From ideas to impact: how innovation is promoting digital skills for youth for economic progress

April 20, 2023
Photo: AI generated

The current education model is struggling to keep up with the rapidly evolving demands of the labour market, as highlighted in a recent article by the World Economic Forum. Many graduates find themselves ill-equipped to enter the workforce, lacking the necessary skills to thrive in a constantly changing environment. As a response to the need for economic growth through knowledge-based activities, UNDP Kazakhstan organized the National Knowledge Week. This week-long event was designed to mobilize hundreds of young people across the country, providing them with opportunities to learn new skills, explore innovative ideas, and foster creativity.

Future-Proofing Your Career in the New Labour Market

The traditional model of memorization and standardized testing is becoming irrelevant, as employers are placing a greater emphasis on creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020, creativity, critical thinking, and complex problem-solving are the top three skills required for the future workforce, which is being increasingly influenced by the growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and digital technology.

The rise of AI and technology is disrupting job markets around the world, including the labour market in Kazakhstan. While some jobs are being automated, new jobs are being created that require different skill sets. Based on OECD estimates, more than half of the jobs in Kazakhstan (52 percent) are at high or significant risk of being automated. These jobs are typically associated with tasks that do not require complex problem-solving or social interactions. Therefore, it is crucial for the education system in Kazakhstan to adapt and incorporate digital and interpersonal competency skills into the curriculum to ensure that graduates are well-prepared for the changing job market. Fostering innovation and creativity among the labour force is critical for the future economic progress of Kazakhstan, as innovative solutions lead to new products, services, and business models that can create new job opportunities and spur economic growth.

Participants of the Knowledge Week in Zhezkazgan

Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan

The goal of UNDP Kazakhstan’s National Knowledge Week was to empower youth with the knowledge and resources they need to participate in the country's economic growth through knowledge-based activities. The event served as a platform for young people to engage in discussions, share their experiences, and network with like-minded individuals who are passionate about creating an impact.

As a digital advocate, it was important for me to make sure that a digital agenda is included in Knowledge Week as a cross-cutting topic as it is at the core of the change in need for these new skills. As the world becomes more digital, countries need to keep up with the latest technological advancements to stay competitive. Youth are essential to this process, as they are often the most tech-savvy and adaptable to new technologies. However, to participate in and contribute to the digital economy, young people need the necessary skills and knowledge that are often not readily available or accessible to them. Many young people may not know where to find or obtain the required skills, which can hinder their ability to succeed in a rapidly evolving job market that demands digital literacy and technological proficiency. The National Knowledge Week is the platform that UNDP Kazakhstan created to support the country's digital transformation agenda by introducing young people to the 21st century skills, promoting digital solutions and investing in education and training programs that equip young people with the skills needed for the labour market.  

Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan

Bringing together local innovators and learners

UNDP Kazakhstan has been searching for sectors that can promote economic diversification for its citizens, and thus, the topic of knowledge was chosen. Although the country possesses abundant natural resources, the genuine wealth of a nation lies with its people, i.e., human capital. The acceleration of technological advancements and the recent breakthroughs in AI have made it imperative for modern education to concentrate on human skills that cannot be automated, such as creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. In addition, interpersonal competencies like kindness, empathy, and socio-emotional intelligence play an increasingly significant role in the labour market, contributing depth and meaning to all interactions and forming the foundation of any industry.

UNDP Kazakhstan’s Accelerator Lab team posed a challenging question regarding how to exploit current trends and resources like globalization and digital transformation to ensure equitable growth. Knowledge-based economic growth emerged as the answer to this query, which gave rise to further questions like the definition of knowledge, how to measure it, and how to connect it to economic growth.

To begin, the Global Knowledge Index was examined, which is the tool employed to measure a country's knowledge and identify growth opportunities. Kazakhstan ranks 78th out of 154 countries, with the index revealing the country's strong indicators and areas where it can be further strengthened, such as education spending and the "research, development, and innovation" sector.

After exploring the concept of knowledge and its measurement through the Global Knowledge Index, the Accelerator Lab team brainstormed ways to approach the topic in an engaging, participatory, and impactful manner. Although the implementation strategy was complicated due to Kazakhstan's vast geographical expanse, we developed various formats and ultimately settled on the following approach.

Participants of the Knowledge Week in Zhezkazgan pitching their idea

Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan

Empowering Zhezkazgan youth through Knowledge Week

To promote regional development and provide opportunities for young people in areas outside major cities, the Accelerator Lab decided to take Knowledge Week locally. We organized a two-day skills learning festival in Zhezkazgan, the center of the Ulytau region. This city was chosen as the launch location due to its status as a single industry town or "monotown" that relies heavily on one extractive industry plant. Many young people are attracted to work in this plant due to the job opportunities and decent salaries it provides, but we wanted to broaden their career horizons by showcasing other professions and opportunities in different sectors, particularly those focused on green jobs.

During the Knowledge Week in Zhezkazgan, young people participated in various workshops on digital and 21st century skills, including leadership, jobs in renewable industries and IT, public speaking, and emotional intelligence. We aimed to motivate and inspire young people, especially young women, to explore new career paths and consider alternative industries beyond the traditional extractive industry. Through this initiative, UNDP hopes to promote equitable and sustainable economic growth and development in single industry towns around the country.

SkillsUp regional youth hackathons' participants

Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan

Developing the next generation of problem solvers at the SkillsUp regional youth hackathons 

To tap into the potential of young people, the Accelerator Lab organized the SkillsUp regional youth hackathons where high school and university students could work together and present their ideas on the challenging areas from the Global Knowledge Index (GKI). The team purposefully targeted smaller cities, such as Aktau, Turkestan, Karaganda, and Ust-Kamenogorsk, to create a platform where young people can share their ideas and meet each other.

The youth engagement journey began with a week-long online bootcamp, where local experts set the basis for the hackathon challenges. The team identified three key topics for the challenges linked to Kazakhstan's weaker areas in the GKI: Science in Kazakhstan, reducing disparities in the quality of STEM education, and improving education in rural schools. 

Over 500 young people participated in 16 masterclasses where they were taught practical skills such as how to pitch an idea, choose a topic for a startup, use Arduino prototyping, develop a business model, and commercialize scientific projects. The learning bootcamp aimed to prepare high school and college students for the SkillsUp regional hackathons. 

The hackathon attracted around 500 registered students from 11 cities and towns of Kazakhstan who competed for the grand prize of more than 5 million tenge (around $12,000). The Accelerator Lab team led each of the four regional hackathons onsite and brought the winning teams together that competed for the national prize in Almaty.

Hackathon in Almaty

Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan

Demo Day: final hackathon in Almaty

After the regional hackathons, 12 teams (3 from each of the 4 regions) were selected as finalists to present their solutions in Almaty. The format of Demo Day was chosen, where teams pitched their solutions and products. This event was a celebration of collective intelligence and youth ideas focused on how young people can drive development.

The Accelerator Lab took advantage of having gathered the youth in one place and conducted another packed day of activities for the finalists. All finalists were from regional cities and towns, and this trip to Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city, was an additional motivation for them. During the trip, young people participated in skills workshops, had a field visit to the start-up incubator, and enjoyed networking and inspiring each other. The solutions presented were diverse and had a digital component. Some teams even managed to prepare prototypes of their solutions, such as a smart composter or a smart greenhouse that could be controlled through a mobile application.

UNDP recognizes the importance of involving youth in the development process, and therefore, the hackathons were designed to address the challenges of the knowledge economy from the perspective of young people. This approach allowed us to gain insight into their unique worldview and incorporate their voices into the development process.

Digital Day conference in Astana. A volunteer showing digital tours to national parks

Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan

Digital by default for people and the planet

The culmination of the National Knowledge Week taking place across Kazakhstan was the "Digital Day" conference. The purpose of this conference was to showcase digital solutions supported by UNDP Kazakhstan and to create a platform for networking and inspiration. By bringing together students, UNDP partners, and private sector, we aimed to break down silos and encourage dialogue exchange among stakeholders. This event was a unique opportunity for solution owners to share their experiences and foster new partnerships and ideas.

We showcased various digital solutions, including the Digital Family Card projectSMART technologies to protect wildlife, a mobile application for social workersand camera traps and satellite collars to monitor endangered species. We also partnered with industry experts from HP to deliver workshops on digital skills for participating audiences.

A participant of the Digital Day, presenting an application on prevention of gender-based violence

Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan

UNDP Kazakhstan is committed to promoting sustainable development through digital transformation, digital inclusion, and digital innovation. By investing in the skills of youth and showcasing digital solutions, we are helping to accelerate the country's economic growth and contribute to sustainable development. The National Knowledge Week was a significant event, taking place across Kazakhstan, and is a celebration of the collective intelligence of the whole country.

The Digital Advocate Network is an initiative of UNDP's Chief Digital Office, aimed at promoting the exchange of knowledge and tools that leverage digitalization to reduce inequalities and foster sustainable development. Each UNDP office has a dedicated digital advocate whose mission is to integrate global thought leadership into local contexts. Through this network, digital advocates are trained and empowered to become agents of change, taking advantage of digital platforms and tools to drive meaningful impact. The UNDP Digital Advocate Network is a powerful example of the UNDP's commitment to leveraging digitalization for social good and creating a more equitable and sustainable world for all.