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The Digital Makers fund: Investing in the next generation of technological whizz-kids

Dan Sutch
children computer getty 300x225 The Digital Makers fund: Investing in the next generation of technological whizz kids

(GETTY IMAGES)

Whether it’s global tech businesses getting grilled by the Public Accounts Committee, the launch of 4G networks or the adverts vying for pre-Christmas attention, digital technologies such as computers, mobile phones and the internet have been in the public eye quite a lot recently.

We don’t think of ballpoint pens or belts as technologies that are purposefully designed and made tools because they’re woven into everyday life and work as we’d expect. But how about digital technologies? When will they stop being technologies and start simply being the internet, apps or micro-processors? The answer is when they become more trivial, when we recognise the implicit value in them and understand how they are constructed and work.

It’s one of the reasons why the Nominet Trust is so keen to be working with Nesta and Mozilla to encourage the next generation of digital makers. Not only are there strong economic benefits to such an ambition, the digital economy is worth around £100 billion in the UK alone and is expected to grow by 10 per cent over the next three to five years.

Digital making allows young people to look ‘under the bonnet’ of digital technologies, to play with how they work and then to create their own tools and technologies. And in the process become more familiar with these tools and how they can be used and developed further.

Digital making is the creative process of making a product – from websites, apps, games, and 3D animations to physical objects driven by micro-controllers. This will often mean using coding and programming skills, as well as include the creative use of digital tools to make new products. Digital making skills are fundamentally underpinned by an understanding of computational thinking but may also include things like creative teamwork, problem-solving, engineering and design in order to build new technologies.

At this year’s Apps for Good awards, twelve-year-old sisters, Elizabeth and Rebecca won the Well-Being category for their ‘Feelings in a Flash’ app. They set up their own coding club with friends when they were 11 because they wanted a space where they could bring ideas together, learn from each other and have fun. They say: ‘We wanted to create our own apps and websites rather than use ones that other people had made. It’s also great to create things that we know that we and our friends will use’.

Identifying a problem; creating and designing a solution and creating the product that helps your friends and community.  It’s these skills and experiences that are needed to support the creators of the next Google, Firefox and Facebook. But they’re also important in supporting young people to critically engage with other technologies – beginning to understand how socio-technical systems influence the way in which we act.

As ‘digital by default’ becomes a government mantra and more services and products are created online, understanding how to interact with and through these digital structures becomes an important part of participating in our society. Whether it be recognising the design decisions that (almost) influence how some people vote or highlighting what information is needed to run a country, competent digital makers have a clearer understanding of the benefits and limitations of digital technologies and can be more comfortable in using them. And there is certainly demand for such activities.

According to a recent YouGov research commissioned by Mozilla, the majority of children want to learn to write computer code and create online games, websites and mobile apps. While 75 per cent of British children online aged eight to 15 are very or fairly interested in making their own projects online, like creating their own online game, website or phone app. The challenge is that only three per cent say they already know how to.

Together, Nominet Trust, Nesta and Mozilla have created a £225,000 Digital Makers fund that will support projects to increase participation and access to digital making activities amongst four to 18-year-olds. With an ambition to support tens of thousands of young people to become involved in these sorts of activities, we’re looking for partners who can provide exciting and engaging ways for young people to become digital makers.

And whether that leads to products like a community-powered radio or the hackable games created at last weekend’s MozFest, or simply a better understanding of how digital technologies work – we want to support young people to stop talking about ‘technologies’, and start making things that are valuable and useful to them, their friends and their communities.

The fund is now open for expressions of interest from organisations and individuals who share the ambition to improve practical digital skills among children and young people. The first funding call for Digital Makers is now open. Initial expressions of interest will be accepted up until 17 January 2013.

For details about Digital Makers please visit www.nesta.org.uk/digitalmakers

For more information about the Nominet Trust visit www.nominettrust.org.uk

Dan Sutch is Head of Development Research at Nominet Trust

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