Innovate to inspire: How can we empower the next generation?


Innovation is at our fingertips in our homes, schools and offices. But it’s often hard to grasp. EJC’s latest conference in a series on innovation featured passionate presentations and thoughtful responses to a host of next generation questions. Please see my colleague Eric Karstens’ article for the policy recommendations.


I am told that innovation is a mix of creativity and invention, that education is a blend of innovation and creativity, and that the key to both is original combination. This sounds like haiku to me, so I delve deeper into my notes. ‘How do you teach critical thinking?’ ‘Are you a technology evangelist?’ ‘Do new platforms mean more distractions or more opportunities for earning and learning?’ These were just a few of the questions that came to mind during our Youth Innovation conference in Maastricht in mid-October.

Around 50 guests settled down for 12 presentations, each with a new angle on ‘Innovation in Youth Media and Next Generation Classroom’. Creativity and empowerment came up time and again, with speakers including Ingrid Hu Dahl, Anne Balsamo, and Richard Gerver.

Click here for the video footage, including Simon Hampton of Google and Paul Keller of Creative Commons at the EJC innovation event in Brussels.


Ingrid Hu Dahl, of Youth Media Reporter, describes how teens are bombarded by brands, including 3-4000 adverts each day. This cultural and commercial mind-washing pushes stereotypes deep into their eyes, ears and collective consciousness. Faced with this, teens are often bored (but may not even know it!), so youth media needs to work hard to shape and encourage self-awareness.

New and affordable ways of creating music, videos, and stories – shared on the web – are ushering in a cultural revolution in a global mosaic. New platforms open new channels to win money and attention from mainstream media, and so create new archetypes. Out with the old, in with the new, we could say, as every day is like a new year in the current rate of change.

Hu Dahl plays a music video created by young, gay New Yorkers tagged “Pro Homo”, which they filmed, edited and uploaded at very low cost. This is kind of thing is happening across the globe. Armed with mobile phones, cameras and MP3s, teens are (re)mixing their worlds, from the USA, through Europe, Africa and Asia. Innovation equals empowerment for many of the 1 billion teens around the world. But key to this is treating them as equals, notes Hu Dahl.

National TV and radio channels used to be the dominant shapers of public opinion. Now Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube connect millions around the world, including the youth of Iran in protesting their summer elections. But it’s not just about connecting; it’s also about creating.

Professor Anne Balsamo, of the University of Southern California, speaks of the ‘digital natives’ living among us. These are kids born between 1987 and 1990 who grew up with home computers and the worldwide web. They know no different. With platforms mushrooming, they learn everywhere now: at home and on the streets, in libraries and museums, in cultural and religious centres, etc. (later echoed by Henk van Zeijts, who brings history alive with GPS and mobile phones on the streets of Amsterdam).

To make the classroom more dynamic, Balsamo tells of installing large, networked screens, to present a ‘backchannel’ of web searches made by students during lectures. Continuing the theme of empowerment, this enables quieter students to raise discussions, while opening new and shared spaces for debate. It may be difficult for teachers to filter, but as this ‘backchanneling’ is public, the students soon regulate themselves.

Products created by students at USC include ‘Darfur is Dying’, a now famous online game that promotes education, human rights and social justice – pushing empowerment and empathy on to the global level.


The rise of independent producers over the last few decades (especially in music) heralded the rise of the prosumer: the productive consumer.  Just as bloggers broke down barriers between editors and readers, prosumers are bypassing the middleman and making the most of ‘unmediated media’ (just as Obama used Youtube during the presidential elections).

Three elements combined to enable this: strong peer cultures of exchange (eg Facebook replacing fanzines), the low cost of creative technologies, and a belief among youth that their contributions matter. The death of fatalism marks the birth of constructivism. (But taking this further is the birth of Pop Idol, X Factor and Big Brother, where the audience decides but TV schedules face dumbing down.).

Balsamo adds that students with multi-disciplinary knowledge have deeper and broader knowledge because they can understand things from many different angles (eg science and journalism) and so combine them creatively. This confidence also enables more intellectual generosity – an acceptance that you cannot know everything. But ultimately, our “tinkering” needs guidance: we want multi-platform experts, even polymaths, not jacks of all trades.

We need to beware of one new combination, however. That is the rise of the advertorial (advert + editorial). Stephen Sayers of Futurelab warns of the lack of transparency of many websites compared to published books (which state their author and publisher on inside covers). For instance, he criticises the use of scripted blogs for product placement on Bebo, another social networking site.

Sayers notes how media literacy is crucial, especially the teaching of a critical eye. As digital becomes the norm, as information threatens to overload us, we all need to become experts at filtering the media we consume. We all need to become editors, like whales sifting and feeding on millions of krill.


Time is short, but it will be even shorter for our kids. We have already reached the point where technological change exceeds our ability to keep up with it. According to one study, says Gerver, 80% of the jobs in 15 years’ time, when today’s 5 year olds reach adulthood, do not yet exist because of the rate of technological change. We need to take control.

So it is vital to link innovation with education. We should make the most of new ways of teaching to keep surfing the wave of technology. If it is important for us to stay ahead, it is even more crucial to give our kids the tools, as they will have so much more to make sense of. Digital literacy is the key – ie being able to adapt, learn with empathy and collaboratively. Or, as my younger, continental colleague insists, se debrouiller.

Grzegorz Piechota of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest quality daily newspaper, speaks of the need to link generations, to appeal to both adults and youth. So we need to focus on themes that touch the hearts of these groups, including human rights and the environment. He welcomes specialisation and empowerment, citing the examples of teenage girls reporting on women in sports and the many young mothers who came together to rank hospitals on the quality of childbirth care (aka ‘Strictly Come Birthing’).

Richard Gerver vividly explains the need to reinvent education. The next generation is living in a rapidly changing world, so it is our moral imperative to equip them with the skills to understand and handle that world. “Education has become confused and reactive”, he notes. “We’re constantly running to keep up.”

His story involves turning a failing school in Northern England into a national success story. The key is empowering the kids: giving them the tools and guidance to think for themselves, running their own in-school museum, language coffee shop, TV and radio studio, even at a young age. This gives them a dynamic sense of challenge and excitement and ultimately a reason to love coming to school. Gerver improvised (ie innovated), by appealing to the local community to provide the know-how and equipment.

The lesson is: we may not know the future but we can certainly influence it now. The best way to achieve this is by recognising that innovation is more about original combinations than miraculous discoveries. It is about trying something new while drawing on your network.

Gerver sums up: “The greatest privilege of education is empowering the next generation. To prepare children for their futures.” For all of us and all our kids, education and innovation are not only key. They are the binary imperative for our digital world.


The EJC is organising a series of innovation conferences with international partners. We are doing this because our long-term goal is to understand the media and education landscape and, in turn, help policy makers to prepare for and tackle important issues. The first conference focused on the European Institute of Technology; this second conference gives the floor to youth and schools, thus combining top-down and bottom-up approaches. For each, we are exploring the role of the media as a positive force for empowerment and change. Click here for the video footage.

Below is a list of articles and A/V productions by participants:
Manuela Manliherova