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Community Programmes | 05/08/2019

Design-inspired and rebooted ‘work experience’

What happens when you bring almost 200 sixth form students to Titanic Belfast and arm them with drawing materials, design coaches and whatever tech they can get their hands on? Turns out, you get a blizzard of amazing ideas inspired by all kinds of challenges in engineering, marketing, energy and health-care.

Over 4 days in June this year, we were proud to play a central role in Generation Innovation, an annual programme hosted by leading NI workspace company, Catalyst – and designed to promote entrepreneurship among secondary school students. This was our fourth consecutive year volunteering for Generation Innovation and it’s been nothing short of staggering to see it grow into what is now the largest event of its kind on the island of Ireland.

We guided a cohort of 30 student teams through a design thinking methodology, running the agenda and managing collective energy in the epic but slightly intimidating backdrop of Titanic Belfast.

Throughout the four day programme, our goal was to channel students’ energy and focus into creating innovative solutions for some of Northern Ireland’s leading businesses. This was no ‘sit-back-and-shadow’ work experience.

Each team was put through their paces on how to work as a team, frame challenges, develop prototypes and communicate their ideas. Following an intensive three days, each team was dropped into a real-world working environment to present their solutions to executive teams in their sponsor organisations – before regrouping to take the stage for a final 3-minute demo.

On day one we introduced the group to the fundamentals of innovation and design thinking. Rebecca stepped the teams through a series of empathy-building exercises – helping establish the ‘human centre’ of their challenge set by a designated sponsor orgs. It was an intense day of learning and some of the students were definitely flagging later in the afternoon. We had to get creative and expand our repertoire of icebreaker exercises whilst Rebecca worked the tables with help from an amazing support crew from Deloitte’s Bright Spark programme.

On day two everyone arrived fresh and looking a little more relaxed. The energy was different… we noticed teams leaning in, feeling more confident about the setting, their challenge and the task ahead. We continued to break new ground as I walked through problem definition and Rebecca got teams working on journey-mapping and solution-sketching. These are challenging tasks for any modern technology team so we worked hard to build rapport, settle nerves and create a safe space for students to be creative. At times, we did wonder: ‘Are we getting through here’? We could almost see the tumbleweed dance between the tables as we repeatedly asked: ‘Does anyone have any questions’? More work to do…

But on day three… all change. Generation Innovation found a new gear. Teams poured into Titanic on Wednesday morning as Rebecca set the scene and I prepped the teams up for a hardcore day of prototyping. Fears had been allayed and a distinct competitive vibe reverberated throughout the room. Momentum at last. Moving from table to table we saw the teams really coming together, their confidence building. The communicators were honing their pitches and the makers in each group were frantically bringing concepts to life. Rebecca and I were amazed to see fully-cooked digital prototypes (on tools even we hadn’t heard of) alongside impressive card mock-ups.

At the end of the final day, the teams presented their pitches at the foot of the iconic Titanic staircase with mentors company sponsors cheering them on from the sidelines. From satellite data simulations to digital monsters that help tackle childhood obesity, the pitches were impressing the audience and leaving the judging panel with a pretty tough job

Our hearts warmed as we watched teachers’ reactions to their ‘unrecognisable’ students on stage, beaming with new-found confidence, focus and passion.

Finally, it was time to announce the winning team. The cool, calm and collected Barclay’s Eagle Lab Team not only wowed their host company but also the judges. Their challenge was to come up with a solution to support cross-functional teams. And in three short days, they developed an impressive prototype of their idea – an online system that allows members of the Eagle Lab to trade skills and knowledge. Integrating a Reddit-based Karma system in which users can upvote others, the concept provides users with friendly competition and incorporates individual profiles, a skills database and a calendar of upcoming events.

And that’s a wrap. 11 months in the planning and 4 days of creativity, ingenuity and teamwork. We concluded proceedings as 200 smiling faces high-fived each other, elevated and proud of what they achieved with colleagues they met, just a few days before. More than one of our support cast commented on the teams’ ‘clearly untapped but inspirational abilities’.

An amazing experience, ‘GI’ wouldn’t be possible without the commitment and inexhaustible energy of the team at Catalyst and support from an inspired team at Deloitte. As for what’s next, we’re already looking forward to next year and pushing this brilliant initiative forward – when hundreds more students will set off on an intense journey of creativity, innovation and immersive learning.