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Young Innovators in Sri Lanka Use Technology to Bridge Cultural and Ethnic Divides  

Published 07/14/2023 by Global Communities

Dreamspace Academy

By Jessica Ayala

DreamSpace Academy, located in Sri Lanka’s Batticaloa District, and its co-founder, Kishoth Navaretnarajah, believe that the key to creating a future beyond historic cultural tensions and conflict lies with empowering youth through technology and innovation. 

“Facilitating peacebuilding is one of the pillars of DreamSpace,” says Navaretnarajah. “DreamSpace itself is … a great example of social cohesion. We have diverse ethnic minorities [and] majorities coming together and working for grassroots challenges.” 

Young people under 30 represent 48% of the population in Sri Lanka, according to the World Bank, and are the future leaders and agents of change across the country. Their active engagement and participation in reconciliation processes has the potential to shape a more inclusive and harmonious society. 

Following a decades-long armed conflict in Sri Lanka that ended in 2009, deep ethnic divisions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority communities have persisted across the country, hindering the process of healing and unity. Failure to address the root causes of the conflict has impeded genuine reconciliation efforts.

For five years, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Social Cohesion and Reconciliation (SCORE) program — implemented by Global Communities — has partnered with the Government of Sri Lanka, local organizations and civil society to address underlying challenges to reconciliation.

Engaging youth is pivotal to these efforts, which is why a collaboration with DreamSpace Academy is a natural fit.

DreamSpace provides challenge-based learning through a variety of ‘labs’ which offer specialized physical, inter-disciplinary and collaborative spaces for young innovators or ‘changemakers’ to co-create technical solutions to complex challenges impacting their communities.

Of particular significance to SCORE, DreamSpace’s Peace Lab aims to help youth acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes required for nonviolent conflict resolution and to employ these skills for active and responsible social action through systems-level change. The young people believe they can make a difference by using and developing new technologies. 

“If technology disturbs peace, then you should work with technology to keep the peace,” says Rathees, a DreamSpace participant from Batticaloa District.  

The SCORE team recently worked with DreamSpace to develop and implement Project AISLE, which stands for Artificial Intelligence for Sustaining Local Peacebuilding. Bringing together 30 youth from Mullaitivu, Trincomalee, Ampara and Batticaloa Districts, this year-long program is training participants to build artificial intelligence (AI) models and technology platforms that have the potential to solve real-world problems. 

Govarthenan, a Project AISLE participant, recognized how ubiquitous hate speech had become across his frequented social media platforms. Some social networks have attempted to address the rampant problem, but when cultural contexts are layered across local languages, tracking down slurs and insults becomes more complex. Through Project AISLE, he set out to develop an AI tool that can identify hotspots across the country where various slang terminology is being used to divide and cause harm online. 

Govarthenan, Project AISLE participant

“In light of peacebuilding, we have to think in a human way. We can’t just be very literal and only consider exact words from the dictionary,” Govarthenan shares. “The model I have created can identify hate speech in Tamil, or Tamil translated into English, which we call Tanglish, and English. … A paramount aspect of peace is that each party understands the other party.” 

By employing people across the country, Goverthenan said he can ensure that a wide variety of data is shared with the model. Currently, his tool has an accuracy rate of 60%, but with more data sets collected daily, he believes it can reach a near perfect rate and be used to transform the landscape of social media moderation to build a more peaceful online experience. 

Rebuilding trust, promoting inclusivity, addressing grievances and fostering interethnic dialogue remain crucial for Sri Lanka to achieve lasting social cohesion and reconciliation. SCORE continues to place youth at the center of programming as participants, collaborators, initiators, leaders, active citizens and social cohesion champions who bring communities and individuals together across differences. 

The future of Sri Lanka is in good hands with young innovators like Govarthenan, who possess the energy, idealism and enthusiasm to truly bridge the ethnic, religious and cultural divides that have fractured Sri Lanka for far too long. With understanding, empathy, tolerance and the help of technology, a united and peaceful nation is possible.