Jonathan Harper, Future Foundations - can Design and Technology Create a Brighter Future for All?

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Today's young people are grappling with a rapidly changing world, confronting complex issues that range from climate change and conflict to the aftermath of the Covid pandemic.

With the World Health Organization reporting that depression, anxiety and behavioural disorders are among the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents, the call to equip young people with effective tools and supportive strategies is urgent.  

The rapid developments in technology are leaving many young people questioning if education will prepare them for future careers when they know many jobs may be replaced by AI.

At Future Foundations, we have witnessed the power of combining design and technology with social action projects to nurture well-rounded, resilient individuals ready to take on future challenges.  

Ten years ago, we launched Global Social Leaders to equip young people to tackle the issues they care about in their communities. Since then over 10,000 young people in 105 countries have implemented 3500+ projects.

Take for example, the Neerja Modi School in India, students developed 'Khet Mitra', a device that helps desert farmers diagnose the quality of their soil.  The students developed skills and knowledge through their research, design and piloting, and engaged with farmers who benefited from the expertise shared.  Khet Mitra is being used by 50 farmers covering 150 acres of land and closer to home the students have implemented in their own school community garden which has led to an 8% month-on-month increase in microgreens production. 

At the British International School in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, students created the Precious Plastics Project to reduce plastic waste within their school community by recycling used items into 3D printer filament.

Similarly, the Green Team at Furze Platt Senior School in the United Kingdom crafted a 'Live Wall' with a dual purpose - to enhance biodiversity and positively impact mental health. This creative solution serves as an outdoor learning space, fostering a deeper connection with nature and its therapeutic benefits. 

The young people shared, “This project has not only been helping our environment, but we also have had lots of fun.  We are all learning new skills along the way; things that we would have otherwise not known how to do. These include being able to identify more new plants and discovering their properties and ways to care for them, having the ability to prepare the soil well and understand the correct timings to plant.” 

These projects encapsulate the essence of design without restricting student creativity; of technology being implemented without the limitations of cost or technical capability; and of social action where we can prioritise the needs of society, particularly those for whom the solution will have the most profound impact. They also demonstrate how students can design and solve problems in ways that stimulate learning and personal growth. The attributes fostered through these experiences - resilience, compassion, a passion for making a difference - are fundamental to success and wellbeing in our increasingly complex world.  These are also the aspects of humanity that technology and AI lacks and we must foster.  By creating ways for our young people to learn how to design and use technology with purpose they can develop the crucial attributes they will need. 

A reformed approach to Design & Technology in schools can create a brighter future for all but not in isolation.

The combination of innovative technology and design with real-world, community-based experiences can equip all young people, with the tools, attitudes, and knowledge needed to contribute positively to a brighter, more equitable future.  

We have witnessed the transformative impact that initiatives like these can have on young people, as well as communities. However, not every student will have the opportunity to participate in such projects during their education. UCL research shows that schools intentionally striving to adapt for the future tend to operate outside of publicly funded systems.  

It is therefore imperative that those in education and industry collaborate to advocate and support schools to implement and embed these types of activities, so that both young people and educators can reap the benefits, both within the classroom and beyond.   

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Jonathan is an award-winning social entrepreneur, who has partnered with leading global corporations to develop transformational employee development programmes supporting young people's life-skills and wellbeing.

He has created youth leadership programmes for the British government, partnered with the LEGO Foundation to develop a programme to foster playful learning and advocacy among young people and worked with Global Action Plan and Persil to pilot and scale a UK schools programme focused on developing compassionate values. 

In 2013, Jonathan co-founded Global Social Leaders, which has equipped over 10,000 young people to deliver 3,500 social action projects in 100 countries responding to the Global Goals.

He is passionate about fostering a community of schools and cross-sector partners, committed to building a global movement of socially conscious young people who are equipped to be leaders in their lives and society.