Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, advised his students to “study the past if you would define the future.” When it comes to driving change for the most disadvantaged children, such a study yields a powerful lesson: Invest in innovation.

Innovation – new solutions to old problems – drove the development of new vaccines and cost-effective treatments like oral rehydration salts and Vitamin A supplements that helped dramatically reduce the number of young children who die every year from preventable causes.

Innovation – new ways of thinking – drove the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child 25 years ago, which transformed the way we think about children and childhood, articulating for the first time that children have the same innate rights as adults, and that governments have a legal obligation to protect those rights.

Innovation – new ways of acting – also drove the development, in 2001, of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – eight time-bound goals concluding in 2015 – that have led to significant progress in reducing extreme poverty, expanding access to safe drinking water and increasing the number of children enrolled in primary school, among other significant achievements. But not all of the MDGs have been met – and not all children have been reached.

“We have a chance now to challenge ourselves to erase the inequities that rob children of their rights and threaten global development gains.”

In fact, far too many children have been left behind, their rights – and their potential – unfulfilled. To reach those children, we need to continue investing in innovation: innovative tools, innovative thinking and innovative partnerships – enabling communities to develop their own solutions and creating ‘glocal’ networks that help take the most promising ideas to scale.

This is especially important now, as the world looks ahead to the next 25 years of advancing the rights of children under the Convention, and the global community begins to come together around a new sustainable development agenda for the post-2015 period. We have a chance now to challenge ourselves to erase the inequities that rob children of their rights and threaten global development gains. That means changing the way we think and the way we take action.

For example, we have seen how innovation helped drive the child survival revolution in the 1980s, and more recently helped fuel the global effort to achieve the MDG goal of reducing child mortality by two thirds. Imagine how it could spur a new movement to end violence against children – a huge global challenge conspicuously missing from the MDGs.

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A new mobile application in Brazil enables young people to report and fight violence and abuse. | Photo courtesy of UNICEF Brazil

Violence against children – physical, psychological and sexual – is so widespread that it affects every country, every community. The impact of this global ‘epidemic’ on individual children’s lives is profound, and the economic costs are also staggering. A 2014 study by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) estimates that the global and economic costs and impacts of violence are as high as US$7 trillion.

Addressing this challenge requires us, as a global community, to think and act differently. First and foremost, we need to make ending violence against children a public priority – and a central goal of the new development agenda. Second, we must disrupt the perception that violence against children is acceptable. And third, we must engage communities and young people themselves in finding solutions to a deeply ingrained problem in so many societies.

Innovation can hold the key to raising public awareness of this global problem, driving governments, communities and families themselves to confront violence against children – and empowering young people to take action to change their own lives.

Proteja Brasil, a new mobile application that enables young people to report and fight violence and abuse, is a great example of how this is already happening. The mobile app is GPS-based, displaying telephone numbers and local maps that point the way to police stations, protection organizations and other safe spaces for children and adolescents.

Young people are the driving force behind other new ways to combat violence. For example, a 14- year old American boy invented a way to track cyberbullying by analysing social media messages in real time. And innovation can also help address the violence of conflict. For example, another young inventor developed a text-based alert system to warn children and parents living in the Gaza strip of danger near local schools.

These are just small solutions to enormous problems, but they point the way to a future in which more children can realize their rights to live free from violence, abuse and fear. We need to scale up these ideas and foster new ways of working together to realize common objectives – across all issues that affect the lives and well-being of children.

The drafting of the Sustainable Development Goals has already been both innovative and remarkably inclusive. Country-level dialogues in more than 100 countries have included a vast range of people, not only policymakers – including those with the greatest stake in the future: children themselves.

We have a chance now to build on this spirit, and make sure that innovation for children – and especially innovation to protect children from violence and abuse – is built into the new development agenda. For it is only through this kind of new thinking and new partnerships that we will define a future in which all children are safe, healthy, educated and resilient.