Emerging messages on digital innovation to support youth engagement

Photo (C) David WilcoxAs part of the project I’m working on with David Wilcox and Alex Farrow for Nominet Trust to look on “how digital technology can support young people to engage socially and economically in their communities” we’ve been gathering input into an online document to develop some ‘key messages’ that will help projects spot the opportunities for digital innovation. This Thursday we brought together a fantastic crowd of 25 thinkers, social entrepreneurs, funders, youth workers and young people at the RSA in London to explore some of the messages that had been emerging and to explore which were most relevant to the social and economic challenges young people currently face.

David has put together a storify bringing together many of the discussions from the day, and has blogged a quick clip of me explaining the workshop process, which essentially involved taking some headline challenges (youth unemployment; lack of youth influence of local decision making), digging in to find the underlying challenges and unmet needs, and then looking at the messages identified so far which had been printed out as cards to discuss them and see how they might be relevant to the challenges.

Selection of cardsBy looking through all the cards (which people could rate for importance), looking at which messages were chosen as relevant, and looking at the messages which have had attention in the online document so far, I’ve pulled out what look like the top-10 themes for us to explore further. Each message includes a brief summary, and then a link off to more details where you can also directly add to our working document – adding key questions for us to address in our follow up explorations, or sharing links to examples we should explore and draw upon.

This list is not set in stone, and might still change quite a bit before the final write up (you can make the case for changes in the document too…), but here’s the list as it stands today (the numbers are from the original set of cards):

Emerging messages

Planning a project that will use digital technology to address key challenges that young people face? Think about how you might:

19. Blend online and offline
Digital and online innovations don’t only have to be delivered online. Online tools can support local community building and action – and projects should plan to work both on the web, and in local or face-to-face settings.

6. Use games to engage
Adding an element of gaming to your project can provide the incentives for young people to get engaged. Collecting points, completing challenges and competing with others can all spur young people on to get involved and stay involved.

7. Address innovations gaps in the back-office
Not all digital innovations have to be about directly using technology with young people. Putting better tools in the hands of frontline workers, and intermediaries who work with young people can create the biggest benefit.

17. Support young people to be creators, not consumers
Digital technology can enable young people to be content creators: “youth can learn video making, digital engagement etc. – and if it aims to be social and community focused – imagine the possibilities!”. Many youth don’t take advantage of digital opportunities for creativity – and action to support them to do so is important. From creating multimedia content, to providing feedback on the good and the bad – young people can be involved in shaping digital resources developed to support them.

3. Encourage co-design/co-design with young people
The only way to create services for young people, is in collaboration with young people. User-centred design, agile and iterative design methods all provide ways for young people to be involved through the process of creating innovative solutions.

4. Consider the livelihoods of the future
Digital technology is not just about easier ways to find a job: it changes the nature of work. Home working, portfolio working, freelancing and co-operative business structures are all enabled by the Internet. Better CVs and job information won’t solve the unemployment crisis: we need to use digital technologies to create and support new ways of working and making a living.

18. Use digital tools to enable peer-to-peer learning
In the Internet age education doesn’t have to be top-down, digital tools allow for peer-to-peer learning: helping people come together to teach, learn and collaborate.

24. Use technology to personalise services
Digital technologies can be used to aggregate content from multiple sources, and customise an individuals experience of online information. Young people out of work or education are not a homogeneous group: and have many different needs.

30. Be network literate and create new connections
Although young people might be using online social networks like Facebook all the time, the connections they have to inspiration, role models and opportunities for volunteering, education or employment can be limited. Think about how digital tools can help you to map out networks, and to make new connections that broaden the horizons and increase the resources accessible to young people.

30. Recognise the diversity of youth
Who are the young people? Although there are many similarities across the 16-24 age group, there are also some key differences in how they use technology.


Look out for all the updates from the Digital Tech and Youth Engagement crowdsourced research project over the SocialReporters.net blog here.

Digital innovations are not always digital (and other reflections on youth-focussed digital innovation lab design)

[Summary: assorted learning from participation and hack-days applied to ideas about a youth-focussed digital innovation lab.]

Right Here, Comic Relief and Nominet Trust have a really interesting tender out right now for someone to deliver two ‘Innovation Labs’ focussed on helping “young people to look after their mental health and to access appropriate help and support”.

They describe how the labs should provide young people with the opportunity to work with mental health, youth work and design professionals to design digital tools that will meet their needs.”  If it weren’t for the unknowns of the schedule for my PhD that starts in October, it’s exactly the sort of project Practical Participation would be putting in a proposal for*, but, with the freedom to adopt a more open innovation exchange style bit of sharing around a proposal, and having been unable to resist jotting a few notes about how I might approach the tender, here’s a few quick reflections on youth-focussed digital innovation labs, drawing on learning from previous participation projects.

Digital innovations are not always digital

In my experience working with youth services and mental health services exploring use of digital tools, the biggest gaps between the potential of digital tools and their use in practice is not down to a lack of Apps or widgets – but comes down to a lack of training, inadequate policies, or other small barriers.

The most effective outcomes of a digital innovation lab could be how to guides for practitioners, youth-led training for mental health workers in how to engage online, or new protocols that make sure mental health staff have a framework and incentives to make use of digital tools – as much as they might be new apps and websites.

Set up to succeed

I’ve experienced and observed a number of participation projects in the past that have, mostly unintentionally, set young people up to fail by asking them to redesign services or systems without reference to the staff who operate those systems day-to-day, or the realities of the budgetary and legal constraints the services operate under. Instead of empowering young people to bring their lived experience to real problems, whilst avoiding organisational agendas crushing the ideas and insights young people can bring, participation projects can end up asking young people to solve problems without giving them all the information they need to find viable solutions.

In innovation events with both young people and adults ideas often come up which, whilst great in principle, draw on mistaken assumptions about resources that might realistically be available, or about how digital tools might be adopted and used (it’s not uncommon to hear ‘innovators’ of any age suggesting they’ll build ‘the next Facebook’ to bring together people to discuss some particular issue). Finding the balance between free-flowing innovation, and realisable ideas is a challenge – and increased if, for the majority of participants, the event is their first innovation lab, or project teams don’t have people with experience of taking an project through from idea to implementation. Finding facilitators who can combine the right balance of technical realism, with a focus on youth-led innovation, is important, as is offering training for facilitators.

Projects like Young Rewired State offer an interesting model, where young people who have participated in past events, return as young mentors in future years. Finding a community of young mentors may also prove useful for an innovation lab.

Involving adults

It’s not only mentors and digital experts who have a role to play in the design process, but also mental health professionals and volunteer adults who work day-to-day with young people. In policy consultations in the past we’ve used a ‘fish bowl’ like approach to adults involvement, starting the day with adults as observers only on the outside of circles where young people are developing plans and ideas; moving to a stage (perhaps after an hour) when young people can invite adults into the discussion, but adults can’t ‘push in’; and then (another hour or so later) moving to a stage when adults and young people participate together. Whilst artificial, in a policy consultation, this sort of process helped address issues around the balance of power between young people and adults, without removing the benefits to be found from youth-adult dialogue. In an innovation and design situation, this exact model might not be appropriate – but thinking about lightweight processes or ‘rules’ to help the relationship between young people and adults may be useful.

An alternative approach we’ve taken at past participation events is to have a parallel track of activities for workers coming to the event with young people: could you set a team of adult innovators competing with young innovators to contrast the ideas they come up with?

There are no representative young people

I’m not a representative 26 year old. There aren’t representative 17 year olds. Or 15 year olds. Or any age for that matter. People often design innovations for themselves: that doesn’t mean they’re designing for all young people. Not all young people are technology experts. In fact, most aren’t. There is no such thing as a digital native. Bringing the lived experiences of young people with experience of mental health services and challenges to the design of services is still a very very good thing. It can mean massive improvements in services. But often there’s a risk of implicitly or explicitly thinking of service-user or youth participants as ‘representatives’ – and that tends to be an unhelpful framing. Understanding participants as individuals with particular skills and insights to bring tends to work better.

Freedom and frameworks

I’ve spent most of this afternoon at the Guardian offices in London as a mentor for young hackers at Young Rewired State. Young Rewired State is a week-long event taking place across the country for young people interested in building things with open data and digital platforms. Young Rewired State centres have varied in how much structure they have had: some simply providing a room, and some mentors on hand, for young people to identify what they want to work on and get hacking. Others have supported the participants to work through a design process, offering more structured how-to guidance and support. Some young people thrive and innovate best with a framework and structure to work within. Others need the freedom from pre-planned programmes and tight agendas in order to innovate. Having no agenda at all can exclude those who need structure. But an agenda that is too tight, or a programme that is too prescriptive can miss innovation opportunities. Fortunately, the Innovation Labs tender that sparked this post highlights that the events themselves should be co-designed with young people – so there’s space to negotiate and work this one out.

Keep out of the dragons den

I’ve sat on a few ‘dragons den’ style panels recently – responding to presentations about young people’s project ideas. And I’ve yet to be convinced that they really make a useful contribution.


This post has been in the spirit of reclaiming reflective space, and has no neat ending. 

*Although I’m not putting in a proposal around the labs, I’d still be really interested to get involved should a youth-engagement and effective technology focussed facilitator/action researcher/data-wrangler be useful to whoever does end up running the labs.

Impossibly narrow & leadership 1.0

[Summary: a critique of ‘Impossible and Necessary’ by Sir Michael Barber and some remarks on leadership]

I try, as much as possible, to engage in debates in a constructive way, and to avoid anything that might be construed as a rant. I find arguing for and working for things I believe to be right to be preferable, in most circumstances, to spending time arguing against those with whom I may share general goals, but may differ on methods and approaches. Demonstrating the positive alternative is oftentimes more powerful than trying to undermine the status-quo.

However, criticism and critiques have their place, and last week I found myself distinctly at odds with the presentation the ‘Impossible and Necessary’ pamphlet on the future of education. So – herewith follows a series of arguments against, in the hope still or making a constructive contribution to discussions.

Impossibly narrow
Sir Michael Barber’s speech ‘Impossible and Necessary’ was launched as a NESTA Pamphlet on Tuesday morning (though the only online copy I can find is a transcript of Michael’s original speech on which the Pamphlet is based here). For all the NESTA introduction of the pamphlet as a key statement of important challenges for the future, both the pamphlet itself, and the presentation of it’s key messages offered by Michael on Tuesday, turned out to be woefully narrow and lacking in progressive thought.

Whilst it contains one or two good recommendations: encouraging more team-teaching and ending the dominance of the single teacher as master of their domain in a single classroom; and calling for a greater focus on teaching quality rather than on teacher numbers; ‘Impossible and Necessary’ is otherwise unimaginative, adultist, and for a paper which highlights the importance of ethics, lacking in an appreciation that schools are, right now, far from egalitarian environments.

Michael’s essay uses an imagined ‘intergalactic audit commission’ to highlight progress and change on earth over the last 250 years, and to highlight challenges for the future.

Adultism is not a good place to start
The concept of adultism is captured well by this 1996 quote from Jenny Sazama “Young people are systemically mistreated and disrespected by society, with adults as the agents of the oppression. The basis of young people’s oppression is disrespect.”

It’s not good then to find that, in the few times young people are explicitly referenced in Impossible and Necessary it is in phrases loaded with stereotype and prejudice.

“…last year, I read that computers will soon have the learning capacity of a toddler. That’s a lot of learning capacity, as any parent knows. It’s also a lot of tantrums. I fully expect, a few years from how, to read that computers with have the learning capacity of a teenager and no doubt stay in bed until lunchtime.”

I would hope a vision for the future of education would be centred on understanding and respect for children. I would expect at least that it wouldn’t be reinforcing and playing on prejudice. But not so in Impossible and Necessary. How can we support and enable young people to learn if we don’t respect them?

Focus on education as an abdication of responsibility
It is also worth pointing out that the majority of the looming crisis and problems Sir Michael gets his intergalactic audit team to identify in the first part of the Pamphlet are ones created or increased by his generation. Thus, the claim, with words in the mouth of the intergalactic auditors that to resolve them there is just on thing “you can do – just one – really, really well. Educate every children and young person on the planet better, much better, than you’ve ever done before because they are your sustainable future” reads somewhat as an abdication of responsibility for taking tough decisions about big issues now.

Yes, younger generations do need to learn in order to be part of creating a sustainable future. But:

  1. It’s about our future. A shared future. Which includes adults and young people.
  2. Sir Michael’s generation shouldn’t be thinking that improving education, and leaving the problem solving to future generations alone is the ethical thing to do. There are things that those in positions of power should be doing to challenge crisis of climate and conflict right now. Educating for the future is part of it. But there are many other parts – and parts which might demand of adults right now that we make sacrifices to safeguard our sustainable future.

We have had ethical innovation – but schools are lagging behind
In talking about Impossible and Necessary on Tuesday, Sir Michael focussed on his ‘equation’ contained in the paper: E(K+T+L) where: K = Knowledge, T= Thought, and L = Leadership, all bracketed by ‘Ethics’. The argument being that good education involves each of K, T and L, but also requires ethical education. Sir Michael suggested that whilst the last centuries have seen massive technical innovation, ethical innovation has lagged behind. In part, this claim is defensible: we do need to rethink our models of ethics for a networked society in which authority is far more distributed.

However, we have had ethical developments over the last 50 years, not least the establishment of a global framework of Human Rights, and of Children’s Rights. Yet few schools are environments in which an culture of respect and rights is pervasive. Sir Michael’s intergalactic auditors do highlight and praise the “changing place of women in society”, but fail utterly to highlight the continued failure of schools to respect young people’s right to be listened to in decisions that affect them. This is about far more than the developments in yearly student satisfaction surveys and occasional school councils that the panel at Tuesday’s event cited as evidence that school were becoming more democratic. It is about a shift in the culture of schools.

You cannot prepare ‘innovators of tomorrow’
The culture that fails to give young people ownership of their own learning, and to see them as equal partners (or indeed, the key partner) in the learning process with teachers, is further expressed in the idea that we need to equip young people as ‘innovators of tomorrow’.

In the same way that citizen education can not be effective when we do not allow young people to be citizens now, innovation education is unlikely to thrive unless we see young people as innovators right now, not just innovators in training for the future.

It starts and ends beyond the classroom
Perhaps at the heart of the narrow vision in ‘Impossible and Necessary’ is that is never sets foot beyond the classroom. It ignores that young people live the majority of their lives outside schools, and that education is not a task that takes place 9am – 3pm weekdays. The panellists suggestion on Tuesday that the solution is to increase the amount of time spent in school (and indeed, extended schools policy is encouraging this) demonstrates a woefully limited understanding of many young people’s lives. Schools will remain important settings and catalysts of future learning – but if we’re thinking about education for the future, we need to start in communities, in workplaces, in supporting parents and in many other places – not just the classroom.

Accountability and intangibles
On the first page of Impossible and Necessary we find the sentences:

“You are aware, of course, that in England we inspect almost everyone. And in case that’s not enough we audit it too. We’re the regulatory specialists”.

But Impossible and Necessary isn’t opposed to that regulation and inspection. It want more. In talking about it Michael Barber argued that a false dichotomy underlies the implicit claim that “because you can’t measure everything, you should measure nothing”. But, whilst that is true, what you measure nearly always distorts where energies are directed – and if some of the things we value can’t be measured, we need to be careful that our measurement of other things does not take our eye off important intangibles.

Accountability can be achieved without reducing all education to numbers, and shifting ownership of educational attainment from the learner to schools and state.

More leadership 1.0
L for Leadership is a key part of Sir Michael’s equation for education E(K+T+L). Leadership is a popular topic right now, with the launch this week of the National Body for Youth Leadership (branded ‘The Youth Of Today‘). But both The Youth of Today and Sir Michael’s focus on ‘Leadership’ appear, in spite of a passing recognition that there are different models of leadership, to remain as reductive, individualistic concepts.

In fact, I think the problem is predominantly in the equation of ‘the ability to get things done’ with ‘leadership’ – and the attempt then to subsume within the concept of leadership all those things which relate to getting things done. Convening, co-ordinating and catalysing are all ways of getting things to happen. In the networked world it is ever clearer that things are achieved not only through top-down leadership, but by participation in self-organising networks and co-operative structures. Often-times getting things done in these contexts is not about gaining power, but is about giving up control and power and trusting people.

A sense, and capacity for, efficacy – and being part of creating change – is key. But if we reduce our desire for all people to have this to talk of leadership – we greatly impoverish the debate.

In closing
I realise now that one of the reasons I rarely write in critical mode, is I’m not sure how to resolve a critique. Should I offer a positive vision? That will take not just a little more writing. And this is too long already.