UNLOCKED Blog 9: It is the best of times, it is the worst of times: Youth and Innovations

16 Apr 2015

As a youth, I feel this quote from the Charles Dickens famed novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ accurately represents the current environment and opportunities surrounding youth.

The opportunities appear to be endless and skills are developed so far ahead that there seem to be no boundaries. It’s a time where a young person can delve into any challenge, wrestle it and conquer it. It is the best of times. For some youth, yes! But there’s young people who do not have these same opportunities. The rapid progression of one sect of society further highlights the disparities, the lack of skills and their inability to compete on a level ground. For them, it can be the worst of times.

A modern tale of young people being worlds apart.

According to the Sri Lanka National Human Development Report 2014 on Youth and Development: Towards a More Inclusive Future (NHDR), youth comprises 23.2% of the Sri Lankan population, which accounts for approximately 4.64 million people between the ages of 15 and 29.

You often hear and witness the sad present that has befallen many a youth in our country, and even elsewhere. I always wonder, why? What made them change? Or why do they not see that they can be so much more? Many would answer all the above with one statement. It’s their families or it’s their backgrounds. But how can we, in today’s society, say that the entire formation of a youth depends solely on their family? Do they not spend time in school, in university, with friends? Are they not exposed to the media – traditional or modern?  Or have such content and messages become so passé that youth just overlook them. Is it time to communicate, educate and involve them through innovation?

The broad term innovations are used to define a set of new ideas, products or ways of engaging people - it is associated with anything that is ‘new’. Many may be of the opinion that the progress of a society relies on science and technology, education, awareness and so forth. Indeed, these serve as the tools of progress, but the root of all progress relies on innovation. Over the years, science and technology has evolved because of some new thinking process that utilised, modified, or even recreated new techniques that facilitated the development of a new technology or product or system.

The current generation of youth has had the opportunity to witness ‘both worlds’, so to speak; our school years were spent in a (now considered) primitive educational system, where knowledge was based on books and accessing additional information was not really heard of. When it came to higher education, a new vista of opportunities opened up through the use of IT and the World Wide Web – we began to search, research and challenge the traditional idea of ‘knowledge’. That’s innovation. Today, young children, mainly from urban communities, are able to design presentations and use a search engine to answer most of their questions - I have witnessed second and third graders creating power point presentations. Take the example of the Khan academy, which delivers a series of tutorials (now approximately 6500 videos) on a variety of subjects distributed through YouTube – this is freely accessible to anyone who wants information, be they teacher or student. Wow! Innovation driving development.

In contrary, what about a child from a rural background who did not have the same resources? They might be able to ‘just get by’, but have they progressed at the same rate as the ‘urbanites’?

Once, at a youth training programme in Kandy, a boy of about 23 years said that he was jealous of people from urban areas because ‘they can do whatever they put their mind to’. His statement hit some us with a wave of guilt. But what he said was correct, to an extent. If we think of language and communication skills, presentation skills, and opportunities for youth engagement, the balance tips in favour of youth from more affluent, urban societies. This is supported by statistics from the National Youth Survey conducted in 2013 that state that as much as 38% of youth in urban areas said they had good English speaking skills, while only 20% of rural youth and 10% of estate sector youth felt the same. As highlighted in the NHDR, the greatest barriers in the development of strong English language skills are the poor quality in teaching the language and the lack of opportunities to use or practice the language, that eventually leads to a ‘fear’ of speaking English because of the ‘fear’ of making mistakes.  Is this really development? Or have we become part of a system that creates two different worlds in one society?

Innovation is key in development, progress and social advancement. The information we read now was always there, lying in a pile of books in a library in some corner of the world, inaccessible to but a few, elite educationists. It was innovation that opened up access and a better understanding of this material, resulting in a society that was more informed. Knowledge and expertise was no longer restricted by barriers. Innovation driving development.


So, the role of innovation in development is pretty clear. We cannot have one without the other. Implementing programmes and awareness campaigns will be more effective and far reaching through the use of innovative ideas.We need new ways of communicating, new ways to build interest, new ways to motivate, new ways to answer when they ask ‘why’ in a society that is more and more informed. Don’t believe this? Try giving a long winded lecture to a young adult today - you will not have their attention for long.

This becomes more relevant for youth. The young generation is exposed to a multitude of creative ideas that deliver strong messages, mainly through social media. Innovation is key in working with youth, in a world driven by information and technology – if what was done three years ago is repeated, the chances are that our audience will begin to dwindle. And fast. Youth desire independence and they want to be at the forefront of knowledge and current trends. It is time that we tap into innovation to reach out to young people and deliver solutions to social challenges in an efficient and effective manner.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”

I go back to these opening lines of The Tale of Two Cities, as it reflects the dichotomy within 23.2% of our population. We all have a strong role to play to ensure that these lines no longer stay relevant to young people, to ensure equal opportunities and equal access for all. If they cannot access the latest resources, we should take it to them. The best example of this is cricket, a game that was once restricted to the elite. Over the years, as the game gained popularity throughout the country, much talent was witnessed amongst the rural youth by those intent on bringing in fresh talent, and this gave people from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to compete in this sport. Thus, bridging the gap and increasing opportunities for youth. That is, I believe, the key to success in ensuring development for all. 

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