By Conor Lambe, Chief Economist at Danske Bank

In August, 150 young leaders from around the world visited Belfast for the Shape Europe 2018 Conference, which I attended. The event was hosted by the Belfast Hub of the Global Shapers Community.

For those not familiar with it, the Global Shapers Community is an initiative of the World Economic Forum and was founded in 2011. It is a network of young people aged from 20-33 that work together to design and run projects to bring about improvements in their local areas. The Global Shapers Community currently consists of around 7,000 ‘Shapers’ in over 160 countries.

The theme of Shape Europe 2018 was ‘Views from the Fault Line’, reflecting the fact that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK to share a land border with the EU, and that has led to a unique set of Brexit-related challenges. Brexit and the border was explored in more detail during the conference, but it wasn’t the only topic up for discussion. There were also sessions covering some of the other major issues facing governments, businesses and consumers today. These included climate change, the future of work, conflict in society, political and social activism, creating a vision for Europe and considering what cities will look like in the future.

In addition to some of the insights that came out during the detailed sessions, there were three things that really struck me during my two days at the conference. 

The first was the entrepreneurial spirit of the people there. Many of the attendees had already set up their own businesses and have ambitious growth plans for the future.

The second was the importance of diversity, inclusion and collaboration when tackling complex problems. From a business perspective, there is a wide-ranging evidence base showing that diversity is positively correlated with financial performance. It is also accepted that across all organisations, diversity and inclusion is a positive force when it comes to decision-making, innovation and identifying opportunities.

The third was the commitment to local communities. Some of the examples of the projects either under design, or already underway, in countries and cities with hubs included educating children about the EU in Luxembourg, tackling loneliness in London or inspiring and empowering young people in Colombia.

Professor Klaus Schwab, the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, established the Global Shapers Community to encourage and provide a platform for young people to play a role in shaping policy agendas around the world. Against that backdrop, and after attending the conference, I started thinking about the role that young people play in Northern Ireland, and how they could contribute to tackling the long-term challenges that continue to hold back the local economy.

As well as Brexit, the Northern Ireland economy faces a number of headwinds. These include the high rate of economic inactivity, low levels of labour productivity, a relatively low business birth rate, skills shortages, constrained public resources and continued political uncertainty.

None of these challenges are easy to find solutions to, and solving them will require creative thinking and collaboration across government, businesses and other organisations.

But I know from experience, including the Shape Europe event, that young people working together can challenge conventional thinking and generate new ideas to tackle problems.

The data also reveals some interesting facts about the importance of young people in our society, and their capability.

For example, in 2017 the proportion of the population under 30 was higher in Northern Ireland (39 per cent) than in England (37 per cent), Wales (36 per cent) and Scotland (35 per cent).

In addition, the most recent Global Entrepreneurship Monitor revealed that the age group with the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity in Northern Ireland is the 25-34 year-old category.

So, how should young people be engaged in economic, and indeed all forms, of government policymaking?

In a paper published last year by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), four forms of youth participation in policymaking were discussed. However, in my opinion, these forms are applicable across all age groups in society, from teenagers, to millennials, to pensioners. 

The first form is ‘informing’, which involves raising awareness of policy decisions. The second is ‘consulting’, which can include polling and surveying people or running workshops and focus groups. The third is ‘collaborating’, which involves co-facilitated consultation, sitting on steering committees and collaborating on research. The final form is ‘empowering’, and it includes delegating decision-making and implementation responsibilities.

It would be wrong to assume that young people do not already have a voice in shaping policy in Northern Ireland. And of course anyone is free to respond to a formal public consultation. However, given the talent of our young people, and particularly some of the young business leaders that we have in Northern Ireland, there is scope for further youth participation in the policymaking process. This would most likely be via some of the ‘consulting’ or ‘collaborating’ mechanisms discussed above.

I suspect that if you put some of our best and brightest young people in a room together, even for a short time, you would likely end up with a number of new ideas to tackle the long-term challenges that continue to constrain the Northern Ireland economy. 

This article was published in The Belfast Telegraph on 11th September 2018.