5 June 2024
Power of Youth: Driving SDG Progress Through Teenage Innovation
Credit: Ryan Honary
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Supporting teenagers to wield their unwavering passion for environmental and social causes, alongside their understanding of technologies, can drive forward the fulfilment of the SDGs, and beyond.

If you know a young person aged 13-19 years, share information about The Earth Prize with them and suggest they apply this coming year – they might just surprise you!

By Charlotte Tucker, The Earth Foundation

Today’s global youth population is the largest in history. There are 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24 years across the world, with forecasts suggesting the number of youth is expected to grow by 7% by 2030 (the target year of the SDGs).

Far from the ‘lazy’ or ‘entitled’ stereotype that frequently haunts this demographic, today’s youth have been identified by the UN as a powerful and significant group to take note of. From the Youth for SDGs Action Network, to the Young Leaders for the SDGs, young people are being awarded more opportunities to speak up and have their say about global development.

The power of youth: Passion, anxiety, and activism

There are a number of criteria that make young people a formidable group, taking into consideration their fervent passion, acute experience of anxiety fueled by global events, and ability to shapeshift and innovate old ways of working.

The first element, their passion, stems from their dissatisfaction with both the speed and impact of international agreements, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change. Taking measures into their own hands, teenagers across the world have begun to launch court cases to spark change, such as Portuguese youth taking on 32 European countries due to wildfires, or US teenagers challenging the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for allowing the release of dangerous levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs).

This population is also driven into action by anxiety. A recent study of 10,000 young people across the world showed 62% of youth are anxious about the effects of climate change, with 45% saying their feelings about these issues negatively affect their daily life and functioning. 

While traditional methods of activism have included marching, volunteering, and leadership roles (for instance, Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement), a new type of activism is appearing across the globe: innovation and impact entrepreneurship. Channeling youthful energy and creativity, this methodology is putting young people in the driving seat and propelling them towards the creation of practical solutions for local and global challenges alike. “I believe that youth should be going beyond talking and should really focus on developing pragmatic solutions,” said Ryan Honary, The Earth Prize 2024 Finalist.

Teenage innovation: The new face of youth activism

The paradigm shift of teenage innovation activism is that it empowers young people to become active agents of change rather than passive recipients of adult-driven agendas. The topics they choose to focus on are grassroots in nature, identifying challenges their local communities experience, such as droughts, wildfires, or floods, and innovating impactful solutions together that jump over the red tape of regulations or court cases.

The Earth Prize: A case study in teenage SDG innovation

The Earth Prize is a prominent example of a platform that empowers teenagers to drive SDG progress through innovation and collaborations. As the world’s largest environmental sustainability competition, since 2021 it has reached over 10,000 students across 154 countries and territories. 

Fueled by a climate education platform and a network of mentors, young people are guided through the process of developing their innovation, having so far awarded USD 500,000 to the top teams and their schools for their planet saving ideas. 

This combination of education, mentoring, and role modeling is bringing back hope and allowing young people to create pioneering concepts in the process. “Environmental anxiety is very real because of how prominent it is in the news, how everyone’s always talking about it. It’s very easy to become kind of scared of the future, of just how bad things could become…but I do think The Earth Prize is making a difference in the sense that it gives some hope. It gives the possibility of making an impact, because otherwise someone who’s 16 or 17, has no chance of really making much of a change if they aren’t given an opportunity,” said Rajas Nanda, finalist of The Earth Prize 2024.

The teams participating in The Earth Prize exemplify teenage innovation in action, turning around their personal experiences of devastating climate events into real world solutions, aligning with specific SDGs that simultaneously support environmental, social, and economic causes. Here are just a few examples.

  • Team FloodGate: SDGs 11 (sustainable cities and communities), 13 (climate action), and 15 (life on land) – Winner 2024

Having lived through the devastating impact of frequent flooding in their state of North Carolina, US, George, Shubhan, Sumedh, and Reichen were motivated to create a flood prediction and warning system. Drawing on their knowledge of advanced computational technologies, and supported by The Earth Prize mentors, they developed an interactive 3D flood model, backed by their own research paper. The platform can be used by local governments, agencies, and individuals as they plan efficient evacuation and relief operations. Soon available via an app, the technology will empower hundreds of thousands of people affected by flooding globally.

  • Team AgriPod: (SDGs 1 (no poverty), 3 (good health and well-being), 7 (affordable and clean energy), 13, and 15 – Runner-up 2023

When Adi travelled to his home country of India, he spoke with local farmers and discovered they lack the equipment to apply fertilizers properly. Globally, 75 million tons of fertilizer are wasted, with 500 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) released due to ammonia production. Given that 18% of global pollution is caused by fertilizers coming from India, he joined forces with classmates Lucas and Ali to innovate a solution – the AgriPod. This coffee-cup sized sensor, powered by solar panels, collects data for farmers, detailing the perfect time and conditions to apply fertilizer, simultaneously saving money for those living in poverty and reducing environmental damage. 

  • Team Delavo: (SDGs 6 (clean water and sanitation), 7, 12 (responsible consumption and production), 13, and 15 – Winner 2023

This all-girl team from Türkiye was facing water scarcity from droughts where they live, in the Tigris River basin. Determined to save water wherever possible and come up with a solution worthy of The Earth Prize, they began to look around their everyday environment. They soon discovered laundry machines shed large quantities of harmful microfibers, learning that every load of laundry releases 20 gallons (50 liters) of toxic wastewater into the soil and groundwater. To combat this, they invented the ‘ECaundry’ device, a system of hollow ultrafiltration tubes and carbon filters that treats and reuses laundry wastewater. The result? A scalable solution that recycles 90% of wastewater. 

Empowering youth to innovate for change

It’s clear that supporting teenagers to wield their unwavering passion for environmental and social causes, alongside their understanding of technologies, can drive forward the fulfilment of the SDGs, and beyond.

From honeybee saving smart sensors, to pioneering climate disaster warning apps, the innovations sprouting from the minds of today’s teens give little excuse to underestimate their generation. It’s time we not only gave teens a mic to speak from, but also a lab to run tests in, the support and guidance of mentors, and a word of reassurance. They could be our secret weapon to drive forward collective change. 

If you know a young person aged 13-19 years, share information about The Earth Prize with them and suggest they apply this coming year – they might just surprise you!

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