Demystifying entrepreneurship: Making it accessible for all

In this three-part series, Nesta Challenges’ executive director, Tris Dyson, explores our attitudes to entrepreneurialism and education. In part one he looked at where the challenges lie, in this second part he discusses what we can do to solve them and asks whether we need to reassess the measurements of success.

In my last post I talked about the need to keep up with the pace of technological change through innovation, and that the best place to start was exposing our young people to the possibilities of entrepreneurialism in school as a means of bringing great ideas to life. While stimulating and fostering an entrepreneurial spirit is a must, how do we use these enterprising new skills productively and put innovation to good use for the benefit not only of our nation but globally too? 

We are inclined to focus innovation-led conversations on economic factors and our ability to remain competitive.  However, we forget the enormous societal challenges that we face both in the UK and around the world, be it climate change, obesity, overpopulation, starvation, extreme poverty, basic healthcare, or the difference access to mobile networks and the internet can make to transforming economies, the role of citizens and businesses.

Solving these global and local issues requires compassionate innovation and new ways of thinking; from creative people with the drive to solve society’s problems by harnessing the latest in digital, science, technology and innovation.  This is a new type of entrepreneur – a social entrepreneur or societal innovator. The world is in desperate need of their ingenuity and to put it to good use. 

It’s potentially a more attractive form of entrepreneurship for many, driven by the desire to make a positive impact and achieve lasting change rather than being focused solely on making money and profit. 

Each year Nesta runs a European Social Innovation Competition, this year focused on innovative projects designed to reduce plastic waste.  Both the volume and the diversity of those that entered eclipsed other Nesta innovation competitions. I suspect the reason is that people are motivated to solve frustrating problems and thereby become entrepreneurs as a side effect. This I believe is the key to getting people engaged in innovation and entrepreneurship – give them a meaningful challenge to solve.         

A young student using virtual reality goggles

We hope that the next wave of innovations come from a generation of enterprising young people currently passing through the education system.  However, to build their confidence and comfort levels, we need to demystify entrepreneurship. Rather than being associated with immense wealth or god-like figures of Silicon Valley, we need to make it accessible – a norm in our culture.  We need to show that entrepreneurship is as much about solving societal problems as creating a billion-dollar corporation.  And it’s a lifestyle choice for everyone; not just a few white men.  

While we grasp that nettle and, through education, start to encourage our entrepreneurs of the future, we must also consider what else can be done. We must foster a climate within our homes and the workplace that places importance on enterprise, creativity and the STEM subjects.  For many years we have known that they’re important, but now they are becoming critical to our children’s future if they are to thrive in their later lives.  

Encouragingly there are initiatives up and down the country that are already inspiring the young to think differently and to be enterprising and entrepreneurial. Specifically, how they can apply technology to good use underpinned by STEM subjects.  For example, Nesta Challenges Longitude Explorer Prize 2017 challenged young people to develop innovative, practical solutions that used the Internet of Things to improve the health and wellbeing of people in the UK. 

The original prize was open to all UK secondary school pupils with ideas, and resulted in great innovations. This included a wearable watch-like prototype, that helps people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder communicate by changing colour to reflect the emotion of its owner.  

We’re about to embark on the biggest ever Longitude Explorer Prize this academic year. Starting in September, the prize has been massively expanded thanks to nearly £1m in funding from the government. We’re aiming to engage with 120,000 young people through entries to the prize, facilitated by lessons in school and through the Longitude Explorer digital platform. Ultimately the teams with the most promising innovations will be mentored ahead of a Dragon’s Den style pitch to select the winner of the prize.

It doesn’t just stop there and in the final part of this series, I’ll be looking at some of the impressive innovations created by young people thanks to the support of challenge prizes of all kinds.

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