A core part of UNICEF's mission to improve the lives of children around the world is to consult with young people on important issues, amplify youth voices and ensure those voices are heard.
It is within this vein that a team from UNICEF's Office of Innovation partnered with The Lancet & Financial Times Commission and launched Imagining Health Futures, a storytelling project that is part of a broader collaboration called Governing Health Futures 2030.
The story project, which unfolded over several months in 2021, consisted of a series of small-group conversations, each led by a science-fiction author. UNICEF's Adolescent Health and Innovation teams and country offices worked with Generation Unlimited and Voices of Youth to recruit and support participants, aged 14 and up, for each author meet-up.
Storytelling project involved youth from 20 countries across 11 time zones
There was a session in Egypt with author Ghada Abdel Aal; one in India with Samit Basu and one in Argentina with Paula Bombara. Malena Salazar Maciá met with kids in Cuba. Author George Jrejije led a session in Lebanon, Ray Mwihaki in Kenya and Ndinaelao Moses in Namibia.
Bosnian poet and writer Asja Bakić collaborated with kids from Serbia and Bosnia, Suyi Davies Okungbowa with kids from Nigeria and Sierra Leone, and Norman Erikson Pasaribu with kids in Indonesia. Zoya Patel's group came from Fiji and the Federated States of Micronesia, Yudhanjaya Wijeratne from Sri Lanka.
The main goal was to spark insight and creative thinking around health and health care in a digital world. "We were particularly interested in how digital transformations could affect the health and well-being of children and youth," explains Chris Fabian, one of 17 commissioners and co-lead of Giga, a UNICEF initiative with the International Telecommunication Union to connect every school in the world to the internet. "We wanted young people to help the Commission imagine how technologies could help us improve our health — and how to avoid a dystopian future."
Involving youth in the discussions was also a way to enhance their own sense of power and agency as collaborators on health solutions.
The uniqueness of the project is what made it so exciting, says Jason Gonzalez, UNICEF's Product Development & Engagement Lead for Adolescent Health. "We were motivated by a desire to do ‘youth engagement’ differently, through expression, vision, fantasy and imagination — and it turns out worlds can be built on these things alone."
Collaborators took a 'writer's room' approach to imagining health futures in a connected world
The meetings took a 'writers' room' approach, with a lot of time devoted to brainstorming about what health might look like in year 2040. Thoughts and ideas for what story to tell were shared and discussed. The authors then fleshed out the stories incorporating the teens' input and feedback on early drafts.
Many stories explored fears around the negative impact of life online, particularly for mental health. Others imagined ways in which new technologies might improve health and well-being. Twelve stories have been published online, available in English and in some cases in their original language as well (Arabic, Bosnian, Indonesian, Spanish).
"Each story is inspired by the hopes, fears and imaginations of adolescents and youth who collaborated with the authors to reimagine health in a digital age," Gonzalez says. "The hope is that those who read these stories will be inspired to take action to shape better health futures for all."
The youth session in Cuba was one of the few that took place in person instead of on Zoom. (UNICEF teams were sure to include young people from all parts of the world regardless of digital access and internet connectivity, and worked around limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Fabian notes.)
Salazar, the author who led the Cuba session with support from UNICEF Cuba, describes Imagining Health Futures as "a beautiful project" and the process of creating a story with young collaborators "fascinating." She says she was thrilled about how readily the participants opened up during their sessions, sharing "spectacular" ideas and future projections about themselves, their communities and their country.
"As an adult, my view is sometimes infused with a little pessimism, perhaps, and with a bit of irony," she says. "The adolescents I worked with gave me something we sometimes forget — hope and positivity."
As an adult, my view is sometimes infused with a little pessimism, perhaps, and with a bit of irony. The adolescents I worked with gave me something we sometimes forget — hope and positivity.
Mariana, a 20-year-old journalism student and host of a radio show, "Sin Límite," says being part of the project made her want to write her own story. "It was a very motivating experience," she says. "And it was a lot of fun listening to everyone else's proposals, no matter how wild or fanciful."
Her greatest hope for the future, she says, is for health care to become "humanized."
"I wish it would no longer be seen as a business or as a way for countries and governments to make money ... but rather as a way of helping each other. I wish for more empathy between doctors and their patients, between institutions and people. I wish we came more closely together as human beings and stopped seeing something that's a human right as a product, a business or market, but rather as a necessity."
I wish for more empathy between doctors and their patients, between institutions and people. I wish we came more closely together as human beings
The anthology of stories complements the The Lancet & Financial Times Commission's Governing Health Futures 2030 report — an examination of how digital technologies are the new determinants of health, particularly for young people, and a call to action to put children's needs first when harnessing these advancements. The report concludes that involving young people in the governance of digital technologies is key to advancing health equity.
"Large gaps remain in our understanding of the interface between digital technologies and health, particularly for young people," the report reads. "Addressing the role of digital technologies as determinants of health already in early childhood will be crucial for reducing the social and economic burdens of disease later in life."
For Gonzalez, one of the most touching moments came from a young participant from Fiji. "He said, 'We're just school students — this is a dream come true to be heard.' That basically says it all. It's why we want to keep this initiative going, and to inspire more stories. The beauty of it is that it can be replicated in new environments, across fields and with anyone. You don’t have to be an award-winning author to write the future."
Top photo: Cuban fantasy and science fiction author Malena Salazar Maciá, front far right, with her young collaborators outside ProSalud, a community health center in Havana. Salazar's short story, "From the Corner of His Eye," was published online as part of the Imagining Health Futures anthology. The story incorporates thoughts and ideas that were generated during a series of writer's room sessions, during which, Salazar says, participants shared some "spectacular" ideas and future projections about themselves, their communities and their country. @ UNICEF