Clean Air Heroes: when youth and adults from Mae Hong Son join hands in smog reduction
For a group of young people from Mae Sariang, a ride to Mae Hong Son Knowledge Park stretched into 3 hours. They came as participants in the project competition called “Clear Air Heroes 2022.” Just like other contestants who had to travel over a long distance to be there, they only knew that this competition was different. This was a chance for them to present the fruit of their self-made, innovative labor to UNDP and the Knowledge Park.
Annual smog is a major issue that poses threats to everyone across the gender-age spectrum, notwithstanding their social status. The arrival of winter means that it is time to go back to wearing masks, not to protect oneself against the pandemic, but to filter out airborne particles. During that time, the sky would be engulfed in air pollution to the point that even passenger planes are forbidden to fly. With this situation in mind, how can groups of 5 youthful participants make a long-lasting change? And which tools will help them grasp the ways of inclusive development?
If you recognize what is happening to your community, you already understand the SDGS.
Let’s begin with a story from Khun Aim-orn “Aim” Limwattana, a Mae Hong Son Knowledge Park officer and organizer of the 2022 Clear Air Heroes competition. After 10 teams passed the preliminary rounds, they were asked to learn about the relevance of the 17 SDGs from experts sponsored by UNDP. This process proved to be a challenge, as the staff had to make sure that all the 50 participants were on the same page. Still, it was the beginning of a beautiful change. Annual smog brought in younger generations to discuss and present a set of solutions to their daily peril. If they could make it go away with a sustainable approach, the quality of life of everyone in Mae Hong Son would be improved in a blink of an eye.
“Of all Northern Thailand, Mae Hong Son is the site of the worst recorded level of air pollution. This is because forests account for more than 85% of its topography, with a majority of them being deciduous dipterocarp forests. In other words, these are a natural, major source for fire hazards. Most forest areas in Mae Hong Son are currently occupied by various ethnic communities, who sustain their lives with natural resources, but 84% of the areas are also declared state-owned. Previous measures from the government did nothing to the annual smog because they failed to consider the local context and ways of living. ”
After the participants discovered the SDGs, their second day at the competition unfolded with brainstorming and solution design. Khun Aim reveals that it was refreshing to take part in a project competition such as this. Every participant displayed a strong level of commitment and a creative mindset that shaped their innovation along with their lived experiences. This proves that a thorough understanding of the SDGs is not a necessity. As long as people wish to transform their communities for the better, sustainable innovation will eventually take shape. The participants’ experiments with solution design had turned into their lessons for sustainable development. Khun Aim notices that the project competition provides just the right amount of pressure. The participants clearly understood that this was a major breakthrough for them. They could present their work to international and other relevant organizations, from whom they could seek consultations in the final round. In this way, the collaboration between TK Park, who provided space and contextual understanding of the issues, and UNDP, a supporter of innovative thinking tools, materialized into a reality.
Innovation for all
Once again, 5 selected teams had to spend hours on the road before reaching the urban area, where the final round of the project competition was held.
Khun Aim explained that the exciting part of this event was that key actors from the public and private sectors agreed to attend the presentation sessions as stakeholders and fellow solution designers. This gesture of support made the participants feel heard. All 5 remaining teams had prepared and presented their projection proposal with confidence, illustrating the intersectional nature of environmental issues and required solutions (e.g. relocation of waste burning area for maximum smog reduction, smog detection system to raise awareness for the local communities, and recycling projects).
The interesting bit of this project competition, as pointed out by Khun Aim, was that the participants truly paid attention to their competitors. They all came from different schools, different communities, and different backgrounds. Some were only 15, while others were already studying at the vocational college. A diversity of ideas and expertise among youth from Mae Hong Son in turn created a bridge to further learning and the future.
“KWIT,” a team from Khunyuam Witthaya School, won the first prize. Their project revolved around the usage of a microcontroller with a dust and particle detector. The team came up with a well-structured presentation that laid down all the details in product creation, from PBC soldering, coding, to real-life application. The machine used sensors for dust and particle detection. All the results would be viewable on the screen and the dedicated application.
In the meantime, “Keep Together,” a team from Mae Sariang Unit of Mae Hong Son Community College, was awarded with the second prize. The innovation proudly presented by them was a waste-to-energy machine, using thermoelectric coolers to generate electricity for small appliances such as smartphones or LEDs. The reason for this sustainable invention was electricity shortage during summer. The other teams provided their solutions in forms of an air purifier made of recycled materials, a smoke-free waste incinerator, and coasters produced from waste straws.
Khun Aim adds that every presentation revealed a promising potential behind each participant. What they lacked was experience and foresight in project implementation. This could be seen during the Q&A sessions, when the juries asked them about the cost of production, product testing, and insights into social enterprise. For youth, this project competition was a laboratory of learning and preparation for future project pitching.
Opportunities carry more weight than shiny prizes
After the presentation sessions, various organizations expressed genuine interest in project development. Khun Aim said that a company called We Eco would like to support the dust and particle detector, as the company was working on the same innovation. The Bureau of the Royal Household, another key actor in smog reduction, also attended the final round. For Mae Hong Son municipality, the waste-to-energy machine attracted their attention with its possibility of being distributed to remote, off-grid areas. Furthermore, it could reduce the need for waste incineration, effectively mitigating the air pollution.
As of now, all the projects are in development. The participants are now currently resuming their roles as students. However, this is the starting point for success that outlasts the competition itself. This is where conversations flow across status and different living conditions.
As a Knowledge Park officer who worked closely with youth, Khun Aim tells us, with a spark of enthusiasm in her eyes, that the local communities greatly benefit from learning tools from UNDP. Although her area of interest is generally occupied with ICT, the SDGs are applicable to any project, ensuring local sustainability and boundless flexibility of learning and brainstorming among youth.
The Clean Air Heroes project shows us that the new blood of Mae Hong Son is imbued with so much potential. With sufficient resources, support systems, and learning space, innovation will always blossom at the local level.