Youth Leadership in a Digital Age: An Internet Governance example

The launch of the Young Foundations new report “Plugged in, untapped: Using digital technologies to help young people learn to lead” was rather serendipitous. I saw an e-mail announcing it’s launch just as I got back from the final session of The Internet Governance Forum, where, for the past 48 hours, the ‘Dynamic Youth Coalition on Internet Governance‘ had been living up to it’s name and demonstrating the power of digital media in supporting effective youth-led collaboration.

First some history
For those not familiar with it (which, alas, is most people), the Internet Governance Forum is a UN Sponsored multi-stakeholder body set up in 1996 after the World Summits on the Information Society, focussed on discussing issues of ‘Internet Governance‘. In practice, that means that every year, over 1000 people from across the world get together for a week, with participants from governments, companies, non-governmental organisations and independent individuals to engage in dialogue on topics ranging from the underlying technologies and policies of the Internet infrastructure, to copyright and intellectual property online, child protection, language issues on the web, increasing Internet access, and ensuring the Internet operates in way that is pro-development and pro-developing world.

The open nature of The Internet Governance process means that there are no rules prohibiting youth involvement, and over the first five years of the forum, and, particularly over the last two years, children, young people and young adults have come to play an increasing role in the event: facilitated through projects like Childnet’s Youth IGF programme, or the Hong Kong Youth IGF run by NetMission, but also coming to the forum independently.

In the closing stock-taking session of the IGF, participants can speak to those assembled to share views on the issues discussed and, this year, focussing on the future of the forum.

Digital-era leadership
The idea of making a youth-statement in this final session (Friday 3pm) was raised in the Wednesday meeting of the Youth Coalition (Wednesday, around 3pm). During the meeting where the idea was raised, statement writing began. But not statement writing of the type I’ve experience before at youth summits, where one person sits at a laptop as others start throwing in ideas – generally leaving the editor-at-keyboard with a greater influence on the text that others. Instead, using PiratePad, a live-editing tool, young people and young adults in the room logged on and started working collaboratively on the same text.

Within a few hours a skeleton statement had started to take shape: drawing on existing statements from Youth IGF projects, pasted into the document and then drawn upon to make the final text – creating a direct link between existing statements from young people and this IGF statement (leading to the lines in the final version “We have established a coalition not to compete with, or replace many youth groups who have come to play a role in the regional and International IGF process over recent years. Instead, we want to bring together the messages from many different groups”).

Of course, many members of the youth coalition were not at this years IGF in Vilnius, Lithuania, but by sending a message to the coalition mailing list giving a link to the PiratePad, they gained the same access as people in the venue to edit the draft statement. By lunchtime the next day, gathered around laptops in the lunch-hall, editing text, chatting online and talking face-to-face, a small group were approaching a final draft. The final statement which you can read at is directly the product of at least 10 different authors, and draws on the inputs of many more. The image to the right shows a different colour highlight depending on the author responsible for that element of text.

By 9am on Friday, a copy of the statement was sent ready for translation and before it would be presented; and when, at 3pm, Joonas stood up to read out the statement, I was just putting the finishing touches to a new blog design and hitting the ‘publish’ button so that anyone following the IGF closing session on Twitter of via live Webcast (which a number of coalition members were doing) could access a copy.

There were quite different opinions when we started about what a statement should contain, and how it should be structured, but the final product, imperfect as it may be, makes sense of those differences and I think presents a modest but positive step forward in youth contributions to Internet Governance. The process drew upon many different skills: convening, co-ordination and leadership from Rafik Dammac to bring together the coalition (not an easy task: serious respect due!); technology stewardship to identify a platform we could use for collaboration and to support different participants to work with the process; digital facilitation, sending messages out to coalition members on e-mail in a timely and clear way; face-to-face facilitation, such as Desiree’s fantastic work encouraging and supporting members of the Hong Kong youth IGF to input into the statement; collaborative working, from all the different authors who input; and presentation skills, from both Rafik and Joonas who presented the statement.

Learning to lead?
The work of the Youth Coalition over the last few days of the IGF has taught me a lot about the potential of technologically-enabled collaborative working. There has been some learning to lead: but more importantly, learning to work together on concrete action.

It also reminds me that whilst the Young Foundation’s new report offers some solid analysis of the opportunities of challenges of digitally enabled work with young people, it’s title is too modest: we should be focussed not so much on young people ‘learning to lead’ as we should be looking at active active innovation in how to get things done, and in what leadership is and means in a digital age. Innovation and new opportunities that we all have something to learn from…

For it’s modest title, “Plugged in: untapped” does help us on that learning journy.