Why youth-led innovation will drive sustainable solutions in Asia

With the past three years characterised by a global health crisis, geopolitical conflict, and climate-induced extreme weather, the Hitachi Young Leaders Initiative sees the youth as the new custodians of the future – able to find opportunity within challenges

HYLI 2022 students
Students from the 2022 Hitachi Young Leaders Initiative (HYLI) programme. The next HYLI will be held from 23 to 26 July. Image: Hitachi

Despite the year 2024 promising a fresh start for the world, the challenges experienced in the first three years of the decade continue to linger. 

The aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, geopolitical conflict and economic fluctuations – with the global economy expected to further decline this year – has cast a shadow of uncertainty on the years ahead. 

The global health crisis in particular, which affected much of the planet, also highlighted the plight of the youth, who were among the hardest hit in Asia. The impact on the youth is expected to last generations, according to a World Bank report, as a result of pandemic-induced extended school closures across the region. 

The crisis indeed endangered the job security of some 220 million young workers as a result of economic downturns and pushed 35 million children in the Asia Pacific region out of school.

But the pandemic and resultant lockdowns also led to innovation. While the closure of schools and universities forced young individuals to adapt to remote learning and leverage digital platforms, it also drove many young people to turn to entrepreneurship as a way of solving problems or gaps in the market and society.  

Around 50 per cent of the world’s population is below the age of 30, according to a report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an international organisation promoting democracy, human rights, and parliamentary cooperation among its member parliaments.

However, the representation of the youth sector in decision-making bodies remains miniscule. The IPU report highlights that a mere 2.6 per cent of legislators worldwide are below 30, indicating that young people’s voices in policy remain severely underrepresented. 

Youth inclusion and representation are further imperilled by emerging trends like “youthwashing,” or when companies use marketing strategies to appear youth-friendly or aligned with the interests and values of young people, typically to gain their support, as well as tokenism, which is when organisations demonstrate inclusivity or diversity without genuinely embracing it. 

The United Nations Youth Office, an initiative within the United Nations that focuses on engaging and empowering young people in global decision-making processes and promoting their rights and aspirations, was established as recently as September 2022.

“The youth are the ones who will overcome the challenges [we are facing today] and build a better world within Asia and Japan,” said Takatoshi Sasaki, managing director of Hitachi Asia.  

The pandemic, Sasaki added, has also led young people to ponder how social innovation can solve complex issues within communities and countries, as well as the importance of promoting sustainable societies and individual well-being all while respecting planetary boundaries.

The younger generation are hungry for training, exposure, and jobs related to ESG. We need initiatives [such as HYLI] to provide a platform to accelerate the understanding of today’s sustainability challenges amongst youths.

Meryl Koh, board member, EB Impact

Sasaki was speaking at a programme called the Hitachi Young Leaders Initiative (HYLI) programme, which took place in July 2022. It was established in 1996 and is a regional thought leadership and social responsibility programme organised by Japanese multinational conglomerate Hitachi to identify young leaders. It was the first iteration since its 2019 event in Myanmar and gathered 30 young individuals from eight APAC countries in Singapore.

Held every two years, the platform selects four university students from each participating country to meet and discuss current regional and global issues, and exchange views with speakers representing governments, business and academia.

“The sheer volume of issues confronting our region and our world can be daunting. But with all these challenges come opportunities to make the changes we want to see in the world,” explained Dr Rebecca Sta Maria, executive director of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Secretariat, to HYLI participants. 

She emphasised that the challenges also present “opportunities to upend the status quo, and put the planet on a pathway towards more environmentally sound and sustainable economic growth.”

Driven by purpose

Developed around the theme “Social innovation in the new normal,” the students from HYLI 2022 pitched solutions to problems facing Asia to a panel of representatives.

Among the pitches was a fintech platform to help smallholder farmers – who would otherwise be exploited by lenders who impose high interest rates – to secure loans. Another team presented a digital portal that matches off-grid communities to clean energy providers, government agencies and investors. Two groups pitched a wearable healthcare accessibility device for the elderly, and a platform and database for the management of the wastewater footprint of the fast fashion industry.

“The younger generation are hungry for training, exposure, and jobs related to environmental, social and governance (ESG),” said Meryl Koh, a board member of EB Impact. “We need initiatives [such as HYLI] to provide a platform to accelerate the understanding of today’s sustainability challenges amongst youths.” 

The programme’s alumni include the project lead of Japan’s pioneer solar power forecasting system and the Singaporean founder of an online youth upskilling startup.

A recent study by KPMG showed that ESG factors are becoming increasingly influential in the employment decisions made by almost half of office workers in the United Kingdom – predominantly among millennials and younger recruits. According to the survey, one in 10 jobseekers is actively looking for positions linked to ESG, with 18 to 24-year-olds most likely to seek a job linked to ESG (14 per cent). Almost half of the jobseekers (46 per cent) want the company they work for to demonstrate a commitment to ESG.

Additionally, two-thirds – or at least 64 per cent – of office workers admit that there are certain industries they would avoid for ethical reasons, according to the KPMG study. 

Change makers

Because the youth can turn challenges into opportunities, Hitachi hopes that through programmes like HYLI, young people feel empowered to continue innovating and to do so with the planet in mind. 

“I learned a lot about the SDGs, what has been done to work towards them and what more can be done,” reflected one of the student delegates. “Working on [and] pitching solutions allowed us to put what we have learned to good use.”

Youth-focused programmes like HYLI help young people to “absorb different perspectives from different and unique speakers,” one student added, while another attendee values the connections forged. 

The company looks forward to bringing more like-minded individuals together during its next event in 2024. “The future is not something that is given to you. Have a sense of ownership and create a world you’d like to live in,” concluded Toshiaki Higashihara, Hitachi’s executive chairman and representative executive officer.

Themed “Greening Together: Inclusion & Sustainability” HYLI 2024 will be held from 23 to 26 July.

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