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Empowering youth through technology: UNICEF Innovation Labs in Jordan

Adolescent girls in Jordan. Photo: UNICEF USA

This guest blog is written by Eva Kaplan, UNICEF Jordan’s Innovation Specialist and participant in the recent webinar panel on Peacebuilding with Adolescents: Making Use of New Technologies, organised by GAGE and Search for Common Ground DME for Peace Platform in August.

By Eva Kaplan, UNICEF Innovation Specialist

Azraq Refugee Camp hosts 35,000 people and is located in the middle of the desert, 90 km south of the Syrian border and about 100 km east of Amman, Jordan.   Many refugees housed here have made an arduous journey from Aleppo, Homs, and Isis held areas.  They were lucky to make it to Jordan, but now they face what refugees in camps all over the world face: the waiting game. Waiting for the war to finish, or for a country to open its doors, or for some other option that has not been envisioned. For youth transitioning into adulthood, the waiting game has particular consequences.  Back home, they may have been on the verge of finishing secondary school or university, or planning to enter employment for the first time. Years lost to the crisis cannot be easily regained, and youth are hungry for opportunities to overcome this disadvantage

How can technology help?  UNICEF’s nine Social Innovation Labs in Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps work with youth not as recipients of technology innovation, but as technology creators. This not only imparts transferable hard and soft skills, but we also seeing a positive psychosocial impact, as well as increased social cohesion. Innovation labs target 14-18 year olds, and lead youth on a three-part journey to becoming technology creators. How does it work?

Stage one: digital play

The first stage of the journey is simply to make youth happy. The skills the youth develop at this stage are not very sophisticated.  But our purposes are much more simple: engagement.  Much like a playground for younger kids, we create an environment that allows youth to explore on their own, with limited instruction.

When we surveyed youth about what they wanted in the labs, technology was by far the most prominent request. From a design perspective, we do this in two ways. Firstly, by ensuring youth feel that the lab is their space, where they can play with video games and start-up technologies without formal instruction. Secondly, working with the Children’s Museum of Jordan, we are designing several exhibits, with tinker labs where youth can create things using emerging technologies.

Stage two: Skills

Some youth may be interested in going on to more formal learning, and the labs offer skills training in three areas: creative media, fabrication, and coding. This learning element complements the core of the labs—the social innovation lab curriculum, called “Upshift”.  The Upshift curriculum guides youth through a process of identifying challenges in their community, designing solutions, and implementing those solutions.  Again, the primary intervention is not technology related; however, kids engage with technology in order to accomplish their social goals. This ranges from learning about electricity in order to build a cell phone charge using a dynamo to structuring databases that may eventually become the back-end of a software.

This experience builds skills, but it is also incredibly empowering.  Consider Houda*, a lab participant in Za’atari refugee camp.  Houda is still in secondary school. Her project was to re-wire the electricity network in order to decrease caravan fires.  She pitched her idea to camp management and people visiting Za’atari from all over the world. Houda is extremely dynamic, curious, and intelligent; however, she had been prioritising marriage over her own education. Through the labs, she found that she has something to contribute, and reported being more self-aware. On a recent visit from a World Economic Forum delegation, a group of female lab participants, including Houda, was asked what they wanted people across the world to know about them.  Houda responded: “I want people to know that we will rebuild Syria.  And it doesn’t matter where we are, we will rebuild Syria.”

Stage three: opportunity

We know that empowerment is not enough. When youth leave the lab environment, if they don’t have the opportunity to use their skills, we may actually have done harm by raising expectations and then failing to deliver. The last part of the journey, therefore, is to provide the enabling environment for youth to engage with technology creation professionally.

Currently we are preparing to launch the UNICEF One Foundation Changemakers Lab.  The Lab provides professional training and opportunity for youth over 18, and leaving the school environment. The training teaches youth to conduct assessments, gather user feedback on new products or services, and to design and implement pilots. We are piloting three employment pathways:  first is the start-up pathway, where youth can enter a business incubator and be supported as they launch their business idea.  Second is to do user-testing for technology products, and third is to act as the innovation work force for the humanitarian/ development community.

For example, Saja* is part of a team testing the idea of a time bank, where people in the camp can exchange skills using time rather than money as the currency. When she first joined, she had to ask her family for permission, and our team had to make several house visits to get them to agree. Now that the time bank has some credibility across the camp, and the team will be funded to turn their pilot into a business, the whole family is supportive of the initiative. The Time Bank Team recently won the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) Humanitarian Award for Innovation.

Conclusion: a promising initiative

UNICEF’s Innovation Labs consider technology as a critical component of a journey, showing traumatised and powerless youth that they can create their own world.  While we are not developing any technologies, we are creating the space to put youth in the driving seat of innovation and creativity.

Technology creation is the vehicle by which we can support youth on a journey to feel in control of their own destinies, and to actively engage them in their communities.

*All names have been changed to ensure anonymity.