Article and Video

Inclusion through digital co-creation

It is quite unusual that digital is used for social inclusion. Still, a social innovation initiative adapted from Canada does exactly that in a small town in the greater Paris area – helping early school leavers from deprived neighbourhoods to return to education (or find a job).

The challenge

Dropping out of school before attaining a qualification is a major risk facing many young people with less privileged social backgrounds. In addition to its immediate negative consequences, there is a strong correlation between educational attainment and longer term social outcomes. “People with only basic education are almost three times more likely to live in poverty or social exclusion than those with tertiary education”. (Source: EC Education and Training Monitor, 2017).

Gonesse is a small town of slightly over 26.000 inhabitants, located in the Roissy Pays de France Agglomeration. The number of people living in deprived neighbourhoods has risen significantly in recent years, and poor performance of students, early dropout from education and high unemployment are key issues facing the town. Being aware of the problem and its long-term implications, the local authority has made major efforts to address the challenge.

A solution imported from Canada

4 years ago, the Mayor of Gonesse, Jean-Pierre Blazy visited Canada to explore good practices for the integration of socially excluded young people. One of the examples was a non-profit computer repair shop that trained and employed school-dropouts and offered its services to the residents of the neighbourhood. While the basic concept and its results were promising, it was clear that a simple “copy-paste” approach was not going to work – the solution needed to be adapted to local circumstances.

So, instead of simply copying the Canadian good practice, the local authority used the basic concept as a framework and published a public procurement call to select an organization to remobilize school dropouts using digital solutions. The best proposal was submitted by two local NGOs focusing on social innovation – who were subsequently awarded the contract.

Kids lost and found

The selected NGO set up a “Fabrique Numerique”, a digital maker space – equipped with a wide range of digital and fabrication tools (including 3D printer, laser cutter, multimedia and robotics devices). This is where a somewhat unconventional training programme is delivered to the participants.

Since its inception in 2015, 5 five-month courses have been completed, each with 12 to 15 young people. Participants have been recruited through a communication campaign, involving social media and using the support of various local organizations working with young people.

“The selection criteria is simple”, explains Farah, the young programme manager. “We are looking for young people aged between 16 and 25, residents of Gonesse and the settlements around, and not attending any school. Motivation is key – we use tests, interviews and workshops to see their commitment level. Although it is not a must, we see best results with youngsters who have already participated in some form of mentoring / support process.

The groups are quite diverse,” she continues, “though most of the participants are boys between 18 and 22, who dropped out of schools because they did not like the school environment, the many theoretical subjects and the traditional way of teaching. Many of them come from poor families with uneducated, often unemployed parents, struggling with continuous financial difficulties. The groups are ethnically mixed, no single ethnic group has had a major weight in either of our groups so far. But one thing all of them have definitely in common is that they have lost their orientation – and it is our job to help them to find their way again.”

It is about co-creation and empowerment

Fabrique Numérique is not a typical school, though. Participants don’t learn for the sake of learning – they implement real-world projects: Learning new skills and developing new knowledge are positive side-effects.

When a new group starts its journey, they first receive an “order” from the local authority or from another local public institution. Examples of projects include video production, the design and printing of posters for local events or the development of websites for public institutions. Once the project is defined, the two trainers who will work with the group are selected. One of the participants is nominated as project leader, and the team – with the support of their trainers – prepares a detailed project plan. The plan includes not only the specific tasks to deliver, but also the steps necessary to develop the required skills and knowledge within the team. Depending on the needs, specialist trainers are also involved.

The team then handles every step of the process, from detailed definition of project content together with the client to the presentation through to delivery of project outputs. They don’t just carry out the technical tasks, they have meetings with the client, organize their own work, and solve problems that may come up in the course of implementation. So, often without realizing it, they learn valuable new knowledge and skills like video production, web development, 3D printing – plus team work, negotiation, project management and presentation skills. And, most importantly, they gain self-confidence.

“Most of the kids we work with are lost, with low self-esteem, when they first come to the Fablab”, tells Emmanuel, who participated in adapting and developing the concept. “They are also socially isolated, with no real friends, hanging out in the streets or spending their days at home with not much to do. After five months, however, they are completely different people with a new life: they are self-confident, happy young people with plans. Strong bonds are developed within the team, new friendships are formed. Just imagine: in 5 short months their whole life turns around!”

Examples of projects implemented so far

What do participants say

Annie, a 20-year-old girl:

“Before starting the Fabrique Numérique program, I was completely lost. I stopped my Beauty and Cosmetics apprenticeship and training because I was getting bored with all the needless subjects we were taught.

Then I applied for the Fabrique Numérique course. During my stay I designed a method to laser etch various graphics on artificial nails. After completing the program I participated in a work-linked training in hair-dressing. And right now I’m preparing myself with professional placements to take part in the national contest for French Best Apprentice.

What does this training helped me in? I’m definitely much more confident now, I’m less shy and I can work with teams. What I liked the most in this training was the fun atmosphere with the trainers – it was not at all like school.”

Quentin, a 28 year-old-boy:

“Before starting this training, I had some basic skills in social media but that’s all. The Fabrique Numérique programme helped me to develop my communication skills, storytelling, etc. During the training, we learn something everyday, it is very interesting. It helps us to have more self-confidence and to truly achieve something.”

Frederic, a 24 year-old-boy:

“Previously I was in a professional training but I didn’t get the diploma. I felt useless, and I did not want to go back to school after this experience.

The trainers at Fabrique Numerique gave us some keys to work as a team, we had to be very supportive and to work in close cooperation with one another. Everyone had particular tasks in each project, and everyone’s contribution was needed to complete the projects and deliver the products or services to the clients on time and in proper quality. There was time for fun and time for hard work.

Thanks to Fabrique Numerique, I got back on track: I am now in a linked-work training, I got my diploma (2 years after the bachelor’s degree), and I work in a company where I do network administration.”

Promising results

While the Fabrique Numerique is a digital fablab, digital is not the goal, it is just a vehicle for developing and empowering young people, as well as helping them to find their way. And it does so successfully, as early results show.

The staff does not lose contact with their “alumni”; in fact, they keep working together, mentoring and helping them to return to school or find a job. And most of them do: since 2015, the start of the programme, 5 classes graduated from the Fabrique Numerique, and the remobilization rate exceeds 90%, which is unprecedented. 70% of Fablab graduates have returned to education (55% to digital education, 45% other), and 20 % received their first job within 6 months after the end of the course.

Based on the results the local authority is committed to continue the programme, and they are also open to share their experiences with other cities that would like to learn from their example.

What can cities learn?

You need commited decision-makers!

It was the commitment of decision-makers – in this specific case the mayor himself – that made the Fabrique Numerique possible. Unfortunately, quite often good ideas that address important urban challenges don’t come to fruition, because their advocates fail to convince decision-makers. Submitting fancy project proposals, however, do not create commitment; you need to clearly explain the challenge, the solution and its benefits – and seeing the solution working, talking to people implementing it is more convincing than any fancy presentation. In Gonesse, the mayor considered early school-leaving a major problem and wanted to find a solution – he even traveled to Canada to see the concept in action.

Do not copy-paste!

While I strongly believe that local authorities do not need to reinvent the wheel and that they can learn from each other (TechPlace is an initiative that fosters mutual learning and the sharing of good practices), simply copying solutions existing elsewhere in most cases does not work. Cities are very different even within Europe – so it is important to understand the concept and the approach – and then adjust it to the local environment. That’s exactly what the local authority of Gonesse did: instead of simply taking over the Canadian example, they involved experienced local stakeholders (using a competitive process) to adapt the concept and to make it work locally.

Delivering real-life projects, providing real services to real clients makes all the difference

Early school leavers drop out of school for various reasons – most of them, however, do not like the subjects they are supposed to learn, and / or the way they are taught. So any initiative aimed at remobilizing these kids and persuade them to return to school need to show that learning can be fun and useful, while also giving them the feeling of success.

One of the differentiating factor of the Fabrique Numerique approach is that participants work together to deliver real products or services to real clients, and they create value by applying immediately what they have learnt. Doing so not only teaches them that learning can in fact be useful, but also makes them more confident and make them feel as valuable members of the local community.

Digital is only a vehicle

Fabrique Numérique is a digital fablab – participants learn to use various digital tools and solutions to create value. Nevertheless, the goal is NOT to strengthen the digital literacy of the participants – it is to make them continue their education. As a positive side effect, however, their digital skills also improve considerably, which improves their labour market outlook AND contribute to the development of the digital economy.

Multistakeholder governance

Although Fabrique Numerique de Gonesse is built on a strong concept, works well and delivers results, it still can be improved. It is a municipal programme – subject to municipal bureaucratic rules, therefore, it lacks agility and flexibility, which would be crucial for its long term sustainability. So in the opinion of its founders it would probably work even more efficiently outside the municipality, under a multi-stakeholder governance structure.