Words by: Amber Turnau 

Photos by: UNICEF Canada 

On November 6, we’ll be donating 100% of proceeds from sales on arcteryx.com to UPSHIFT, a UNICEF program that helps disadvantaged youth solve societal problems through the power of design thinking. 


“How might we…?” This simple question can empower an entire generation of young people to change the world.  

The youth of today are leaders of tomorrow. But, in many low-and-middle income countries, young people face a lack of education and employment opportunities. Today, global youth unemployment rates have reached 13%, which is three times higher than adults.    

Enter UPSHIFT, a cutting-edge program by UNICEF that puts youth at the helm of societal change by teaching them problem solving through innovation and entrepreneurship. The goal is to prepare them with modern-day skills that help them solve, not just today’s challenges, but tomorrow’s problems too.

Borrowing from start-up culture and steeped in design thinking, UPSHIFT is like a Dragon’s Den for student entrepreneurs. 

“65 per cent of children entering primary schools today will work in new job types and functions that currently don’t exist,” explains Simon Chorley, UNICEF Canada’s International Programs Manager. He says it’s important for young people from all corners of the world to learn transferable skills they can adapt to a rapidly changing society and job landscape.  

Through Social Impact Workshops, mentors help UPSHIFT participants identify problems in their communities, then brainstorm solutions. During the multi-day curriculum, students learn skills like public speaking, critical thinking, negotiation, ideation, leadership, and teamwork— all essential for the 21st century workforce. After the workshop, they receive mentoring, seed funding and other support to help them sustain their concept. 

“Design thinking is central to UPSHIFT and an increasingly important part of all of UNICEF’s work,” says Chorley. That the non-profit uses these principles of iterative problem solving and human-centric innovation throughout the organization. It was a natural fit to bring this skillset to young people. 

Every community has its own unique challenges, whether it be tackling climate change, overcoming gender inequality, establishing better access for people with disabilities, reducing poverty or improving health and wellness. With this, the UPSHIFT program can be adapted and scaled to the needs of the population it’s serving.

In its flagship location, Kosovo, UPSHIFT students helped their community introduce a new eco-friendly waste management concept for organic waste. In Vietnam, the Social Impact Workshops facilitated opportunities for youth with disabilities. And in Jordan—which houses approximately 250,000 school-aged refugee children— students gained new life skills through the UPSHIFT program. 

In 2018 alone, the program reached at least 300,000 young people worldwide, and the numbers are climbing.  UPSHIFT is now in 15 countries, with more than 20 countries (including several in South America) interested in piloting and adapting the model.

Closer to home, UNICEF has adapted the UPSHIFT model in the form of Change Summits, where Canadian children can hone their own design and innovation skills.  

With the help of technology and innovation, youth are helping marginalized groups within our society and shaping a future we can all benefit from.