Want to innovate? Here's why we need young people now

Ilona Dougherty and the Social Impact Fund winnersYoung people are key to the health of both our economy and society, said Ilona Dougherty, a social entrepreneur who was recently named one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada by the Women’s Executive Network. “Youth engagement is not just a nice thing to do, but an economic and social imperative.” Dougherty was the keynote speaker at GreenHouse’s most recent Social Impact Showcase.

Dougherty made a case for her focus on the 15-25-year-old cohort, noting that neuroscience demonstrates that brain plasticity is at its height in this age group, and that developmental psychology shows that this age is key for forming identity and seeking meaning – factors that are key in the ability to innovate.

She observed that innovation is actually on the decline, which is concerning in a society facing increasingly complex challenges. She also suggested that adult stereotypes of millennials can actually be symptoms of this innovation deficit: Adults are often simply uncomfortable with change.

Dougherty emphasized that innovation is not simply a matter of developing new technology or even entrepreneurship, but can be characterized by creativity, curiosity, challenging the status quo, collaboration, observation and vision – all natural abilities of 15- to-25-year-olds.

"We celebrate young people in the context of military, sport, and entertainment, but we need to recognize the endless positive effects if we let young people use their brains."

Her premise is that young people should not be perceived simply as leaders of the future, but that the value of young people has to do with what they have to offer now. “If we want a thriving society, we need to make sure young people are being educated, but also that they are making a contribution while they are in school. That is what GreenHouse does well.”

From a very young age, Dougherty was surrounded by adults who listened to her, encouraged her opinions and valued her leadership potential – something she says was not always true for her peers. Recognizing this, at the age of 23, Dougherty left her work in national and international environmental policy work to found Apathy Is Boring, an organization dedicated to using art and technology to encourage young people to vote and get involved in the democratic process.

Now in her 30s, Dougherty has passed on the leadership baton of Apathy is Boring and now focuses on developing intergenerational partnerships capitalizing on the tremendous strengths of millennials and Generation Z – something she sees in the GreenHouse model. She says, “I’m a big fan of GreenHouse. I feel as though the research and work I’m doing with Amelia Clarke (Director of the Masters of Environment and Business at UWaterloo) is the theory behind why initiatives like GreenHouse work so well. It’s really cool to look at neuroscience and developmental psychology and what should work – and then see it working in real life at GreenHouse.”

Throughout her talk, Dougherty strove to encourage young people to understand why their risk-taking and hard work is both worthwhile and essential to society, and to help older people to support the younger cohort with tools that will help them innovate, engage, and get support from key decision makers.

“What I really love [about the GreenHouse model] is that it isn’t just young people doing their own thing,” Dougherty said.

"Instead, GreenHouse helps them be enveloped in the middle of a community that includes policy makers, community members, and experts. GreenHouse is an incredible model and I hope that more hubs like this will develop and spread."

Dougherty suggested ways older people can be open to encouraging innovation in younger people:

  1. We need to develop stronger intergenerational partnerships: Intergenerational teams make better decisions. Younger people need the wisdom and knowledge of older generations, mentorship and real support, access to circles of influence and pipelines to decision makers. (Dougherty referred to the presentation by GreenHouse’s Richard Yim, in which he explained the support of Lloyd Axworthy for The Landmine Boys’ project as an example of a decision-maker helping an innovative idea-maker launch their idea.)
  2. We need to be open to innovation: Offer real experience and links to community, rather than fake experiential learning. Tolerate risk and failure. Make room for creativity and difference. Be authentic – admit when you make mistakes.
  3. We need to value what young people have to offer: Youth are more impactful and aim for higher scales of impact than they are given credit for. Focus on the impact a young person has, rather than just the skills or training they receive. Move beyond seeing young people as learners to seeing them as doers.

Dougherty also had advice for young entrepreneurs on increasing their impact:

  • Use influence – don’t just raise awareness.
  • Have political engagement as a tool in your toolbox.
  • Work within the system to gain access to decision-makers (advisory bodies and other set-ups where youth have access to decision-makers are more likely to have an impact).
  • Think like a movement. (It’s not just about you or your venture, but the ecosystem in which it exists.)
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