Exploring the Future of 21st Century Skills

Reflections on the Global Innovation Center's 5th Advisory Committee Meeting

Jennie Bernstein, Urban Innovation Specialist
10 July 2017

From June 27-29,  the Global Innovation Center (GIC) hosted its fifth Advisory Committee Meeting (GIC AC5) with UNICEF’s Vietnam Country Office in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. So much happened over the course of the week, and so much was learned– in an effort to capture it, we’d like to share some of the highlights of this multi-stakeholder event alongside some reflections.



From the outset, the GIC AC5 took life as an interactive, stimulating, and human-centered event more than a meeting. UNICEF Office of Innovation’s director, Cynthia McCaffrey, and Scale (GIC) lead, Tanya Accone set the stage by welcoming everyone and bringing us back to the foundations of innovation at UNICEF. Highlighting Sharad Sapra’s vision: to break the mold and bring different types of people together to make an impact for children.

Listening to panel discussions at Saigon Innovation Hub
The GIC AC5 and various Youth Organizations (VYE, AIESEC, LP4Y), government (Department of Science and Technology (DoST); Department of Education and Training (DoET) TVET; Ministry of ICT (MoICT), listening to panel discussions at Saigon Innovation Hub (6/28/17).

The meeting’s goal was identified:

Draw all the various thought leaders in the room together to focus on innovative ways of building 21st-century skills among marginalized adolescents and youth, and explore what the GIC’s role should be in moving that work forward.

From government representatives (Republic of Korea and Vietnam), entrepreneurs from Argentina and the UK, and Oxford academics, to Australian and Swiss foundations, regional UNICEF representatives and education advisers, to young aspiring thought leaders in Ho Chi Minh City, the perspectives captured in the GIC AC5 were as well-thought of as they were diverse.  Throughout the meeting, our conversations were grounded in and shaped by our context — the growing urban center of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  We got a first-hand look at the needs present in urban areas in Vietnam, the very real ways that UNICEF is already working to address them through programs like UPSHIFT, and the chance to actively brainstorm what the roles should be for UNICEF and its partners in the 21st century.

We felt and saw the direct links between our theoretical conversations and the actual context surrounding us.

A rapidly urbanizing country with a rapidly changing economic context, a government, and UNICEF country office with joint commitment to the innovation agenda, and a growing population of inspired young people ready to learn how to face a changing world.

Jesper Moller (Deputy Representative, UNICEF Vietnam) grounds us in our context by presenting some key facts about Viet Nam
Jesper Moller (Deputy Representative, UNICEF Vietnam) grounds us in our context by presenting some key facts about Viet Nam


The Economist Intelligence Unit laid the foundations for our conversations with an introductory presentation on what they expect 2030 to look like as far as global labour markets and the trends driving them. They led us through inquiries around what it takes to succeed in a world where the population is aging and urbanising, robotics and artificial intelligence are replacing human labourers at increasing rates, and migration continues to change our landscapes in unprecedented ways.

From there, the meeting developed into a series of rich discussions, human-centered design (HCD) workshops, and panels to explore what these 21st-century skills really might look like (and to move some of the theory around HCD into action).

We recognized immediately that there would be no singular prescription for how to address 21st-century skills. Instead, we committed to taking a pluralistic approach to outlining the possible solutions, and the roles that UNICEF and its partners should play in bringing those solutions to life.



Here are some of the shared ideas from the multiple conversations that happened during the meeting:

Soft skills: A key part of 21st-century ‘skills’ involves the ‘soft’ skills and abilities that are not typically a part of formal curricula. The meeting discussed these transferable skills in the context of  What are the things that machines can’t do, or that humans intrinsically do better? How can we define these skills, and find ways to teach and strengthen them amongst young people?

Hard skills: As a complement to soft skills, the meeting also discussed more technical skills that are and will continue to be key for young people to succeed in future labour markets. Some areas highlighted were STEM skills, language learning (not just coding, but learning other languages), and entrepreneurship, to name a few. However, the group agreed that the skills that are relevant at the beginning of people’s careers will be different from those decades later – thus, a key 21st-century skill will, therefore, be: the ability to keep learning.

Dr. Friday Nwaigwe (Child Survival) shares the concept for Mobile Integrated Early Childhood Development Tracking System with us.
Dr. Friday Nwaigwe (Child Survival) shares the concept for Mobile Integrated Early Childhood Development Tracking System with us.

Considerations:  the GIC AC5 participants also spent a lot of time exploring the considerations and questions we need to keep asking as we design solutions for 21st-century learning.  Some of the more interesting questions that came up in these conversations were:

  • What values are we bringing to the table that might not make sense across all cultures/ contexts?
  • What is our evaluation metric? Does GDP really make sense? How do we capture the  value of the non-financial things people bring to the table and what that means as far as identity
  • What does it mean to be an effective ‘support’ role that isn’t necessarily part of the labour market?
  • How can we make our recommendations actionable



A true highlight for everyone at the GIC AC meeting was the chance to see the process of 21st-century learning in action. Brian Cotter (another amazing host and superstar HCD innovator) who leads our UPSHIFT programs in Vietnam welcomed us and provided us an opportunity to sit down with some of the Vietnam UPSHIFT teams. UPSHIFT is program that was started by UNICEF in Kosovo, whose main goal is to empower marginalized young people to come up with social initiatives to creatively solve community problems.

Brian Cotter welcomes the participants to the fifth Advisory Committee Meeting (GIC AC5).
Brian Cotter welcomes the participants to the fifth Advisory Committee Meeting (GIC AC5).

The GIC AC5 participants met groups ranging from a group of blind adolescents committed to finding ways to make textbooks accessible to all young people, to young women creating awareness raising and instructional youtube videos around sexual assault and self-defense.Each of these groups told us their UPSHIFT story, what they’ve learned, how they are bringing their ideas to life, and what it means to have community support in pursuing their ideas. These stories provided the participants a way to see the value of human-centered design learning in action and start thinking of ways to scale and strengthen the UPSHIFT approach in other places.

With the UPSHIFT experience fresh in our minds, we shifted our conversations to look at how UNICEF and its partners can follow the human-centered approach embodied by the UPSHIFT program and bring 21st-century skills to young people–especially those marginalized– across the world.



Echoing many of the UNICEF innovation principles,

some of the key ideas that arose were:

  • The role of stakeholders like government and its partners is not just to work for children, but to work with children
  • Young people need the opportunity to fail in a relatively safe space, and to learn from their failures; entrepreneurs should share their stories of failure
  • UNICEF has proven its ability to take solutions that support children and young people to scale, and it should continue with this key contribution in the space of 21st-century learning
  • It takes a whole and well-connected ecosystem to make change happen

UNICEF is uniquely positioned to enable and join with the thought leaders and big players to come together and define what the global standard for education actually looks like.” 

Layla Yarjani, Little Bridge

We didn’t manage to solve for the answer to providing 21st-century skills for children and young people because there is no single solution to the future of learning. However, the GIC AC5 did leave us with some inspiring, yet tangible ideas about what UNICEF’s role (and specifically, the GIC’s role) can be as we move forward. The GIC is ready to continue doing what it does best: connecting key players to form a vibrant ecosystem working with children to identify problems and build solutions, and bringing those solutions to scale as we move forward in the 21st century.

Here’s a quick snapshot of how the meeting went.




UNICEF’s Global Innovation Centre’s (GIC) provides leadership and technical support to the roll-out and scale-up of a select portfolio of proven, innovative solutions by expanding their application from one to several countries and regions. The Centre achieves its vision to inspire and support new approaches to UNICEF and our partner’s work to achieve a powerful impact for children by:

– Identifying field-tested, proven innovations that benefit all children, particularly those most disadvantaged
– Scaling-up these innovations at national scale across multiple countries and regions
– Engaging and inspiring external stakeholders, the public, NGO and private sector
– Fostering South-South cooperation

Read more about GIC here.