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Research-based solutions promote soft security

12 May 2022

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has deeply struck at our collective sense of security. Our current societal structures and citizens’ perception of security are also being threatened by ongoing global crises such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.

The central focus in ‘hard security’ is on the regional, economic and political interests of the state and on the military and security authorities. ‘Soft security’, on the other hand, focuses on a stable society in which citizens can actively influence the development and sustainability of societal structures as well as their own vision for the future. Particularly important is to enable young people to play an active role in promoting global security. The ALL-YOUTH, CRITICAL and DigiConsumers projects, which are funded under the SRC programmes GROWTH, CULT and LITERACY, explore young people’s perceptions of the future, their views of soft security, and their means of influence in our society.

Young people want to influence soft security

Soft security is a form of security that strengthens the stability of society and promotes democratic inclusion and equal opportunities for participation for all. The means to achieve and maintain soft security are diverse. Civic skills and citizen participation play an increasingly important role in coping with societal transformation and in conflict resolution. We can all increase security through our own choices and actions, provided that society also supports the means of soft security, such as young people’s participation in debate and policymaking in our society.

Young people have a desire to influence society’s decision-making processes when those concern important issues for themselves and their future. Such a desire is manifested in the SRC-funded projects ALL-YOUTH (All Youth Want to Rule their World) and DigiConsumers (Learning to be digital consumers: How to improve young people’s financial skills in a technologically driven consumer society?). Young people have a special interest in issues related to ecological and social responsibility. These issues, such as climate change mitigation, social equality and faith in future opportunities, are key elements of soft security and lay the foundation for the stability and sustainable development of society.

However, the current structures of society do not always support young people’s participation and their opportunities to exert influence, which undermines the sense of security. Youth research has pointed to both social and societal segregation, which means that some young people are increasingly active and visibly involved in social debate, while others lack experiences of participation. Some young people also feel that they cannot influence the matters that are important to them. It is therefore of paramount importance that all young people, regardless of their background, can believe in their own opportunities for influence and have a wide range of positive expectations for the future. Soft security may thereby be strengthened by preventing segregation at a stage where the negative outlook is not yet as strong as it may possibly be at a later age. On the other hand, this would require reaching out to all young people and strengthening their experience of inclusion.

Strengthening soft security and mediation skills are future civic skills

Resolution 2250 on youth, peace and security adopted by the UN Security Council in 2015 emphasises that UN member states should take into account the needs and perspectives of young people and increase young people’s participation in decision-making and at all stages of peace processes. Finland has advanced the implementation of the resolution, for example through a national action plan (Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2021: 3).

Finland’s action plan for youth, peace and security (2021–2024) emphasises means of soft security such as participation, prevention, partnerships, protection, disarmament, integration and reintegration into society. The action plan also emphasises environmental cooperation.

Climate change, environmental crises and support for the sustainability transformation require a social debate on strengthening the capacities and societal structures of young people and future generations. The debate also promotes soft security, prevents escalation of crises and the polarisation of society. The ALL-YOUTH project examines young people’s participation in environmental collaboration, interaction and decision-making on environmental issues, which links young people’s participation to soft security. According to ALL-YOUTH researchers,  collaboration and mediation skills should be regarded as civic skills, the learning of which should be emphasised in the same way as first aid skills.

These skills are practised in the Environmental Collaboration and Conflict Resolution course, organised by the University of Eastern Finland, where one of the objectives is to support practical skills related to conflict mediation and environmental collaboration. During the course, participants study societal conflicts related to the environment and natural resources and examine research-based international methods for building cooperation, anticipating conflicts and mediating environmental conflicts. The aim of the course is to approach environmental conflicts through a multi-faceted understanding and to generate solutions through mediation and inclusion.

Critical literacy is the key to inclusion and democratic social peace

In a rapidly changing environment, critical reading skills are an essential element of soft security in our society. Critical reading means an individual’s ability to analyse, assess and interpret information of different quality and to identify various means of misdirection and of influencing opinions. The flow of information around us is continuous, and it is important that decision-making at all levels of society, from individual citizens to institutions, is based on correct and understandable information. Poor skills in critical reading can lead to the dissemination of false information and thus threaten the stability of society.

Research in the CRITICAL (Technological and Societal Innovations to Cultivate Critical Reading in the Internet Era) project shows that many young people face challenges in assessing the reliability of different texts. Some young people have difficulties in interpreting diagrams, and any visual manipulation may lead them to make erroneous conclusions on the correct state of affairs. It is worrying that there are major differences in critical literacy among young people. The development of critical reading skills requires preventive measures that can be used to identify and question unreliable and incorrect information. The CRITICAL project therefore develops research-based learning materials and interventions to support critical reading skills. We are also developing a virtual learning environment and game-based learning materials that allow young people to practise critical reading safely. Games can provide concrete experiences of the importance of critical reading. We believe that relevant experiences will also support young people in using the skills they learn in real-life situations.

Now there is war in Europe, and the focus of public debate is on hard security and on how to defend against military attacks. War is also being waged against information. In this context, too, soft security, such as faith in the democratic system, freedom of expression, critical literacy and the opportunity to participate in multi-vocal political debate, form a vital part of overall security. Soft security can build up societal structures and reinforce people’s faith in the future.

This blog post was inspired by a “Saumakohtia” dialogue organised on 24 January 2022, where SRC-funded researchers and programme directors as well as MEPs of the Greens had a dialogue on the theme of young people, peace and security. The meeting was convened by MEP Alviina Alametsä and facilitated by programme director Anne-Christine Ritschkoff (GROWTH programme), and the theme was introduced by Irmeli Mustalahti (ALL-YOUTH), Kristian Kiili (CRITICAL) and Lauri Vaara (DigiConsumers).

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