Encouraging entrepreneurial spirit in young people

In this three-part series, Nesta Challenges’ executive director, Tris Dyson, explores our attitudes to entrepreneurialism and education. Previously he looked at the challenges that hamper entrepreneurialism and the solutions to overcome them. Here he celebrates some of the recent inspiring innovations created by Britain’s young people when they receive the right support.

A wearable device that changes colour to communicate the emotions of a person with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder. An app which uses live GPS data collected from mobile devices to allow charities to better coordinate the logistics of supporting homeless people and refugees. A wearable device that detects when a person is having a panic attack with an app that gives practical advice for calming down. 

These aren’t the creations of Californian conglomerates or Shoreditch start-ups – they are great solutions to important problems developed by British school children for the Longitude Explorer Prize. Our young people are imaginative, innovative, entrepreneurial and capable of influencing huge change with the right support. 

These were some of the top ideas submitted by teams of 11-16 year olds in the 2015 and 2017 pilots of the Longitude Explorer Prize, using STEM to find solutions to some of the biggest challenges, local and global, of our time. Teams received mentoring and support to develop there product and bring it to life.

The winners of the two pilots received money for their schools to help further the development of the team’s product and also invest in STEM resources. Longitude Explorer is one of the many challenge prizes run by Nesta Challenges, but the only one dedicated entirely to promoting innovation and entrepreneurialism for young people, but we’re not the only organisation to promote innovation among young people through challenge prizes.

Longitude Explorer Prize entrant

One day, there may be no need for initiatives like challenge prizes

There’s also The Entrepreneurial Schools Award run by JA Europe and Siemens that saw state school Highcrest Academy, Berkshire inventing a new gadget to give people a cheap way to hook up to neon lighting. 

Or the Teen Tech Awards from The Royal Society that in 2018 saw an array of innovations from 269 schools and over 1500 students from across the UK and Europe.  The aim of the awards was to challenge students to use the power of science, technology and engineering to create innovative solutions to society’s biggest issues. Winning concepts included a medication dispenser for Alzheimer patients, drones that detect and absorb pollutants, an app that calculates a safe way home from school and a support for Parkinson’s sufferers. 

What is so refreshing about the entries and winners of the various initiatives designed to stimulate and reward fresh thinking, creativity and ingenuity is the sheer talent at such a young age.  Whether the individuals are encouraged to enter as part of a school course, simply want to create a solution off their own back, or are inspired by life experiences, what’s clear is that there’s more talent to be discovered across the UK.  

Take 11-year-old Arnav Sharma whose great-grandfather had dementia.  Arnav was surprised when he couldn’t find any personalised, affordable and multi-beneficial solutions.  Wanting to help, he created ‘Vivify Me’, an affordable and personalised solution able to transform the life of a person living with dementia by providing an interface with a touchscreen that features a range of functions.  Vivify Me improves cognition and fine motor skills for people in the early stages of dementia. Arnav reached the final stages of Challenge Dementia, part of the Essex Challenge Prize from Essex County Council, a national search for products, technologies and services that could transform the way people live with Dementia across the UK.

Organisations such as Nesta Challenges will continue to work with partners to encourage both people today and the next generation to become societal innovators.  The key ingredients of challenge prizes – financial incentives and mentoring – are proven to be successful in inspiring diverse groups to find solutions while supporting the boldest and bravest ideas to be brought to life, and seed long term change for a better future. 

These are just a handful of examples, but they prove that the ideas and solutions are out there, that no problem is insurmountable with smart-thinking and imagination, and that our young people are brimming with the talent and ingenuity to handle the challenges of the future. We need to create an ecosystem in which that ingenuity is encouraged and supported for it to flourish. It’s a message that is gaining traction, with the UK government investing nearly £1 million to massively expand the Longitude Explorer Prize this coming academic year, to involve even more young people.

One day, there may be no need for initiatives like challenge prizes as “innovation for good” becomes a natural part of our vernacular and everyday life. Until then, we need to create a cultural sea change that purpose-led entrepreneurship is not only good for the soul, but also the economy. 

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