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9 January 2015

“None of us are as smart as all of us”

The UN's Young Innovators Challenge brings together an international cohort of tech, social and creative entrepreneurs. Creative Economy took two UK social tech startups to join the global innovation lab.

A gleaming conference centre in Doha, Qatar, was the backdrop for an extraordinary gathering of young international tech, creative and social entrepreneurs in December.  Darshan Sanghrajka and Olivia Comberti were invited by UN agency ITU to represent the UK and join the winners of their Young Innovators Challenge at the ITU World Telecom Summit in Doha.  


Louise Borgeois' 'Maman' in the Qatar Conference Centre

Darshan and Olivia joined winners from Iran, India, Uganda, Tunisia, Colombia, USA, Mali and Qatar, as well as artists curated by Austria’s Ars Electronica, and took part in four days of workshops and innovation sessions. 

Here are Olivia’s reflections on the event:

I have a confession. When I was first invited by The British Council to attend the UN’s ITU World Telecom Summit, I was slightly concerned that I might have to sit through lots of stuffy lectures about things like the thickness of broadband cables.

© ITU/M.Huwais

ITU Opening session

However, at the conference’s opening ceremony, something strange happened.  Standing beneath a giant back-lit blue head, the ITU’s president welcomed the delegation: “With the fast advances in technology we’re currently seeing, it’s our job to not to let others around the world get left behind.” And then to an explosion of trance, the room erupted into an ITU "rave", delegates' blue glow sticks waving in unison.  

Over the next few days, I saw countless talks by people passionate about the power of tech and innovation to create radical change in their communities. Driverless cars that can detect and respond to hazards before they’re even visible. Food packaging embedded with sensors that send alerts to your phone about ingredients that you’re allergic to.  My fears about stuffiness evaporated, and I left the event joyfully surprised and mightily inspired.

These are just a few of the most exciting lessons I learned.

Wearables - freaky as hell, but life changing

We met people embedding tech into bracelets and watches to produce smart “internet of things” innovations. While part of me shuddered at the thought of a future where Google holds data on my heart rate and every object I’ve ever interacted with, Iranian computer scientist/ innovator/ entrepreneur @SaharPakseresht  bowled me over talking about Naji – a bracelet she designed that broadcasts a user’s location and vital signs to rescue teams in the aftermath of a disaster in order to aid evacuation.

Great innovation happens at the intersections

© ITU/J.Leguerre

Massoud Hassani's Mine Kafon in the Ars Electonica space

The pieces showcased at the event by Ars Electronica were evidence for this – blending art and technology in mind-bogglingly brilliant innovations to remove landmines, clean up oil spills and power robots through plant-touch. If Toyota’s manufacturing process inspired the lean start up approach, just imagine what algae growth or improvised theatre might inspire?  Wacky ideas can often seed groundbreaking solutions to problems.

Strong Networks + Space to be Creative + A Healthy Dose of Empowerment = Pioneering Innovation

Listening to inspirational speakers from the MENA region @Ayshaalm and @aithamza  discuss the ingredients for great innovation made my heart sing. “We need to empower young people about their ability to create change”. “We need to build a platform where they can connect and be part of a ‘family’ of fellows”.

It was wonderful to hear my own experience of building the Before I Die Network reflected, where sometimes just the suggestion that you can be something bigger is a sufficient catalyst for change.

“None of us are as smart as all of us”

A discussion on co-creation brought reminders that should ring true for all start-up entrepreneurs.  “Better ideas come when we stop trying to be proprietary over our ideas and learn to collaborate”, said Joe Gaylord of the ITU.  Gerfried Stocker of @ArsElectronica painted a picture of the hackathon I’ve always dreamed of – 3 months long, and being “not about narrowing down to solutions, but opening up to questions”. It’s too easy to approach a brainstorm thinking that we already know the best answer to solve it.

©ITU/F. Voggeneder

Olivia addressing her fellow Young Innovators

If you want investment, don’t pitch – collaborate

I’ve often been at pitch events where start ups and investors struggle to understand one another, and so Dr Maher Hakim’s advice on seeking investment struck a chord with me. As an angel investor, he is less interested in experience, but rather seeks evidence of passion and commitment to the idea. “If you’re passionate, don’t just come to me every 6 months to ask for money. Come to me once a week to tell me the progress.” It reminded me of the lessons of the UnReasonable Institute– running big demo days at the end of their accelerator never resulted in investment. But getting investors involved throughout the course in problem solving entrepreneurs’ challenges had a 74% success rate.

It was also interesting to see how the perspectives from investors differed outside of our London bubble. In Qatar the business accelerator programmes were far more driven by profit than value and impact, perhaps explained by their lack of bankruptcy law in Qatar. There, if your business fails you’ll go to jail!

Olivia Comberti is CEO and founder of the Before I Die Network, a social enterprise that empowers graduates to pursue and achieve inspiring career goals. She set up the organisation based on her own experience of graduate underemployment, and the disempowerment, depression and stigma associated with the support available. 

The Before I Die Network is part of the Bethnal Green Ventures accelerator programme, and has been supported by the Ogunte Make a Wave Incubator, the Aspire Foundation and the Princes Trust.