After submitting a project proposal to the Innovations Lab (By Youth For Youth projects), a Kosovo youth (DR) asked: so what exactly is the Innovations Lab again? Since I have been trying to articulate it concisely, I felt I should share it on the blog. So what follows is a whirlwind tour of our thinking regarding what the Innovations Lab1 is all about.
Process The Innovations Lab provides a process (frame?) for youth in Kosovo through which to enact projects that benefit other youth in Kosovo. The process/frame that we are beginning with is described below, and we will be iterating based on feedback from lab members and other youth here (and you, if you have any to share):
- Youth apply to the Innovation Lab with a “project proposal,” which is usually team-based, but can be individual too.
- Accepted project participants become “members” of the Innovations Lab, and meet each other as soon as projects are approved. Projects are reviewed every month.
- The Innovations Lab members work on their projects, inside and outside the physical lab.
- Every two weeks, all members that can come (including at least one member per project) gather for an “Innovations Cafe”. The idea is to share progress with others and bounce around ideas in an informal atmosphere. We are also considering to make this a space in which newcomers interested in finding out more about the lab can come, hang out, and develop ideas.
- Every two months, all projects present to a public audience their projects and progress in the last two months. The public audience will consist of other youth, organizations and institutions that work with youth, as well as the general public.
I realize that youth interested in projects will not be focused on process as much as we are, but we want to make sure there is continued engagement by the youth with each other, the lab, as well as the general public.
I think it will also be helpful for the lab members to have regular deadlines and milestones to make sure their projects are moving. What I like about the events (which help track progress) we have planned is that they involve reporting to peers and the public rather than to an institution. I hope this helps youth be productive without being threatened or becoming too institutional.
Support The Innovations Lab provides support to Kosovo youth to do projects. This includes not only (first and foremost) mentorship, but also equipment and infrastructure, the Innovations Lab space, a small budget, links to institutions national and international, as well as “credibility” and institutional backing.
Mentorship I consider mentorship one of the most fundamental parts of the Innovations Lab. The Innovations Lab provides mentors to help youth enact their vision. The mentors help youth articulate ideas into projects, provide feedback to the projects every step of the way, help lab members set realistic expectations as and help measure themselves. The mentors also push the lab members as both idea generators and as doers.
Equipment and Infrastructure The lab will have computers, mobile phones, GPS devices, cameras/videocameras, and other equipment youth may need to engage in projects. In addition, we will also build up “informational infrastructure” in the form of easy web hosting, access to SMS gateways, and/or software to do projects. This infrastructure will probably be built as needed (I am personally a fan of airplanes that are built as they are flying).
Space In addition to the equipment, there will be creative physical space in the Innovations Lab. This includes whiteboards, movable sticky notes and markers, couches to ruminate on, some carpet space to spread papers on, and other physical facilities that encourage creativity.
Budget Many projects will need modest budgets to get started, and we have funding for upto 5,000 Euros for each project. We are currently requiring lab members to work voluntarily, and this budget to be used only for supporting costs.
One worry I have is that Innovations Lab projects may become more about getting this money than developing and implementing innovative ideas to serve Kosovo youth. The current batch of proposals (and perhaps the volunteer clause?) has assuaged my fears considerably, but this is a concern worth mulling over my entire time here.
Links to Kosovo’s Institutions The short of this is that a recent opinion poll showed a majority of youth in Kosovo feeling “little” or “not at all” say in decisions that affect them. Many of Kosovo’s institutions, on the other hand, seem to be looking for youth (and child) engagement and participation. We are hoping Innovations Lab public events are one way youth will communicate with Kosovo institutions, and that other avenues will come up as the Innovations Lab progresses.
Credibility and Institutional Backing One of the first round of project applicants will be dealing with her municipality government if her project is accepted. In order for her to talk to the municipality as a “young person with a project idea,” she gets credibility and institutional backing through the Innovations Lab.
International Links Another thing the Innovations Lab will provide is a link for Kosovo youth to others around the world doing similar things. The MIT Media Lab’s Department of Play, which develops tools for youth and children to participate in civic matters using technology, is one example of an International project we will collaborate with. Linda Raftree and Plan’s YETAM (although they don’t know it yet) will likely be another.
A Focus on Technology
Last, and perhaps the least, the Innovations Lab will encourage a focus on technology. It is absolutely crucial for Kosovo’s young people to engage each other in technologically mediated forms. They can and should (and already) tap into global collaborative communities that build open source software. They can and should (and already) embrace mobile phones as more than just a communication device. They can and should (and already) take control of social networks and social media like Twitter/Facebook/YouTube/whatever to organize, mobilize, record, and converse.
How much we will push these technological possibilities is a part of another larger question we are facing in the Innovations Lab (for another day, but the gist is: what is the right balance between the ideas of youth and our ideas about what youth should be focused on), but suffice it to say that we will be thinking hard about how to get Kosovo’s youth to engage more with open source, mobile, and social technologies.
So, there you have it! A distillation of much of my thoughts about how to get Kosovo youth to innovate for Kosovo youth. Much of this thought is built on the whole team’s work as well, so credit where credit is deserved. All problematic issues, I take responsibility for.
Please, as always, feel free to leave suggestions, comments, nitpicks, and corrections
 – The “Innovations Lab” is made of two parts, as I explained before. But throughout this article, and perhaps in the future as well, I may be sloppy, and use “Innovations Lab” to refer to the By Youth For Youth projects at the lab. This is because this is the more public facing part of the lab, as well as the part we are getting started on first. Apologies about the sloppiness.