At a hackathon in Philadelphia last November, one of the best ideas came not from a professional designer, but from a nine-year-old. The boy pitched an app that combines carpooling with Uber-like capabilities, allowing a private network of families to share driving.
The idea came from the boy simply identifying a problem in his life – not being able to attend after-school clubs because, like many kids, he has two working parents – but came backed up with a solid business plan.
“It was voted best business model of the entire hackathon,” says Kwame Anku, director of strategic development at #YesWeCode, a US organisation that uses tech to target disadvantaged young people and transform their lives.
One of the judges told me: “I just invested in a company similar to what this kid is proposing, but his idea is better, and if I had had both in front of me, I would have invested in his.”
This isn’t just a fluke: apps like this are cropping up across the world, little sparks of genius dreamed up by kids who are still in school. I’ve come across virtual piggy banks, safe street-navigation tools, an app that supports LGBTQ teens and a game called Tampon Run – there’s no way a 30-year-old male developer could have come up with that.
Kids can code
A growing number of organisations are dedicated to teaching children to code and develop tech, so what we’re now seeing is children actually developing innovative, useful apps and then taking them to market. Kids under 16 are uniquely placed to launch what could be tech’s next big thing.
Their ingenuity and natural affinity with digital tech means they’re essentially sowing the seeds for the sector’s next generation of disruptive startups. And this is catching the attention of some pretty serious investors.
“Technology companies need to look at [young people coding] very seriously, not just as ‘oh we’re doing good for the community, or we’re helping people of color or disadvantaged youth to feel like they’re part of the innovation economy, but then we’ll go back to the office and do the real work’,” says Anku. “No, this is the real work. There are extraordinary business opportunities for tech companies.”
#YesWeCode held a youth hackathon in Detroit last month. “The theme was education: if you were in a position to solve a problem with the education system, what would you do?” says Anku. “You’re talking about real problems that millions of kids are facing.