YORK, United States of America, 13 September 2018 – Technology is radically transforming the 21st century landscape, shaping the lives of children and future generations in ways the world has only begun to imagine. Young people are now the most connected of all age groups; one in three internet users worldwide is a child.

Harnessing the power of technology – while also recognizing its potential harms – is a vital conversation in improving the lives of the world’s 2.3 billion children. 

Preparing for the future

For a fresh, forward-thinking examination of far-reaching technologies such as social media and artificial intelligence, UNICEF organized a special focus session on innovation for children and young people during the Second Regular Session of the Executive Board. Titled “Tomorrow Ready,” the special focus session was held yesterday afternoon at United Nations Headquarters in New York. Its goal was to foster a broad understanding of the challenges and opportunities technologies present for children, and to highlight the importance of creating an enabling environment to develop technologies that can improve children’s lives.

At the opening of the Second Regular Session yesterday morning, UNICEF Executive Board President H. E. Tore Hattrem remarked, “I anticipate it will provide a unique opportunity to learn about and share experiences and ideas on how we can unlock the potential of emerging technologies to benefit children and young people.”

The special focus session delivered on that prediction. Indeed, the rich discussions and creative ideas shared during the forum will help to shape UNICEF’s innovation strategy in the coming years.

“Innovation has always been an important part of UNICEF’s story,” said Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore in her introductory remarks on Wednesday morning. “As we spoke about in our June meeting, we will not reach many of the Sustainable Development Goals without a significant step change in our work. Innovation provides an opportunity for us to make this leap.”

To help provide children with a safe playing environment and prevent the spread of diseases, UNICEF Côte d'Ivoire partnered with Conceptos Plasticos, a Columbian company that produces building materials with recyclable plastics, to help clean up communities and build schools and houses.

Pioneers chiming in

Breaking with the traditional format of the formal Board session, ”Tomorrow Ready” ran as a moderated panel discussion with private sector participants, panellist Nicholas Thompson, Editor-in-Chief of Wired, and Stephanie Sy, Chief Executive Officer and lead data scientist at the Manila-based organization Thinking Machines. Moderating the panel discussion was Hannah Godefa, an advocate for girls’ empowerment and innovation who is a familiar presence on the UNICEF stage.

Engaging questions

Ms. Godefa guided the participatory discussion for Board Members and panellists, posing questions like: “What can Governments and partners do differently on data to get real-time insights on children and young people?” and “How can Governments and United Nations agencies prepare to meet the opportunities and challenges facing children in our fast-paced, technology-driven world?”

The conversation was framed around four key areas that holistically address technology and its potential to strengthen the work of UNICEF in bettering the lives of women and children:

  • Engage: Work with the entire innovation ecosystem – including research, business, and policy – to deliver vital products and services for the world’s 2.3 billion children.
  • Enable: Create partnerships with experts who bring a full range of experience and resources.
  • Equip: Ensure that children are developing the skills they need for the jobs of the future, including out-of-school opportunities, mentorships, and pathways to employment.
  • Empower: Amplify the voices of young people to inform and steer discussions that affect them, empowering them to be agents of change in their communities.

For Mr. Thompson, some of the biggest opportunities and challenges lie in the continued development of artificial intelligence. “We’re approaching a really interesting moment in human history,” he said. “For the first time, we’ll unambiguously have machines that are better than us at almost all of the things that we've been good at before.” Mr. Thompson emphasized that “preparing our students for that world, preparing our culture for that world, is really important.”

Ms. Sy stressed the power of using data for social good. For example, data gathered with technologies like satellite imagery can be used to learn more about hard-to-reach and vulnerable populations, to inform investments in social programmes, policies and infrastructure projects. The democratization of this data also encourages further innovation. “When data is shared [freely and publicly], it fosters this community of people who add to it one step at a time,” she said.

© UNICEF Mozambique/2018/Nazer
Ragia Ngao Amade, 17, volunteers for four hours a day as a counsellor for SMS Biz/U-Report’s mobile counselling service in Mozambique. Teenagers can use the texting service to anonymously ask for advice from trained peer volunteers.

Both panellists spoke of the essential role that Governments and organizations like UNICEF can play in guiding and regulating companies to make decisions that are best for children, humanity and the future of our increasingly digital world.

Throughout the session, Member States engaged with the panellists and the moderator. Their remarks and questions included ensuring strong linkages between technology and education; using child-led technological designs to ensure participation; creating additional innovations to counter the negative effects of technology; and applying artificial intelligence in emergency situations.

A workforce for the future

Addressing skills and the future of work is a pivotal point when discussing children and technology, considering that high-quality skilling opportunities are often expensive and inaccessible, and many providers (and education systems at-large) don’t address the needs of the 21st century job market. This challenge is magnified by the fact that 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will work in jobs that do not yet exist.

UNICEF is engaged in several initiatives that aim to forge new skills to meet the demands of the modern world: In a private sector partnership with the Akelius Foundation, UNICEF has co-created a context-specific language learning platform in Greece, Mauritania and Lebanon, designed to accelerate children’s language skills and better integrate technology in the classroom. Also in Lebanon, the ‘Girls Got IT’ initiative reached 19,000 girls in 2017, enabling them to develop skills in digital and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

© UNICEF/UN0127586/Khamissy
Teenage girls from Syrian and Lebanese communities in Lebanon, working on 3D modeling during the fourth edition of the Girls Got IT event at the University of Balamand in Northern Lebanon, August 2017.

Reaching across the table

Like in much of UNICEF’s work around the world, creating bridges – between Governments and development agencies, the private and public sectors, at the global and local levels – is essential to achieving sustainable results.

To forge solutions between new and emerging markets, UNICEF established the Venture Fund to quickly assess, fund and grow open-source solutions from around the world.

Looking ahead

The Special Session comes at an opportune moment, with the upcoming launch on 24 September of ”Generation Unlimited,” a new global partnership dedicated to increasing opportunities and investments for children and young people aged 10 to 24. “Through it, we are working with partners to examine and scale-up a number of innovative solutions to help every young person access education, skills training and support that they need by 2030,” said Ms. Fore.

While UNICEF will continue to focus on ages 10 to 18 within this initiative, in line with its 2018–2021 Strategic Plan, the initiative’s diverse group of partners will expand support for young people as they transition from adolescence to adulthood.

The voices of children and young people must be brought together — on physical and digital platforms – to inform and steer discussions about issues that affect them. In this way, they can be empowered to be a force of change in their local and global communities.

The Second Regular Session of the UNICEF Executive Board will continue through Friday 14 September.

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