Last year, 15-year old student Esther Frias was set a different kind of challenge to usual by her economics teacher. Instead of studying the theory of inflation or the impact of global markets on society, she and her classmates were tasked with developing ideas for using disruptive technologies to improve life in the city.
“It was exciting to be given an assignment where you’re not thinking about the theory and the mark you’ll get in an exam but learning how to think creatively about practical solutions for a real-life issue facing citizens, something I believe really matters,” says Frias.
Frias’s school is one of 14 that had chosen to take part in a novel education programme designed to inspire a spirit of innovation among the city’s young people. A programme ambitious not just to teach them about technology and creativity but, crucially, to develop their personal skills and civic engagement.
In fact, the city wanted nothing less than to turn students into active agents for positive change in the city today – and tomorrow.
Prioritising personal skills
“Five years ago the city shifted its strategy to focus on developing the workforce of the future and designing the city of the future – and the Donostia Innovation Challenge came out of this aspiration” explains Xabier Hualde, Project Manager at the Donostia-San Sebastian Economic Development Agency (Fomento San Sebastian, FSS).
Employers are increasingly looking for strong personal skills
“We had identified that the labour market was changing, really quickly. And that the profiles of future workers expected by local employers were not being met. Although students have a high level of training, companies told us that, more and more, they look to hire people with the particular attitudes needed to be effective innovators.
“They want people who are adaptable, good team players and able to put themselves in the client’s place. We saw that there could be a role for us to help our students develop these personal attributes and add to the knowledge and skills our professional centres provide.”
Then the FSS thought, what if we could do this in a way that would also help solve another of the city’s problems?
Many young students were leaving their native city, attracted by opportunities elsewhere, mainly because they weren’t aware of the strength of the innovation ecosystem and array of opportunities right on their doorstep.
Plugging students into the city
And so the concept of the Donostia Innovation Challenge came together: a modern talent development initiative providing a rich, hybrid work system in which students enjoy working in teams and developing their personal, technical and business skills.
Students are enveloped by enthusiastic, expert support. They can rely on their teachers and the FSS for tools, materials and guidance. And they are also connected directly to the city’s ecosystem through workshops, visits and mentorship from volunteers working in local innovative businesses and technology centres.
Established in 2017 and 100% funded by the FSS, the five-month Donostia Innovation Challenge sees teams of 14 to 22-year olds develop an innovation project around one of five technologies: artificial intelligence, 3D printing, mixed reality, the Internet of Things or advanced robotics.
Identifying issues that matter
At the start, students were given a different city problem to solve each year, from generating activity along a river bank to helping citizens deal with Covid-era issues. After a while it became clear that students are most keen to find solutions to problems that mean something to them personally, so this has become the norm.
All the collaborators come together to play their part in taking students through their innovation projects, from coming up with concepts to understanding technological possibilities, researching costs, assessing product feasibility and creating a project website. They also play an active role in building on the attitudinal workshops and helping students develop their personal skills, from empathy and humility to flexibility and creativity.
In addition, students get one of the most important lessons they’ll ever learn no matter where their career takes them: the art of the elevator pitch!
This becomes hugely important as the programme reaches its conclusion. The winning teams from each education centre have to create a presentation and video showcasing their project. These are judged by a jury, which awards the top prize at a ceremony attended by 500 of the great and the good from across the city.
Enhancing life in the city
Frias and her team at St Patrick’s English School know all about the excitement of walking up on stage to receive their prize. They won in 2022 with their concept for an artificial intelligence-enabled wheelchair which lets disabled users know which routes are the easiest to manoeuvre along as they travel around the city.
This is just one of the hundreds of life-enhancing, city-improving ideas to come out of the programme over the years.
One team designed a drone equipped with image analysis software for detecting rubbish brought down to the beach by rivers, enabling rapid clean-up. Ideas dreamt up during the pandemic include a robot created to ease the isolation of elderly people and an armband alarm to flag up when people with Covid ignore quarantine rules.
With 400 students a year generating purposeful ideas like these – at a cost of just €257 each – the city has clearly opened up a rich seam of smart city solutions. But Donostia-San Sebastian is benefiting in many more ways from its Innovation Challenge.
Replicating the real working world
“One of the great things we have accomplished in this adventure is building a collaborative network of education, economic and research stakeholders which has mutual benefits for all of us and the city,” says Hualde. “It wasn’t easy at the start but now it is continuing to grow year on year.”
And what about the city’s overarching goal of getting students more prepared for today’s working world?
Investing in our students means they will have the tools to contribute to a better city in the future
“Students from the Innovation Challenge are definitely more work-ready,” confirms Hualde. “This was one of the key factors for us and why we made the experience as much like the real world of work as we could, putting students in teams with people they didn’t know and insisting they made professional presentations for instance. All this has a lot of value for students, even though it was sometimes tough for them.”
As far as Frias is concerned, this approach hit the spot. “It’s been an amazing experience! I think it’s good to work in groups and develop that part of ourselves. It was competitive in a good way too. At first we didn’t think we could make our idea real but after we won best project in our school we started putting more effort in.”
Her teacher Urko Larrea agrees, saying “The students are a bit lost at the start but little by little they make progress, gain confidence and realise they can do it. They are inspired by wanting to impress the judges and this pushes them more and helps them deal with pressure. They really do learn a lot – about innovation and themselves.”
Cities dream, act and lead our future. This example from Donostia-San Sebastian is one of the finalists for the Eurocities Awards, in the category ‘Dream together – future generations transforming the cities’. The winners will be announced on 9 June 2022 during the Eurocities Conference.