Designathon and Pitchfest

Designathon and Pitchfest

I heard a young woman interviewed the other day about her role in the Hong Kong protests. In the interview, she refers to her peer group as the ‘cursed generation’. Born in 1997, the interviewee positions herself as part of a special generation. Sitting on the edge of mainland China, Hong Kong was a British colony for a long time and was handed back to China in 1997 with a 50 year transition period. The idea was that Hong Kong would learn to become a democracy and in 2047 when China took control again, maybe, just maybe, it would let Hong Kong remain independent. For children born in 1997, it was the year that the clock started ticking.

The ‘cursed generation’ moniker started as a joke – their kindergarten graduation was cancelled due to SARS hitting Hong Kong, their Primary School graduation was wiped out by Swine Flu and they joked that their high school graduation would surely fall victim to Ebola. By referencing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the children born in 1997 marked themselves as either cursed or chosen – destined to face something special, bad or significant. With the introduction of the bill in June this year that would allow mainland China to extradite Hong Kong citizens, those born in 1997 and the years surrounding feel radicalised to act now.

Regardless of where you sit politically on the Hong Kong protests, it’s interesting to note what some have called the Harry Potter effect. When the New York Times were reporting on Emma Gonzales and the #NeverAgainMSD movement fighting gun violence in the US, they reported that Gonzales identified “Harry Potter alone” as her inspiration.

As someone who spends a lot of time around young people it’s hard to miss the messaging imploring young people to go forth and change the world. Gun violence, climate change, as well as free and fair elections are but a few of the challenges we’ve laid down for the next generations to tackle. When though, do we tell them exactly how to go about making change in the world?  Lacking the practical know how it’s little wonder, as the New York Times reported, that the generation of ‘fixers’ have found solace not from us but from a fictional tale of an ordinary boy chosen to save the world.

At Loreto Normanhurst we have been making steady inroads into how we go about upskilling our students to make the change they wish to see. Naturally, we were delighted to be asked to send a group of Year 10 students to participate in a Designathon and Pitchfest as part of Sparkfestival. The day long program hosted in the Atlassian offices and facilitated by Young Change Agents, aims to help young people develop the skills to see problems as opportunities. It teaches a tangible methodology that can be followed time and time again in order to activate a social enterprise.

The qualities of a Young Change Agent framed the day and include:

  • A clear vision of what they want
  • Resilience
  • A great listener/ learner/ activator
  • Sharing ideas and building strong relationships.

There was a lovely symbioses between the program’s goals and the Atlassian values proudly displayed on the office walls. Big business and guiding principles like openness and being the change you seek are not incompatible with profit and commercial success.  I think it’s important for students to see this as many of them will go out and seek work that aligns with their values and provides a sense of something bigger than a paycheck.

The student teams engaged in community mapping where they thought about the ties that bind them and selected one community to map. They were asked to consider what it is that’s good about the community, what they would like to change and what they wish for. The mapping activity is really designed around empathy. It’s about having a good understanding of who you’re designing for as well as what’s working well and might therefore be something to build on or replicate as well as what the pain points are for members of that community. Successful companies understand empathy well; when we heard tips from the Atlassian mentors they spoke about the importance of fixing the right problem by drilling down and asking the right questions. Too often we see poorly thought out solutions in our world that are a response to an adjacent issue or a cheap fix instead of tapping into the root cause of an issue.

Students demonstrated a tremendous capacity to think about others which was evident in the afternoon pitches – almost all of which had helping people at the centre. In the cohort we saw an app designed to help people with accessibility issues quickly locate suitable amenities as well as log problems and encourage businesses to modify. We saw police drones geared towards keeping police officers safe from violent crime and helmets fitted with sensors to monitor head collisions in contact sports.

Our Loreto teams put forth ecological party supplies as a response to single use items, a filter that sits over social media in order to offer a diversity of perspectives on any given issue, and #Adulting101, a life skills program to help young people learn practical skills in addition to the intellectual heavy lifting they do at school. Having the chance to work with school teams from all over Sydney was an act of empathy in itself as we saw the issues that were important to students from Bellevue Hill to Penrith.

The methodology practised on the day moves students from identifying problems to writing problem statements and then narrowing in on one to start ideating. Ideation involves generating as many different ideas as possible as well as differentiating between strategy and action. An action is concrete, it can be tested. It’s also a good place to move students away from tactics (apps, robots etc) and back towards the problem they are actually trying to solve. Ideation aims to stretch thinking away from the most obvious solutions. A technique the facilitators used to break students out of conventional ideas was to ask them to consider the problem from the perspective of an inspirational person. For example, how might Elon Musk approach this problem? Listening to the stories of how a student applied ‘Steve Erwin thinking’ to the problem at hand certainly validated the idea that breaking out of ourselves can lead to new and novel ideas.

Students were asked to prototype the idea they championed in readiness for the pitch that evening. Prototyping aims to quickly validate the idea before too much time and energy is put into it. It’s a quick litmus test of whether anyone wants your product or service, whether it’s possible to build and use and importantly to get a read on whether an audience will support your idea or not. If I could draw a theme from the day, it sits squarely on ‘good enough being good enough’.  In the face of seemingly insurmountable problems it can be paralysing to act. As an educator, I see many young women in particular feel the pressure to put forth perfected and polished ideas. By taking the teams through timeboxed activities the facilitators from Young Change Agents moved students from arriving with no plan at 9am to pitching viable social enterprise ideas by 5pm. Yes it’s a pressured environment but it’s far better to figure out some major flaws in the idea now before expending additional energy. In fact, opening up your idea to others early in the game is a way to harness the ideas of others in order to build on your initial idea.

The teams were introduced to the concept of failing fast and failing early throughout the day. One pitch I saw was radically different to the idea they’d been shopping just an hour before. Under the tutelage of their Atlassian mentor they jettisoned something that just wasn’t working and pulled a viable idea together to pitch 45 minutes before the deadline. Being unafraid of pivoting to a new direction when you know something isn’t working is such a valuable mindset. It demonstrates an openness to new ideas as well as the flexibility to adapt to changes in the brief or environment.

The students (and staff) were so lucky to have access to such a wonderful learning opportunity. It’s rare to be given the opportunity to spend an entire day with one problem, to achieve a state of flow and work wholeheartedly on something that’s personally meaningful. I don’t think our charges are a ‘cursed generation’, I think they’re the most fortunate, safest and best educated group in history. They may also be the most overscheduled, over-committed and if we accept the need for #Adulting101 the most coddled!

What I think can be a curse is what to do with their relative privilege and good fortune. How best to harness their ideas and enthusiasm for the greater good? How inspiring then, to see the stories on the Young Change Agents website of young people doing just that, working collaboratively to solve the problems of their time. I hope that by equipping our students with the right tools they’ll grow into young women who always bias action and experimentation over sitting and waiting to be told what to do.

Young Change Agents put together a short video of the day which you might be interested in viewing here.


Ms Elizabeth Green

Knowledge and Learning Strategist