Panel discussion: Emerging Technologies and Innovation

Year of production: 2023

Emerging technologies and innovation in the digital sphere are an integral part of the digital transformation and they have big implications for the youth field. But is the youth field ready to grasp the opportunities offered by such technologies and is it up to the task of managing the risks? 


What are the key emerging technologies?

When it comes to the youth field, the kinds of emerging technologies that are the most useful ranges from AI ( artificial intelligence) – which is already all-pervasive (it’s on our phones, it’s informing our search engine searches etc.) to gaming, through to VR (virtual reality).  Some of these technologies are already being used widely and others are little-explored but have big potential for use in youth work. 

Virtual reality – when used in youth work – includes online immersive platforms. Best practice in using VR in the youth field should be underpinned by three guiding principles: it should be multi-user, have the capacity to host private events, and be appropriate in terms of transparency, privacy and user control. There are currently 16-20 that are “road tested” for youth work and this number will likely double in the next 18 months – 2 years. There are also practical applications for technology such as QR codes and blockchain that have not yet been fully explored.

Embracing innovation to revolutionise youth work

There are big opportunities for practitioners to reach out to groups of young people that, in the past, may not have been accessing youth services, for example, rural youth, and to enhance their participation.  The power of AI can also be harnessed by the youth field to personalise learning for young people.  It can, by analysing huge datasets, identify the interests, learning style, and progress of young people. Activities and resources can therefore be tailored to match their individual needs and to empower youth workers with interventions which match what young people need and policy makers with effective policy interventions.

But the big question is: with so many tools and platforms and in a constantly evolving environment, where do practitioners begin when delving into new tech like VR? One practical suggestion is to start where young people already are. Some of these digital platforms are gathering millions of new users every day. Follow digital trends and find out where young people are spending their time and what the next big platform might be. 


Start with what’s fun

Virtual reality, for beginners, can seem like an unknown new world and many are not sure how or where to delve into it. There are many ways to jump in and, often, the best starting point for exploring the VR world is through something you are already interested in, whether that be art, photography or music – these can also be effective ways of reaching out to young people to create meaningful participation experiences. Embrace curiosity and the fun side of VR! For example, young people often really enjoy creating their own avatars. Through gamification, young people can explore what it means to be a digital citizen. Certain activities, which may not seem so appealing in a physical space, might be more interesting in a virtual one.


Be aware of the downsides

Whilst there is potential to reach people that haven’t before accessed youth work, embracing digital technologies also has a flip side: it can be seen as exclusive, given its “geeky” reputation. And, indeed, there is a basic level of access to e.g. equipment and a decent internet connection that has to be ensured in order to guarantee a level playing field. 

Another challenge about such a swiftly evolving environment is that, if – as a youth worker – you jump on board one platform for a project, which then suddenly disappears (through lack of funding, or another platform becomes more popular), you don’t want to lose the learning etc. gained from that specific platform. It is therefore important to consider the sustainability and viability of projects beyond specific funding cycles.


Some good practices:

  • Focus on transparency, privacy and user control. 
  • Take a multi- stakeholder approach: involve the sector in the process of development, training and deployment of new technologies, so that young people, but also youth workers, are fully engaged in the process. Young people can truly reap the rewards of the immersive experience by building their own virtual worlds. 
  • Ensure more inclusive and better tailored tools to support the participation of marginalised young people.
  • Try combining VR with existing programmes, such as youth exchanges. Online and offline can complement each other and help extend the benefits of physical projects.


Steps towards enhanced virtual youth work

Whilst there are examples of strong innovation in the sector, there is clearly a need for capacity building, both in terms of policy and funding, engagement of the sector and upskilling of youth workers. There needs to be more work done at policy level to make the cultural shift in youth work around emerging tech. So far, progress is taking place in pockets and it is not always very strategic and so the big question is how to integrate innovation in terms of technology into long-term youth work practice. Policy makers and those working in the field should consider how to foster a culture that encourages strategic innovation.


Panel:  emerging technologies and innovation

This was the sixth and final panel session hosted by SALTO Participation & Information Resource Centre (SALTO PI) and SALTO Inclusion and Diversity Resource Centre (SALTO I&D) on Inclusive & Participatory Digital Transformation.


The event featured:

  • Irina Buzu is pursuing her PhD research in International Law, with a focus on AI policies and regulation, she is a fellow at the Center for Artificial Intelligence and Digital Policy (CAIDP) and an Emerging Tech fellow at EUROPULS
  • Juha Kiviniemi is a digital youth work and digital education expert, currently working as a senior adviser in the newly formed SALTO Digital resource centre.
  • Barry Haughey is the Founder of HoloGen and is a digital artist and educator with over 20 years working in the UK and Irish education and youth work sectors.


Photo of Sarah Farndale
Sarah Farndale

Sarah is a communications specialist with 15 years' experience working in-house for a wide range of organisations and institutions, from international NGOs to EU associations and institutions. More recently, she has been advising clients as a freelance communications consultant - based in Brussels - working with organisations on enhancing their communications.