Harnessing the savvy of millennials for sustainable development

Elsevier and AIESEC join forces to raise young people’s awareness of the UN’s sustainable development goals

Celia de Vries and Iris Groot Koerkamp present their group's winning Science Ambassadors proposal (Photos by Elisa Nelissen)

Materialist, impatient and glued to their tech devices: millennials and their so-called traits have become an easy target for journalists, opinion makers and politicians. To illustrate this, a new site called Millennial Madlibs generates statements from the news about these youngsters, showing how according to media, they’re both the best and worst generation ever.

What we do know for a fact about millennials, however, is that they are deeply concerned about sustainability. At the end of last year, my colleagues and I got to experience this first-hand at the YouthSpeak Forum, a leadership workshop focused on corporate responsibility, social entrepreneurship and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — 17 goals ranging from health and education to environment and the rule of law.

The workshop, in Amsterdam, was organized by AIESEC, a global organization run by and for young people with the ambitious mission to engage and empower their peers. This week, Elsevier and AIESEC signed an agreement to join forces in raising awareness of the SDGs among millennials.

At the workshop, companies presented their sustainability initiatives and invited the attendees to find ways to amplify them. From Elsevier, Coralie Bos, Senior Manager of Corporate Brand and Sustainability Lead, and Dr. Mark Siebert, Director of Engagement Programs and Strategy, challenged participants to come up with a creative way of reaching our different communities about the SDGs. The timing was perfect as our parent company, RELX Group, is currently working on a sustainability resource center to be launched this year.

The resource center will feature articles, tools, reports, events and more from all parts of the company, with Elsevier playing a leading role, according to Dr. Márcia Balisciano, RELX Group’s Director of Corporate Responsibility. “It will benefit a broad public, including researchers, universities, governments, NGOs and citizens,” she said, “tangibly demonstrating our commitment to using our unique contributions as a business to advance the SDGs.”

Elsevier's Coralie Bos, MSc, and Mark Siebert, PhD, challenge students to come up with creative ways to reach different audiences about the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

It’s becoming increasingly important to engage and involve young people in discussions about the SDGs. “Today’s generation of youth is the largest in history,” Ahmad Alhendawi, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, says in AIESEC’s YouthSpeak 2016 Global Report. “We cannot hope to realize these Goals without galvanizing and working with half of the planet’s population.”

At the same time, the YouthSpeak Survey presented in the report found that only 45.5 percent of respondents knew what the SDGs were. There is a long way to go to empower the next generation of changemakers.

That’s exactly why YouthSpeak Forums are being organized across the world. Anje Knottnerus, VP of Public Relations at AIESEC and a member of Elsevier’s Scientific Advisory Council, said:

We see that youths are becoming more and more individualistic. On top of that, they are overwhelmed by information, and that feeling often turns into apathy. There is too much going on in the world, and it becomes unclear to them what they can actually do as an individual to make a change. The great thing about the SDGs is that they can be very personal: everyone can find their own passion and make a social impact in their own area of interest. We then come in to mobilize them and help them turn their ideas into something tangible.

AIESEC, which has agreed to support the UN in their mission to make youths more aware of the SDGs, does this in a very clear way – for example, by adding to each of its volunteer projects the SDG number that project contributes to. At the YouthSpeak Forum in Amsterdam, the workshop attendees were able to apply the SDGs to a very specific case study for Elsevier.

Students at AIESEC’s YouthSpeak Forum work on projects to communicate about sustainability initiatives at Elsevier.

In the Elsevier exercise, about 30 students and recent graduates came up with creative ideas to communicate about sustainability and unite the different sustainability initiatives happening across the company, such as our Sustainability Science in a Global Landscape report, the Elsevier Foundation programs and our work in the area of gender equality.

The students took a core part of our business – scientific content – as an inspiration, focusing on research and science communication. Looking at the YouthSpeak Survey results, their choice is not surprising: academic institutions came out as the most trusted source of information, far ahead of blogs and public figures. “Elsevier has a very important role in providing evidence-based research that underpins the SDGs,” Knottnerus said. “So many people these days get their news through social media. We have to make them aware of the quality of different types of sources.”

5 ideas to promote Elsevier’s sustainability science

Students at AIESEC’s YouthSpeak Forum show their ideas for Elsevier projects.

Working in five groups, the students came up with the following project proposals:

  • Impact 360 was inspired by Elsevier´s 48-hour challenge to create a device to save the lives of newborns. It aims to make research understandable for everyone by bringing people of different education levels and disciplines together to discuss research reports in a 48-hour challenge to tackle a specific problem related to the SDGs.
  • Elsevier Youth is an idea for a magazine to promote sustainability research carried out by students – research that might otherwise go unnoticed because it remains unpublished. Such a publication would provide students with a first experience in the world of academic publishing.
  • A Science Ambassadors program would mediate between research published in Elsevier´s journals and the wider public. Through videos and social media, a group of chosen ambassadors (journalists, opinion makers, researchers) would highlight key takeaways from research to spark the public’s interest and encourage them to read more research.
  • Tree of Knowledge proposal aims to make the whole of society harvest the fruits of knowledge by applying scientific knowledge to real-world problems. This idea builds on Mendeley Groups, a collaboration platform for researchers working on the same subject. (we were thrilled to hear some of the students already used Mendeley!)
  • Package was inspired by our Empowering Knowledge campaign. Knowledge would be bundled into different solutions for global challenges. Through a specially tailored platform, this knowledge would then be made available to social entrepreneurs, giving them the tools to start tackling a particular issue.

The winning Science Ambassadors proposal.

The Elsevier team was pleasantly surprised by the creativity and level of detail the different groups brought to these ideas. At the end of the workshop, a democratic vote among the attendees named the Science Ambassadors idea the winner. Their idea builds on the Audioslides option we already offer, in which researchers explain their study in their own words. We were especially impressed by the team’s ability to quickly summarize their proposal in a neat visual.

What’s next?

We invited the winning team and other workshop participants to further build on their ideas with our Scientific Advisory Council, which selects relevant high-quality scientific content for the upcoming RELX Sustainability Resource Centre through ScienceDirect and Mendeley Groups.

If you look at the great ideas being generated, mulled over and improved upon at events like this, you can’t but feel optimistic about what these young people will achieve. Indeed, another AIESEC survey found that young leaders noted that next to a skilled, educated and adaptable workforce, income equality and workforce diversity are the most important things for society today – but they are not always listed as a priority by current CEOs. We look forward to working with AIESEC to find more ways we can help youths, and they us, in our global mission to tackle the SDGs.

Sustainability at Elsevier

As a global provider of information and analytics for science, technology and health, Elsevier is making unique contributions to sustainable development – from our extensive research content and analytical reports to our efforts to build research capacity in developing countries and advance diversity in science. We make these contributions in partnership with our global research and health communities. Read more about the different ways we contribute.

Collaborating with AIESEC

AISEC and Elsevier have just signed an agreement to become “knowledge partners” and work towards the following goals:

  • Create awareness of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) among young people worldwide to engage the global community in achieving these goals.
  • Gather and amplify youth opinion on issues that matter to them to facilitate global and local discussions that generate actionable ideas on young people’s contribution to the implementation of the SDGs.

AIESEC is a global platform for young people to explore and develop their leadership potential. It’s a non-political, independent, not-for-profit organization run by students and recent graduates of institutions of higher education. Its members are interested in world issues, leadership and management. Read more about AIESEC.



Written by

Elisa Nelissen

Written by

Elisa Nelissen

A keen interest in knowledge drove Elisa Nelissen to study the carriers of information in a Book and Digital Media Studies degree at Leiden University in the Netherlands. That program brought her straight to Elsevier, where she spent a few years on the Global Communications team, making sure the world knew about Elsevier and its journals. Today, Elisa works as a freelance writer.


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