Celebrating young green innovators at COP27
It was an honour to be invited to judge the third ImaGen Ventures challenge and to watch the winners being announced via livestream yesterday from the Children and Youth Pavilion at COP27. The twelve winners were diverse and very inspiring to judge - from the ‘Soigel’ team in Egypt, who are producing organic fertilisers and aqua gel from recycled sugarcane waste, to ‘SaniWise Toilets’ from Kenya tackling hygiene and sanitation in informal settlements, to ‘TechnoBlind’ in Syria building smart canes for the visually impaired to ‘Electric Bike’ from the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan building solar powered electric bikes to improve access to clean water.
For me personally it was also a moment to reflect on being a judge, rather than being one of the people making the Challenge actually happen. Having led the brilliant team that piloted and scaled the original Generation Unlimited Youth Challenge, it was heartening to see the Challenge not just continuing into a third cycle, but thriving and growing, after the leadership was handed over from UNICEF's Office of Innovation (where it was incubated) to Generation Unlimited. Scaling and systemising innovations such that they can survive outside of an innovation team can often feel like the holy grail. So here are a few reflections on some of the things I learnt along the way.
Focus first on the Minimum Viable Product
The first year of the Youth Challenge was a sprint from inception to launch. We kept everything as simple as possible - re-using and adapting the existing UPSHIFT curriculum, working entirely on Google Docs and even running the judging process through Google, rather than through a dedicated Challenge Management Platform. This created some headaches insofar as the judging experience wasn’t the most user friendly for the judges themselves. But it meant we could work fast and at a low cost, with the majority of the budget focused on supporting the participating countries and invested in seed funding for youth teams.
The right partners at the right time
In the first cycle we worked with just 16 countries and in one international organisation (although multiple other organisations were engaged in each country). This brought some limitations in terms of reach, but also meant we could move relatively fast within the operating structures and accountability of one organisation. In the second cycle we worked across four partner organisations in nearly 40 countries. This was a step change in terms of reach and impact and each organisation brought really valuable expertise and networks, which strengthened the model. However, to make the most of the partners, an investment of time was required to firstly build the partnerships and then co-create the model for scale up. In this third cycle even more partners have been brought on board. If we had tried to start in the first year with that number of partners, I doubt we would have got off the starting blocks.
Invest the time in documentation
Creating frameworks, toolkits and processes that are clear, accessible and repeatable is crucial to supporting the replication and scale up of innovations. However, this is an area which is frequently under-estimated and doesn’t necessarily attract the same kudos as ideation. It requires significant thought up front (in terms of information architecture), an investment of time (which I personally ALWAYS underestimate), a good design and a completer finisher mindset. I am the first to admit that I’m not a natural completer finisher but have learnt that sometimes it’s a hat I need to wear. And we largely have Brian Cotter to thank on our team for not just leading the delivery of the second Youth Challenge but creating possibly the best ever handover pack. If you find people who can both innovate and document - cherish them!
Nothing happens without the right people. I have already written about the importance of this so won’t repeat it. It's All About The People | UNICEF Office of Innovation
So, it’s kudos to the original team and a huge kudos to the new team within Generation Unlimited who have taken the Youth Challenge forward, growing its impact for young people and the planet.