Engaging Students for More Inclusive Social Change: Latitudes and “TechforGood”
Written by Cayanne Chachati and Thomas Coppel, summer interns in the OECD’s Inclusive Growth unit
How can the digital and engineering skills taught at university be harnessed for greater social impact? One group of engineering and IT students from the French higher education and research institution CentraleSupélec came together to create Latitudes, a non-profit that helps students use innovative means to promote inclusive growth.
The six founders were initially all classmates in “Projets Innovation”, a course which provides a platform for students to work on innovative solutions to global problems. During the course, they became particularly inspired by a study conducted by Ipsos, the Boston Consulting Group and the Conférence des grandes écoles in 2016. The study found that while 50 percent of students studying engineering and IT expressed an interest in working in the public sector on social and economic change, only 20 percent knew exactly what that entailed, since their curricula were not designed in a way that encouraged them to pursue that path.
Recognizing the impact that technology can have on society, the students wondered how they could harness it for the greater good. As Augustin Courtier, one of the co-founders asked, “if technology is everywhere, changing our means of consumption, education and communication… Why can it not also be there to combat poverty, ameliorate democracy, reduce inequality between men and women, and facilitate equal opportunities at school?”
The students decided to capitalize on engineering and IT students’ passion for innovation and to highlight the applicability of their skills in promoting social change. Hence, their slogan “Tech for Good”. With this in mind, they developed a simple two-step strategy:
- Collaborate with Master-level professors in engineering and IT schools to develop and teach a curriculum that promotes the use of IT and development skills in the context of social entrepreneurship.
- Introduce social entrepreneurship projects in the curriculum and collaborate with schools to set aside time for students to apply their new social entrenpeurship skills and promote social change.
And then, they took a leap of faith. A first trial – called Latitude Zero – was run with 30 students of Centrale Supélec in September 2016, in collaboration with several Ecuadorian social entrepreneurs. One project entailed helping to develop an Ecuadorian online learning platform, Cuestionarix, designed to assist senior high-school students in completing their baccalaureat. It was a positive experience for both the entrepreneurs and the French students. As Pierre Ségonne, a CentraleSupélec student and Latitude Zero participant, said, “working with Ecudorians enriched us culturally, and the technology-intensive project was a formative experience”.
By January 2017, 20 students from CentraleSupélec were working together on 14 new Latitude projects: 7 in collaboration with their Ecuadorian partners from Latitude Zero and 7 aimed at improving social well-being in France. The latter included Reconnect, a project in France in collaboration with Groupe SOS that protects the private information of homeless people in a digital safe. The students developed a mobile application to allow homeless people to upload their documents directly from a smartphone device. Another project in collaboration with Tributerre focused on developing a compost meter to facilitate and encourage compost in France. Students worked on creating a web interface to help clients in their use of the meter. Eventually, Latitudes undertook two successful trials with four other schools: Centrale Lille, ESIEA, ENSAE Paris Tech, IESA Multimedia. These collaborations involved 412 students and supported 56 projects.
With all the positive feedback, the founders decided to further expand their reach. At the 2018 Toqueville Challenge, hosted at the OECD, they passionately presented their vision for a more inclusive world. The jury awarded the Latitudes team 5,000 euros to advance their initiative within other schools. The founders hope to have implemented their programme in 25 new schools and universities around France by January 2021.
“Changing the technology narrative and embracing innovation”, Darlene Damm, on the OECD Forum Network, 27 November 2017.