ITU showcases protoboffins, hands them £6k each

'Children are the youth of tomorrow'*

ITU Telecom World The ITU's Youth Challenge flew 45 young people to Geneva to pitch their innovative ideas, with six of them pocketing around £6,000 each to develop those ideas into products.

The yoof came to the ITU Telecom World to spend three days learning how best to pitch their ideas, and a lot about how the telecommunications industry operates – not to mention being photographed alongside every politician worth their salt. Altogether 160 ideas were dropped into the box, from which 60 were chosen and 45 made it to the event.

The ideas were just that: described in fewer than 750 characters, in the best Web 2.0 style, they consisted of little more than aspiration concepts. Once they arrived at the event, the young people were instructed on how to present their ideas as quickly as possible, to appeal to the most impatient of venture capitalists, and those presentations were then thrown up onto YouTube and discussed on Twitter.

Not that the ITU was up to this kind of malarkey; the whole thing was run by special event curator Katz Kiely. Katz describes herself as "a super producer, a catalyst, a creative, a curator and a doer" who "makes multi-platform multi-stakeholder projects happen with the minimum amount of pain [and] some element of inspirational face to face-ness" – the perfect person to shake up the ITU then.

But the young people we spoke with seemed surprisingly grounded despite spending time with Katz. Even those who didn't scoop a cash prize reckoned the trip was a life-changing experience, if only because it gave them a chance to see how conservative the telecommunications industry is, and how hard a time they're going to have selling into it despite the training sessions.

The ideas that were awarded prizes included (in the Young Innovators category) an on-the-bus training program from India, text-based job search from Nigeria and cooking-gas locator from Ghana. In the Digital Innovators category there was a service providing information to volunteers from Singapore; a video archive showing how great it is to have a job, from South Africa; and a marketplace for amputees wanting to sell their craftwork, from Sierra Leone.

The ITU is desperate to increase its youth credentials, and worked with groups from almost 100 schools prior to the conference to educate them about telecommunications, but also to ask them what they expected communications to do for them. The organisation might be a hugely bureaucratic monolith comprised of middle-aged politicians and telecoms executives, stuffed into expensive suits and fooling themselves that they work in an entirely blameless industry**, but it is – at some level – aware of that, and trying to do something about it.

It's really hard to engage with young people without looking a prat, as anyone with children knows. The ITU should be credited with achieving some engagement, and perhaps forgiven for looking a bit silly in the process. ®

* The ITU General Sectuary said this.

** He also described telecommunications as the "one industry where everyone can be a winner".

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