Working Well Challenge

I’ve been helping out a bit on the Design Council’s Working Well Challenge (supported by the Nominet Trust) for the past six months or so and yesterday was Demo Day where the three teams pitched what they’ve been working on. They were brilliant and all are well worth finding out more about. They were:

Discoverables  is a website that uses a game-like approach to help young people find and develop their key skills and strengths. Users earn ‘discoverability points’ as they take on missions and challenges in order to create a rich showcase page that they can email to employers or take to interviews.

The Matter is a newspaper run, produced and published entirely by young people. Each edition is their public response to a question asked by the government or a business.

Step Up is a website that helps young people to identify their career ambition, and provides them with the means and confidence to connect with those that can help them achieve it.

Before the teams pitched Mike and Mat asked me to say a little bit about what’s going on in the world of tech social ventures. Here’s roughly what I said:

Hello.

My name is Paul Miller and I help run Bethnal Green Ventures. We invest in and support very early stage social ventures that are using technology to solve problems in healthcare, education, employment and sustainability.

My involvement with the Working Well Challenge has been via the steering group. It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve been hugely impressed by the progress the teams made and I hope you are too when you hear from them in a few moments time.

Before your hear from them, I thought I’d give you a little context. We live in pretty challenging times employment wise, especially if you’re young. Britain’s youth unemployment rate stands at 21% – double the average across all working age groups. Across Europe the picture is even worse. Both Greece and Spain’s youth unemployment rates surpassed 50% in 2012, Spain’s has now reached 55%.

Even more challenging is that it seems old solutions may not work any more. We used to be able to say that when the growth came back after a recession, employment would return too. This time that doesn’t seem to be the case. In the US, the growth is back but the employment isn’t. It’s thought that nearly 4 million so-called ‘middle-class’ or ‘graduate’ jobs have disappeared, being replaced, at best, by very low paid jobs.

Working well won’t be about working like your parents, or even your older brother or sister. In just the space of a decade, employment has changed almost beyond recognition for many people with much greater demands for flexibility, completely different ways of finding jobs, and entirely different career paths. The world has changed and we’re struggling to keep up.

The bright spot in this gloomy outlook is in the world of startups. The tech startup and investment world was about the quickest to bounce back after 2008 and increasingly those startups and their founders are looking at solving big, important problems.

Perhaps they’re listening to people like Jeff Hammerbacher who was one of the first employees at Facebook (but then left) saying:

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

Or perhaps they’re listening to Tim O’Reilly’s rallying call for engineers to:

“Work on stuff that matters”.

Or maybe they’ve noticed the growth in something people call ‘impact investing’ or ‘social investment’. Commercial, philanthropic and public sector seem to be converging on a new set of tools that use the rigour of venture capital and private equity to have a social impact as well. Just in the UK, it’s a source of capital that is expected to grow to be billions in the coming years.

Whatever the reason, the growth in digital startups that are solving problems in healthcare, education and sustainability has been rapid.

I look up to companies like Fitbit, Ring-a-doc, Codecademy, Skillshare, Meetup.com, even Tesla in the US. Closer to home there are companies like AMEE, Patients know best or projects like Patchwork from FutureGov to help multiagency working around young people.

The skills of the people working on these projects in terms of engineering and design are superb. They are definitely some of the finest minds of their generation.

But on to tonight. There’s lots of talk about risk in this world and you might find yourself sceptical that any of these ideas will ever work – they just sound too ambitious.  Reid Hoffman has a colourful metaphor for running a startup when he says it’s like:

“Jumping off a cliff and assembling an aeroplane on the way down.”

I don’t see it like that. The truth is a bit more mundane for most startups. In fact it’s just a humungous todo list and there’s almost certainly something on that list for the teams tonight that you can help with.

When you’re listening to the teams tell you what they’ve done tonight, I’d urge you to come at it with a very simple mindset. Just think to yourself, “How can I help?”

If we all start approaching these big scary problems like that, we might have a chance.