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Innovating During Covid-19

By Rachel Collier, Co-founder and CEO, Young Social Innovators

Stability, structure and predictability are a source of comfort to most organisations. And while each year brings its own challenges, the challenges in 2020 certainly have been unprecedented! 

The effects of the global pandemic that have dominated 2020 force us at YSI to innovate and to live our own ‘Pathway of Change’: immediately re-thinking what we were doing; re-grouping in new ways from our homes; and re-shaping a new way to engage teenagers during Covid-19. From such new configurations, the YSI Open Call to Teenagers was born and rolled out in April without really having had the time to test it out. Like many, we broke out of our normal rhythm and routines and invented something new. I am glad to report, it proved a good example of innovating in a crisis.

Young Social Innovators engages young people and educators in social innovation and bringing about change for good in their communities and society. Covid-19 came like a hurricane this year. YSI was in the middle of our annual Speak out Tour, at which hundreds of teams and thousands of teenagers come together all around the country to share their innovations at a regional level to YSI panels. Suddenly, halfway through as we left Kilkenny, we had to stop, pack up the van, literally, and go home! Schools closed the following day, and children and teenagers were suddenly faced with not going to school.

YSI was well on its way to host its Annual Young Social Innovators of the Year Awards in Croke Park. It took us a few days to realise it was simply impossible to hold this in the way we had done for 19 years. We realised something else for sure: a crisis can lead to the most creative of times. It presents new challenges and opportunities and new ways of thinking too. It throws things up in the air and almost gives permission to rethink the status quo. It’s an ideal time for social innovation, even though it came through a most unwelcome and deadly pandemic.

We were immediately anxious to open a channel to teenagers to find out how they were doing and how we might harness their thinking at this time of crisis. We knew they would have ideas and we were determined somehow to capture these. Knowing that teenagers were not in their normal place at school, with the supports and networks they are familiar with, without seeing their pals and members of their extended families, we also knew this was going to be a tough time for many of them.

Different teachers got in touch and asked us to do something, suggesting ideas. The team itself rallied and with the help of ‘padlet’ we generated many ideas which culminated in the Open Call for Teenagers.

Youth 'Check In' Survey

With our Partners Amárach Research, we quickly got to grips with how Covid-19 was impacting on the lives of teenagers. Almost 800 teens from across the country took part and gave an extensive insight into their experience of living with the reality of Covid-19, their own responses and their feelings, not just about the emergency but also about the future.

As you might expect from any large group of people, our teenagers have mixed views and emotions. However, one stark finding is that more than half (53%) feel negative at this time; this includes being anxious, stressed and depressed. The uncertainty over exams added greatly to those feelings.

Many teenagers were struggling at the time; some had difficulty learning online; others had no access to online learning; some were living with issues at home; or had health concerns for themselves or loved ones. And many had unfortunately lost loved ones over the past few months, a very difficult experience for an entire family. Covid-19 presented many problems.

However, we also found in the survey that teenagers wanted to play their part to help out during this crisis. While 10% were active in the response in the community during Covid-19, doing food deliveries, helping out, volunteering, a further 40% were more than willing, but were not sure how to get involved.

This desire to help resonated with previous research we had carried out in which young people told us that the most important indicator of a successful life for them is making a difference in the world. That is powerful and we believe that this desire needs to be harnessed and given expression.

So that was it! We had to find a new way to engage teenagers and quickly. We began designing a new platform, resources and campaign. We discussed the ideas with some alumni and others and the YSI Open Call to Teenagers was sent out on April 20.

YSI Open Call to Teenagers

We asked teenagers all over Ireland what are they seeing, what new needs are emerging around them, what ideas do they have to solve any of these problems? We asked them to share their ideas with us and in turn, we will share these ideas and see if their solutions can be supported and developed. We created online resources for use by young people themselves or with their friends or family and each week we went through these and took questions on Instagram live. 300 teenagers signed up.

And it should come as no surprise to you that we got some great ideas back from young people. One such example came from Maria, aged 16, from Dublin, who came up with the idea of adapting traffic lights to have a push button on the ground to avoid using your hands and potentially spreading the virus. We received ideas for new products too, like one from of Ellie, aged 16, from Dublin who designed a hand sanitiser bracelet to prevent the spread of the virus while on the go, while Jona, aged 14, from Louth, was inspired by her Mum who is a nurse, to create her design for ventilated PPE outfits for healthcare workers.

Images of ideas submitted by teenagers across Ireland. L-R: Brandon, 14, Sligo; Elle, 16, Dublin; David, 18, Donegal

Ideas to support the local communities were received, such as from David, aged 18, from Donegal, who has built a communitycoffee van to keep morale up while at the same time raising funds for local charities. Seán, aged 16, from Kerry, wants to create a sustainable community garden to support local produce and encourage collaboration and in his area.

Then we met some of the teenage innovators with a special online panel of experts, which was graciously hosted by Virgin Media with Colette Fitzpatrick, the news anchor, being our Master of Ceremonies. The innovators came to discuss their ideas and share their creativity with leaders from civil society, government and businesses alike. Many of our major national youth organisations were there to listen, support and give advice.

The Open Call Pitch Panel, which welcomed young people to share their creative ideas with industry experts.

As we begin the process of emerging from lockdown at the time of writing this, the views of our young people switch to being more positive – almost seven out of ten teenagers believe we will emerge into a better society post-Covid – and what is coming through loud and clear is that they still want to play their part. They speak of community spirit, the value of community being realised and the whole world acting together.

One in three however do have worries: recession, unemployment and of course loss of life. These are real worries and we need to listen to and appreciate the strain all of this is having on young people, particularly on their mental wellbeing.

Again and again I find we underestimate young people. Sometimes that is because we are trying to protect them, or fear what they might get up to, or try and make them think and do just like us.

Rachel Collier, Co-founder and CEO, Young Social Innovators

Harnessing the Ideas of Youth

Recognising and indeed harnessing the enthusiasm of young people, their energy and willingness to be active and involved in their communities will act as a counterbalance to some of this. Young people, just like the rest of us, want and need to help out. We all need to be needed and that is important, particularly for teens as they are exploring and finding out about who they are, forming their identity, discovering their humanity and the difference they can and do make.

Again and again I find we underestimate young people. Sometimes that is because we are trying to protect them, or fear what they might get up to, or try and make them think and do just like us. They are living in such a different world to the one we grew up in and there is no doubt that the challenges they face are complex and difficult.

But don’t underestimate their fundamental humanity, their eagerness to do good for others. Our job at YSI, and indeed for all of us as educators, parents and a society, is to support young people to be who they can be and to reach their potential.

We still have a long journey to recovery and new and serious challenges will arise as we go on. We would be foolish not to tap into the ideas, energy, skills and talents of young people. Any discussion on the kind of world we wish to live in after this must include their perspectives. Our society, as we emerge from this crisis will be all the stronger for it.

We are delighted to see a commitment from our new government to a support of “YSI’s work to assist young people to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath in Ireland, to address issues facing their communities and the country as a whole and to harness their energy, skills and talents” and also to “support the scaling of Young Social Innovators’ programmes in all post primary schools” (Programme for Government, July 2020, p. 70)

Article first published in NAPD Leader Bulletin, September 2020