Posted by Brad Smith
General Counsel & Executive Vice President, Legal & Corporate Affairs, Microsoft

A good deal of discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week has focused on “The Great Transformation” and how technology, leadership and innovation can improve the state of the world for future generations. It’s a vital discussion. Young people represent our collective future. They will be our leaders, our doctors, our scientists, our teachers, innovators and entrepreneurs. But today young people face enormous challenges. While specific challenges vary around the world, it is clear that a fundamental challenge is emerging everywhere – an opportunity divide for young people. While some young people are prospering, others are struggling because they lack the education, skills or opportunities they need to succeed.

More than 100 million youth worldwide lack access to any sort of education and more than 77 million young people are unemployed. Unemployment rates are consistently higher for young people than any other group. There has been unprecedented change in recent years, from a surge in international trade that has fundamentally changed the global economy to major breakthroughs in science that have transformed the way we live. Technology has been a major driving force behind this change, and a major force for good in our economies and societies. But these forces have also created new challenges and caused new dislocations. And the rate of change isn’t slowing.

At Microsoft, we’ve long held a belief in the power of technology to help people realize their potential. It is why, over the past decade, we have made significant investments in partnership with governments, nonprofits and other businesses to address the digital divide – providing people with access to technology and skills. While much progress has been made addressing the digital divide, today there are still at least one billion people lacking access to information and communications technology (ICT). Today, it’s clear that access to technology is no longer enough. Young people require new skills, better education and stronger connections to real world life and job opportunities. A McKinsey study recently estimated that, by the end of this decade, two-thirds of the jobs that will be created don't even exist today. We have to do a better job of preparing our young people for this future. We have to help close this opportunity divide.

Tackling an issue of this importance will require a collective effort by governments, businesses and the non-profit community. Through our work around the world, we’ve come to the conclusion that closing this opportunity divide has become one of the most important actions we can all take – together – to secure the future of our youth and, as a result, the future of our global economy and society.

We therefore are focusing our Citizenship programs, partnerships and investments on helping to create opportunities for youth through technology, training, helping to enhance education, and providing experiences that empower young people to imagine and realize their full potential.

We have learned a lot about the potential of technology through working with individuals and organizations in more than 100 countries, so we believe we have some good ideas. But we also know that we don’t have all the answers. That’s why earlier today in Davos we brought together a group of leaders to discuss the challenges and the way forward, hosting a roundtable meeting to encourage people to share their perspectives on the challenges facing young people and how society can address those challenges and help them thrive.

At the meeting, we heard from Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and leaders representing the public, private and nonprofit sectors, as well as from young people themselves. Participants included Nancy Lublin, CEO of DoSomething.org; Susan Hockfield, President of MIT; and Olivier Weber, President, PepsiCo South America, Caribbean and Central America Foods. It was a fascinating and informative discussion, and I look forward to sharing more with you about it.

Reflecting on the conversation, I was astonished by the breadth of topics that we covered during the short meeting – the role of technology; the potential shift in control of learning from institutions to youth themselves; the different approaches to reforming education; the need to inspire youth to seize opportunity through challenges, new careers and job paths; and the different ways to empower them to realize opportunity through jobs, skills and access to microfinance. Below is a photo of the Opportunity Divide roundtable in Davos earlier today:

While I and my colleagues are still digesting this discussion, all of this has reinforced for me that the opportunity divide is a complex challenge – one that will require collaboration and partnership, global learnings but local solutions, and above all, the involvement of youth themselves to address. On a personal level, the challenge and the opportunity for youth was brought home to me by Dominik Tomicevic, a student from Croatia who participated in today’s discussion and was named as one of the inaugural recipients of our Imagine Cup grant program.

The grant, which includes cash, in-kind technology, support and services, is focused on enabling students to take their Imagine Cup project and transform it into a business that not only creates employment but addresses a tough global problem. Dominik’s project, KiDnect, provides children with cerebral palsy a customized physical therapy solution using the Kinect sensor. This software has the ability to monitor a child’s exercises to ensure they are being completed correctly, and then provides statistical analysis to the therapist. This kind of innovation is the perfect example of why we must focus on ensuring that we provide young people with access, not only to technology, but education and opportunity – because with it, they have the power to make a positive impact on the world.

This was the first of what we hope will be many similar discussions around the world – and the beginning of a broad effort to help tackle the opportunity divide. There are no quick fixes to this challenge, but the first step is to recognize that in the midst of a difficult economic climate we must keep investing for the long term – and specifically in our youth. We need governments, nonprofits, businesses and individuals working together to close the opportunity divide and provide our young people with the opportunities they need to create the next breakthrough, build the next business, and enjoy a long, healthy and productive life. There’s no better time to start than today. We hope you’ll join the discussion and help to tackle this issue.

You can find out more about the Imagine Cup Grants recipients here.