Innovation is the driving force behind rising prosperity, yet we don’t often talk about how people become inventors. Now, a study using US data shows that who your parents are - and how much money they have - makes a big difference in your chances of becoming an innovator.
The study, part of the Equality of Opportunity Project, finds that children who do really well at maths are much more likely to become inventors. But, that isn’t enough: to have a serious chance; the children also needed to come from high-income families.
This should matter to us because it points to a deep inequality of opportunity - think of all the children who, under better conditions, could have pursued a career in innovation. But it is also important because it shows how much inequality robs society of new inventions that could benefit us all.
This is why we are opening IGL2018 with a session on how innovation can be made more accessible to children of all backgrounds. The session will be opened by a presentation by one of the study’s authors, MIT’s John Van Reenen.
To prepare for this session, we’ve asked six innovation and education experts to tell us how they would spend $10 million to tackle this problem.
Vote for your favourite answer in our poll at the end, and leave your thoughts in the comments. There's still time to get tickets for IGL2018. Join senior policymakers, practitioners and researchers in Boston on 13-14 June.
"Invest it in 'inventor education' programmes"
I would invest it in 'inventor education' programmes in late-primary and secondary schools. These would combine STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) help with an emphasis on practical problem solving relevant to the kids and their local community. The programme should be targeted at kids who have shown high ability in maths or science, but are from groups who typically do not become inventors – those from low income households, minorities and girls. The programme should be done as a randomised controlled trial and a good chunk of this money should be reserved for evaluating the effectiveness of the programme in the short run (test outcomes, subject choice, engagement) and long-run (career choice, invention). John Van Reenen, Professor of Applied Economics, MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of the 'Lost Einsteins' study
"Reform university entrance exams to reward creative thinking"
University entrance exams should be changed so they reward creative thinking and students who question the established wisdom of our times, rather than the reproduction of subject-matter content and compliance with conventional ways of thinking. I am sure this would have a ripple down effect to what we focus on in primary school. Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, OECD
"Create new technical schools for young people"
Britain’s most inventive and innovative period was 1750-1850. None of the geniuses went to university: James Watt, George and Robert Stephenson, Thomas Telford, Richard Arkwright, Josiah Wedgwood and Brunel were apprentices at 14. A new revolution is needed. So, I would spend $10 million creating new technical schools for young people from the age of 14 where they will learn to make things with their hands, design on computers, work in teams on projects, problem-solve, engage in creative collaboration in art and design, learn to code, use 3D printers and virtual reality helmets. The digital age is already happening and all the conventional ways of working are going to change. The young must have the skills to be inventive and imaginative. We don’t just want young people who have well-trained brains and others with skillful hands – we need intelligent hands. Lord Baker, Chairman Edge Foundation and Baker Dearing Educational Trust, Former Secretary of State for Education
"Create and expand existing enterprise education programmes"
In my view, enterprise education is a key component. We need not only to give young people practical skills and experience (e.g. coding, tinkering), but also persuade them to act on their ideas. This means instilling an entrepreneurial mindset: building confidence, encouraging a healthy attitude towards risk, and helping them think about what really creates value or solves problems for others. Programmes like Citrus Saturday (an experiential learning programme developed by University College London, aimed at teaching entrepreneurship and enterprise skills to young people around the world) are, in my opinion, very worthwhile. So for $10 million, I'd see whether we could create or expand an extra-curricular enterprise programme for children - with the ultimate aim of generating enough evidence to make it intra-curricular, in the way that digital skills have become. Chris Haley, Head of New Technology and Startup Research, Nesta
"Bring pop-up tech camps to life"
I would invest $10 million into bringing pop-up tech camps to life. I believe that young children should be given the freedom to create with, rather then be passive users of, technology. My pop-up tech camp vision would have a festival feel and would be open to all children, from all backgrounds. We'd partner with a range of organisations including libraries, makerspaces and public parks and kids would discover tech through workshops, talks and make-a-thons. They could even host their own creative tech parties! By celebrating technology and innovation in this way, we could empower kids to play, tinker and make with tech from an early age to help shape the world. Bethany Koby, CEO and Co-Founder, Tech Will Save Us
"Run innovation training for teachers in deprived areas"
There is a growing evidence base that kids who grow up being exposed to innovation are more likely to become inventors. Those from rich backgrounds have the role models and resources to innovate, whereas those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have access. So I’d put the $10 million to run innovation training for teachers in deprived areas so they have the resources, skills and network to nurture young innovators. For example, resources for teaching user-centered design and "how-to-guides" for interdisciplinary and cross curricular learning would make it easier for teachers to experiment in their classroom. This would support learners to think as innovators and help teachers build creativity, curiosity and empathy (essential skills for innovation) in their students. By linking teachers to businesses and universities, these networks can be instrumental in exposing students to innovators and getting learners excited about solving real-world problems; thereby bringing tangible purpose to academic learning and inspiring more children to become innovators later on in life. Joysy John, Director of Education, Nesta
There's still time to get tickets for IGL2018. Join senior policymakers, practitioners and researchers in Boston on 13-14 June or follow the conversation on Twitter #IGL2018.