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Chris Szymczak: Helping People Take Control of Their Own Digital Destiny

Chris Szymczak: Helping People Take Control of Their Own Digital Destiny


Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse picture books and online curriculum with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by our interplanetary journalist Spiffy with inspiring Social Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builders, and Changemakers who are advancing the UN SDGs. 

Spiffy here with the scoop on the entrepreneurial leaders of Planet Earth. As the only interplanetary journalist stationed on this blue planet, I’m thrilled to present this galactic exclusive with Chris Szymczak, the leader of digital public goods for the Office of Innovation, UNICEF. Let’s learn what’s happening at the Office of Innovation, UNICEF and how Chris is making a positive impact in the world.

Spiffy: Thanks for joining me, Chris! Tell me, what challenge are you addressing through the Office of Innovation at UNICEF?

Chris: Thanks for having me, Spiffy! In a poll made by UNICEF, 67% of young people feel they have limited to no control over how technology will impact their lives in the next 10 years. How can they think otherwise if they didn’t participate in designing it? Today's youth is largely excluded from taking control of their own digital destiny. UNICEF supports youth who want to build technology that benefits public gooddigital public goods (DPGs). At the end of the nineteenth century, western world-dominating countries colonized nations under the premise that they had no sovereignty and resources to properly manage their own affairs; we are facing a digital version of this process today. Digital public goods developed locally, by the future generation, fast forward digital development towards equity.

Spiffy: What motivates you to do it?

Chris: I once flew into Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. It wasn't the first time but that particular landing approach, on that day, stayed with me. The bird’s eye view of the barren landand barren opportunities for its children and young peopleis something I can’t shake off. I can’t fathom that six hours earlier I had taken off from Europe, where children and young people have all the information, opportunity, and choice, and only by the merit of luck of being born in less troubled places. Since then, I find no joy in landings. The injustice of it all is hard to grasp. 

Spiffy: What is the impact of your work?

Chris: Everyone likes to talk about the impact of their work. I prefer to think about the lack of impact of my work. I don’t count how many children and youth I served but how many still need support. It shifts the conversation from self-congratulatory commendation to radical action for structural change that this world badly needs. I hope the work of my team contributes to a structural change to take youththe future generationseriously, by equipping them with power and resources to influence their own future, including the digital future.

Spiffy: Tell me about a recent organization milestone or initiative. What impact does it make on your audience/community?

Chris: DPG X YOUTH is UNICEF’s programme through which young people, including social-impact oriented tech entrepreneurs, learn the link between digital sovereignty and how and where technology is built; acquire digital skills to develop open and just technology; and have access to resources to intentionally shape an equitable digital future for themselves and their region. 

Spiffy: Thanks for speaking with me today, Chris—it’s been an honor!

Chris leads the Digital Public Goods team at UNICEF's Office of Innovation. Previously, he held roles at UNICEF’s headquarters in New York and UNICEF's country office in Ghana. Prior to his work in international development, he was in advertising and worked for Google. Chris holds a master’s degree in law from the University of Warsaw, a master’s degree in media studies from The New School in New York, and a master of science in international development from SOAS, University of London. Talk to Chris about how to live and how to help. (First published on the Ladderworks website on February 12, 2024.)

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Ladderworks LLC.

© 2023 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Daniela Vega. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Launchpad: Creative Entrepreneurship Workshops for K-3 Kids and their caregivers here.