Griffin Latulippe doesn’t quite fit into the mold of an average high school student. He is leading a talented team of students in developing assistive technology devices to help people with disabilities gain independence and ease of mobility and has recently incorporated InvenTech Enterprises as a social purpose business.
Although other companies may be hesitant to innovate in this space due to its low profit potential, Latulippe’s team has already produced impressive results. They developed Easy Access Transport System (E.A.T.S.) to improve upon the ease with which a person in a wheel chair could store and access his or her belongings. They followed up with the Walken, a motorized walker that helps the person climb up and down stairs. Both inventions placed in the top five at the National Engineering Design Challenge in Washington, D.C.
Latulippe and four others were recently selected finalists in the Technology for a Better World campaign as part of Ashoka’s Youth Venture’s partnership with Best Buy, Inc. The campaign focused on unleashing the ingenuity of young people in the United States to improve global sustainability through the application of technology. It’s intriguing to see such young people already making a big impact on the world. However, it’s hard to imagine why more aren’t doing the same since the evolution of technology has democratized social impact.
Take thirteen-year-old Fabian Fernandez-Han. He created an iPod/iPad/iPhone application called Oink-A-Saurus to increase financial literacy among his peers. He won the New York Stock Exchange Financial Future Challenge for this innovative application when he was just twelve years old.
Or meet Jonny Cohen. He created GreenShields to make school buses more aerodynamic and fuel efficient and he is only fifteen. He won a $25,000 grant from the Pepsi Refresh Project and is currently working with engineering students from Northwestern University to implement his plan.
And Joyce Yan is building an ever-growing list of accomplishments including her plan to develop a mobile application for data collection and analysis to increase effectiveness of aid agencies.
McKenzy Haber is the organizer for TEDxHomer Teens that connects passionate young environmentalists and policy leaders around the world for exchanging ideas on environmental sustainability. The event connected 140 Alaskans and streamed to a global audience of 1,800 people. He also delivered an impassioned address at the 9th World Wildness Congress in Merida, Mexico asking, “If not me, who? If not now, when?” If you haven’t listened to it, you should. It is very inspiring.
It would seem as though I have portrayed these young changemakers as superheroes; however, I believe something else is at play.
Griffin Latulippe could have easily let muscular dystrophy – a condition that weakens the muscles that move the body – dictate his life but he turned his focus outward and harnessed the power of empathy to help others. It was his personal experiences with wheelchair storage access that inspired the concept and design for E.A.T.S. I have no doubt that Latulippe and the other finalists are just as intelligent and driven; however, I believe their use of empathy helped them innovate just as much as technology.
By claiming that Technology for a Better World winners are more empathetic compared to other young people, we would be missing the point. Technology may have enhanced their ability to produce social innovations but if they are the exception rather than the norm, it’s only because we have not yet figured out how to nurture a strong culture of empathy within our communities at an appropriately large scale. Technology for a Better World winners succeeded because they were able to work within such culture. By creating a norm of empathetic problem solving, we can begin to nurture a new generation of young people committed to social innovation.
So how can we ensure all young people develop a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of others? I believe that such cultural norm needs to be engendered by those closest to youths. Adults – such as parents, teachers, youth workers, and business leaders – can be great allies to their efforts to learn and understand challenges from multiple points of view. They could also encourage them to engage their community and challenge the status quo, thereby guiding them to imagine practical solutions that could be implemented. More importantly, schools and community institutions should be involved to create momentum and support for the ideas generated, as well as to promote and sustain a culture of social change. Few organizations are already leading initiatives to incorporate empathy into the education system such as Ashoka and Roots of Empathy. Technology for a Better World winners may have a strong support network, but many young people do not have access to these kinds of supportive adults and institutions.
We know that young people have the capacity to contribute to social change – demonstrated by Latulippe, Fernandez-Han, Cohen, Yan, and Haber. If changing the world – or rather being the change one wants to see in the world – is not the norm, then it is our challenge as a society to reengineer a new system. In order to develop a generation of changemakers, it is imperative that we put more effort towards engendering a culture of empathetic problem solving.
Many young people dream a lot – unhindered by practical limitations and social norms. But people like the Technology for a Better World winners are dreamers as well as doers. With powerful technologies at hand, they don’t wait for permission to do something and they don’t wait to grow up so that they could do important things.
If not now, when? Their future depends on it. And we need to support them.