What could you become?

At Digital Innovators, all our learners – and our team – are asked to complete a personality profile questionnaire. It’s our Starting PointTM for all our courses. But why does it matter?

We caught up with our founder for the lowdown.

Want to understand more about your strengths and career opportunities?

Sign up for our next Skills Bootcamp launching in September.

A look back at the Conrad Challenge

Today (21st August) marks the launch of the 2020-21 Conrad Challenge which brings back some great memories for many of us at Digital Innovators.

Two years ago, one of our project teams made it to the UK finals of the Conrad Challenge with their project on the Classroom of the Future. The team came up with lots of inspirational ideas which they presented at a major event in front of leading industry figures at the Excel Centre in London.

And the best bit?  Their presentation was on board a rocket that went up to the international space station!

Here’s a quick snapshot of their project.

The students in this video have all gone on to secure jobs, apprenticeships and further education opportunities. In fact, you might recognise one of the faces in this video – Chris is now doing a degree apprenticeship with Digital Innovators, working as a Junior Project Manager.

If you’d like the opportunity to work on an exciting project like this one, take a look at our skills bootcamps.

Finding the creative “sweet spot” with design thinking

The Digital Innovators Skills Programme gives students an immersive experience in what it is like to work with real employers on real projects. We don’t just teach skills such as design thinking, creativity and confidence building but give our students plenty of opportunity to put these skills into practice. We do this by asking employers for projects that they would like to carry out if only they had the time, money or resources to do so. After giving students a basic grounding in the skills mentioned (as well as many others) they work on these projects to practice and reinforce this learning.

Because we build project teams with students from a diverse range of backgrounds, having also assessed their strengths and personality types, we also find that the team as a whole is very much greater than the sum of the individuals working together. We find our students really do strike sparks off each other and usually end up building creative and innovative solutions to the problems proposed by employers. We see this as being our unique selling proposition (USP).

We find that the different techniques we teach really get a chance to fuse together when doing project work and often result in the creative “sweet spot” being found. Three techniques which seem to work well together are design thinking, having the creative confidence to explore ideas and the communication skills to explain and “sell” a potential solution.

Design thinking provides our students with a framework to understand the various factors that can result in turning a great idea into an even greater product or service. The diagram below is from the book Creative Confidence by Tom Kelly and David Kelly (founder of IDEO) and shows the relationship between three factors: people, business and technology.

Let’s look at each of these factors:

  • Technology: Coming up with a great idea that makes use of an innovative technology is all well and good but a cool technology alone is not enough. It has to be grounded in the realms of what is technically feasible. Jet backpacks have been mooted for quite some time now and although some companies are just starting to make them work they are probably still some time off being safe enough for a shopping trip to your local Sainsbury’s.
  • Business: Not only must the technology work, it also has to be built and distributed in a way that is economically viable. Taking a vacation in a hotel on the moon, although technically feasible, is unlikely to be a commercially viable proposition for some time to come.
  • People: The third factor of successful innovation is really understanding people beliefs, motivations and needs. Design thinking uses techniques such as empathy mapping and story boarding to understand people and explain ideas to them. Remember that sometimes of course, people don’t actually know what they need. As Henry Ford famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Design thinking is all about putting people at the centre of the innovation process. We provide our students with lots of tools and techniques for doing this as well as giving them the creative confidence to come up with ideas and presentation skills to explain their ideas and solutions to others. We’ll take a look at these, as well as other aspects of our skills programme, in future blog posts.

Photo by Hugo Rocha on Unsplash

Green projects to get a boost with students’ help

Digital Innovators is partnering with Solihull Chamber of Commerce to help businesses deliver environmental projects. 

Digital Innovators is offering businesses access to talented local students, who can help devise and implement environmentally friendly initiatives, such as those that reduce emissions and waste.

Businesses will have to commit up to 12 hours in eight weeks to work with the student team, and will not have to pay for support. 

The project is part of the Chamber’s EcoPledge initiative, launched by Chamber president Robert Elliot in the Spring. 

Solihull Chamber of Commerce’s EcoPledge urges businesses to make just one change to their practices in a drive to cut down emissions and bolster sustainability practices.

The  Chamber is encouraging local businesses to take advantage of students’ help via Digital Innovators. 

Digital Innovators specialises in providing young people with access to fulfilling career opportunities. Key to its programme is an eight week live business project which students work on in teams, responding to a brief from a local employer.

Digital Innovators aims to support 20 business projects from September. 

Digital Innovators founder, Mick Westman, and vice-president of Solihull Chamber of Commerce, said: “This is a win-win situation for local businesses, students participating on one of our courses, and the local environment. 

“Despite the additional challenges of coronavirus, the environment remains a key priority and is increasingly important to consumers as well as businesses. 

“By setting up a series of environmental projects supported by local businesses, we can help Solihull Chamber members fulfill their Eco Pledge commitment and give our students access to a number of new and challenging business projects from September 2020.”

Environmental projects are not new to Digital Innovators – previous students have developed a ‘Gener8 Door’ prototype where energy generated via a revolving door can be captured and used to power building lights. 

In another project, students developed a concept to capture energy from cars going over speed bumps to be used to power streetlights. 

Projects will be agreed with local businesses on a first come first served basis.

Robert Elliott, president of Solihull Chamber of Commerce, said:As president I have been committed to various initiatives.  None more so than Business Engaging with Education, and the EcoPledge.  

“This project combines both of these perfectly, and while also working with Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council and their four pillars of sustainability – Clean Growth, Clean Air, Nature Gain, Communication, Education and Engagement – it provides further proof that we can achieve so much more working together.  I sincerely hope students and businesses can benefit and wish everyone luck with their activities.”

For more information and to register your interest in an EcoPledge Project, email info@digitalinnovators.co.uk

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Powering up the West Midlands

Digital Innovators supports the WMCA Power-Up campaign

According to the West Midlands Combined Authority, 90% of jobs will require some sort of digital skills within the next 10 to 20 years.

The West Midlands has the fastest-growing digital sector outside London. The WMCA is encouraging individuals to think about beginning a career in digital and calling on companies to make sure their business has the digital skills to succeed. 

Digital Innovators is one to the training providers working with the WMCA to ensure the skills being taught match with what employers need. The Power Up Campaign covers roles as diverse as Software, Cyber and Data; Design, Information and Solutions; and Digital Marketing.

For more information about the training available to support some of these digital roles, take a look at our Digital Innovators Skills Programme or visit the WMCA Power Up website.

Graphic courtesy of West Midlands Combined Authority

Will coronavirus prompt a revolution in education?

Lockdown has caused the most dramatic change in education most of us have ever seen. As one of the parents suddenly expected to be teacher as well as mum, I was definitely daunted by the prospect, and it’s safe to say I miss the luxury of sending my kids to school. But recent weeks have given us all a chance to reflect on what is and isn’t working when it comes to traditional education – and it’s a discussion well worth having.

Just over a week ago I joined the Tortoise Media Education Summit, entitled ‘Is it time for a revolution in learning?’ The Summit brought together academics, teachers and students to discuss thorny issues such as ‘what should we teach?’ and ‘should we abolish exams?’ On the latter, the consensus seemed to be that exams have their place, but that we should look for a broader way of assessing capability and aptitude that would allow more equitable access to further education and career opportunities. 

I was particularly struck by an example given by Dylan William, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment, UCL. He explained that in 2001, Kings College London, one of the largest medical schools in Europe, was not receiving applications from three London communities. They opted to take a different approach to assessment, using science reasoning tasks to identify potential students. Those joining via the science reasoning route were then given some additional support to plug any gaps in science knowledge normally gained through A levels. By the end of the course, these students were indistinguishable from those that had followed the traditional academic route. This suggests that sticking rigidly to a ‘one size fits all’ approach means some talented young people are being overlooked.

This goes to the heart of what Digital Innovators is all about. Our course isn’t open to everyone, but neither is it accessed via academic qualifications. We are interested in an individual’s potential, which is why entry to our programme is based on psychometric-style questionnaires which look at innate skills and preferences. Are you open to ideas, willing to engage, keen to progress? Can you learn from and support your peers? Are you willing to fail as you learn to succeed? As it happens, many of the students on our courses have tended not to be the top academic performers, and yet they show their genius on a daily basis in how they approach the tasks we set.

Tapping into innate skills and interests

During the Summit, it was encouraging to hear so many people talking about the benefit of project-based learning and the importance of enabling learners to tap into their own interests to capitalise on their education. 

Spoken word artist, George the Poet, talked passionately about how, when studying for his GCSEs, he brought some of the content he was learning into the raps he was writing. He believes this contributed to him achieving straight As, despite lower grades for his mock exams. Certainly, embracing a more flexible, student-led approach is something I am learning to do during this period of home schooling. Getting my children to engage with a lifeless task in which they have little interest is an uphill struggle. But when it comes to topics they enjoy, or a teacher’s approach they respond well to, they’re producing great work independently and have the self-motivation to complete the task. 

So, how much of a student’s success is down to what we teach and, how much is down to how we teach it? With that in mind, as the government grapples with plans for education from September, are we focusing enough on how we could use social distance challenges to reinvent some of our teaching methods, rather than simply focusing on how we ensure students catch up on what they’ve missed? Could we even be so bold as to question whether some of this missed content is still relevant today?  As journalist and lecturer Peter Gumbelpointed out, our curriculum and teaching styles need to move with the times – learning facts and figures has its place, but it’s life skills, specifically social and emotional skills such as judgement and discernment, that will become increasingly important as automation grows. 

How we apply what we learn is another way that individuals can set themselves apart. That’s why the Digital Innovators Skills Programme puts so much emphasis on an eight-week live business project which allows students to test what they’ve learned and demonstrate their abilities directly to potential employers in a genuine work context. This is different from the standard approach to work experience, which, though positive, is sometimes unstructured or relies heavily on a company to find and manage suitable tasks on top of their busy workload. This can prevent both the employer and the student from fully reaping the benefits intended. Instead, Digital Innovators invites businesses to share a real project or challenge with us, and our students work in project teams to tackle those challenges, with a clear brief, timeline and set of outcomes. It’s a concept that is proving popular and has led to many students securing roles with the businesses they’ve completed projects for.

Revolution or evolution?

Should we abolish exams? Is the education system broken? These are not questions with yes or no answers, but they are important issues to debate. There is still much that is positive about the national curriculum, and exams do teach important skills, but both have limitations and we should not be afraid to challenge convention.

What the pandemic has taught us is that the skills we need can change dramatically overnight. We owe it to our young people to teach them resilience, adaptability, and flexibility, and give them more opportunities to demonstrate what they are capable of. That way, they will be better equipped to help our economy pivot and thrive whatever future challenges we may face.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

How three countries led me to Digital Innovators

Despite the challenges of being caught up in lockdown in Spain, I’ve made an exciting – if remote – start to my career, working for a company that is all about helping young people succeed! Some months ago, I was about to finish my postgraduate degree in International Heritage Management at the University of Birmingham. It was then that I started wondering about the career possibilities that I could follow and where I could be located. I already had a degree in Journalism and Mass Media Communications in Greece but I didn’t have a clear career path in mind. 

After my graduation I returned to Greece and then Spain where I stayed during the Coronavirus pandemic. There I started blogging and created a personal website as a way of stepping outside my comfort zone (this weird “box” that many of us are trapped in). I realised that working as part of a team and in favour of meaningful purposes is a great guideline for my career. We often find ourselves wondering what the next step might be – it doesn’t matter if you are 14 or 30: sometimes a new beginning comes from being ambitious and trying different things.

Meanwhile, I was experiencing Spain’s lockdown and I wanted to return to the UK. Despite the pandemic and Brexit, I wanted to put into practice everything that I had learned in British academia in a relevant environment and place. I was aware that the University of Birmingham offered a variety of internships, named “Impact Internships”. Through my research, I ended up choosing Digital innovators, who offered 50 days internship experience.. It was an easy choice because their business model seemed to support all the elements that I was looking for in a job.  The position’s title advertised was ‘Industry Placement Coordinator’, and although I was not yet familiar with the full story behind it I was convinced by the requirements of the job. Collaboration with partners, being a part of a team, assisting young people discovering themselves, and their interests and supporting students and coaches with the project management. Maybe the last part was the one that drew my attention more because it included communication with people that would develop various skills and needed to find the motivation to work on different projects. I immediately applied and some weeks later I received an invitation from the team for an interview. Over the next few weeks many (remote) meetings took place.  

And now, here I am, finishing my first week at Digital Innovators! Working for a startup is a great and interesting challenge where all the members of the team need to discover alternatives together. I had previous experience working for a London based startup but Digital Innovators have already achieved so many things in less than 3 years. Three countries and a week later I can say that I am very glad for being a part of this digital community where many things can be explored!

What I have learned during all these years and experiences is that being ambitious, disciplined, and open to new opportunities can be a great guideline for our lives.  At the University of Birmingham, I learned to be disciplined following specific projects and one of the things that I would like to develop in Digital Innovators is the ‘design thinking’ that we focus on. I will try to express how theory can be turned into action that can be implemented on projects. In Digital Innovators there is a diverse environment of people with different skills and a meaningful goal and approach to facilitate the career prospects of young people. That is why I am excited to be a part of this team and at the same time ready to help young people fulfil their greatest ambitions. 

The tools we use

There is a question often asked about photographers which is why do they spend so much time looking at, comparing and then buying the latest camera or lens when virtually no other artist indulges in such pursuits but instead focuses on the art itself. After all, painters do not spend hours scouring brochures looking at the latest paintbrush or easel? They might regularly buy new brushes but they are a mere tool, to be discarded once the artwork is created and the brush is worn out. Don McCullin, the social documentary and war photographer, famously said in his book The Destruction Business:

“I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush. It does the job.”

Don McCullin, Photographer

This nicely places the camera where it should be, as a tool to get the job done. The sad fact is, if you like buying shiny new gadgets, whether they be cameras, laptops or even the latest silver Mont Blanc pen (or “writing instrument” as they prefer it to be known), there is no correlation between creativity and equipment cost or quantity. As Hugh MacLeod says in his book Ignore Everybody:

“A fancy tool just gives the second-rater one more pillar to hide behind.”

Hugh MacLeod, Artist and Blogger

The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson used a battered old Leica to create most of his iconic images whilst the author Ernest Hemingway used an old Corona No. 3 portable typewriter to write his novels.

Henri Cartier Bresson’s Leica. Photo by Stewart Wallace
Ernest Hemmingway’s Corona Typewriter

What this comes down to is, you can have the best tools in the world but if you don’t use them to ‘deliver’ then they are nothing more than a useless pile of physical or digital garbage. True creatives know how to use tools effectively but they are not slaves to them. Success as a creative person means recognising the pillars that Hugh MacLeod mentions and getting rid of them in favour of delivering what they need. To quote MacLeod again:

“Good pillar management is one of the most valuable talents you have on the planet. All we can do is keep asking the question, ‘Is this a pillar?’ about every aspect of our business, our craft our reason for being alive, and go on from there”

Hugh MacLeod, Artist and Blogger

There is an apocryphal tale, often shared by photographers, which goes something like this…

A well known photographer is invited to a dinner party. When she arrives the host says to her, “I’m so glad you could make it, I absolutely love your work and think your photographs are amazing. You must have a really good camera?” The photographer smiles and nods her head. At the end of the evening as the they are all parting company the photographer turns to her host and says, “That was a lovely evening and your meal was amazing. You must have a really good cooker”.

In other words, whilst our tools may be very, very good in terms of what they can do, it still requires a creative person who can use them and to draw out the best of their capabilities. It is the creative that “delivers”, not the tool.

We also need to remember that if we are not careful our behaviours, our attitudes and even our personalities can become shaped, not always for the good, by our tools. If you use a tool frequently enough it can become plugged into your consciousness in ways you may not realise. How many of us have become slaves to the modern day menace of email where we think we are “working” simply because we have cleared our inbox for the day? Better make sure then that when we select our tools we do it for the right reasons which is they will assist us in doing our jobs and not take over our lives.

The Jesuit priest and media scholar John Culkin prophetically said in 1967: “We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.” What he meant by this was, although we think we create tools to help us, pretty quickly those same tools take over our lives and control how we behave. Think how the motor car over a period of 100 years or so, whilst an incredibly useful tool, now dictates so much of our lives from how we design our cities through to how we now have to deal with their environmental impact.

As a final thought on the importance of the tools we use it’s worth considering this. Homo sapiens today dominate the planet not just because any individual person is smarter or more dextrous than other animals but because humans are the only species on earth capable of cooperating in large numbers, most times with complete strangers. We have learnt how to create communication tools (the motor car, the aeroplane, the computer and the World Wide Web) that enable us to communicate on a massive scale. As the historian Yuval Noah Harari says in his book Home Deus (p153):

“If humans had not learned to cooperate flexibly in large numbers, our crafty brains and deft hands would still be splitting flint stones rather than uranium atoms.”

Yuval Noah Harari, Historian

Today, co-operation between humans is more important than ever. If we are to solve problems like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change then we must be joining together and making more and better use of the tools we use.

Job skills that will help you succeed in a post-coronavirus world

There can be no doubt that in a very short space of time our workplaces have changed, possibly forever. As a consequence, we are already seeing a shift in the essential skills we will all need.

With companies like Twitter, Square and Facebook telling their employees that working from home could now be permanent, whether or not a Covid-19 vaccine can be found, some form of remote working is likely to become the “new normal” for many. A recent report from GitLab found that 84% of the employees it surveyed said that they could accomplish all of their tasks remotely and 86% see remote work as the future.

Worryingly, the job market, for young people especially, is likely to contract massively over the next 12 months as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. As this House of Commons report highlights, some workers are disproportionally economically impacted by the outbreak. Low paid workers are more likely to work in shut down sectors and less likely to be able to work from home. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, one third of employees in the bottom 10% of earners work in shut down sectors, and less than 10% of the bottom half of earners say they can work from home.

There can be little doubt that people are going to have to develop new skills to cope with changing working environments. So what are these skills, how can you acquire them and where does Digital Innovators fit in?

Let’s start with a few from Bernard Marr highlighted in this article.

Creativity & Innovation

This is something employers are going to need more than ever. It is no longer going to be good enough just to turn up, do your job and go home again (especially if your home and workplace are one and the same). You will need to know not just how to use digital technology, but how to apply technology in new and interesting ways to solve some of the world’s most wicked problems.

Critical Thinking

In a world that is seemingly awash with fake news and dodgy data, the skills to be able to question the ‘facts’, make proper use of data, understand how bias affects what people say or do, and sometimes just to ask why, is more important than ever.

Lifelong Learning

Technology is changing so rapidly no one can be certain they will be doing the same job in the same way for the same employer in five, or maybe even two, years time. The knowledge that students learn at college and university now has a short shelf-life and learning needs to become a lifelong ambition if we are to keep our skills current and to be effective in our jobs. Happily we live in a time where it has never been easier to learn new skills through a multitude of different online websites.

Tech Saviness

It is vitally important that we all have an understanding of new and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things, blockchain and virtual reality if we are to understand:

  • how to use these technologies to solve problems
  • when and how they may usurp our current jobs.

Whilst you don’t actually need to know how to build solutions using such technologies, understanding them will help you differentiate yourself in the job market.

Digital Innovators would add the following essential skills that you need to develop if you are to thrive in a post-coronavirus job market.

Design Thinking

Design thinking is an approach to problem solving that puts users at the centre of the solution. It includes proven practices such as building empathy, ideation, storyboarding and extreme prototyping to create new products, processes and systems that really work for the people that have to live with and use them.


Coping with change and having strategies in place to deal with stress and working in new, different and more flexible ways is becoming essential. Developing resilience and knowing when to call on others for help and guidance is one of the key skills we teach.

Communication Skills

Effective communication skills, whether they be written spoken or aural, as well as the ability to present ideas well, have always been important. In a world where we are increasingly communicating through a vast array of different channels, we need to adapt our core communications skills to thrive in a virtual as well as an offline environment.

Digital Ethics

The ethical aspects on the use of digital technology in today’s world is something that seems to be sadly missing from most courses in digital technology. We may well churn out tens of thousands of developers a year, from UK universities alone, but how many of these people ever give anything more than a passing thought to the ethics of the work they end up doing? Is it right, for example, to build systems of mass surveillance and collect data about citizens that most have no clue about? Having some kind of ethical framework within which we operate is more important today than ever before.

At Digital Innovators, we have recently announced our new Skills Programme, for which is being supported by the West Midlands Combined Authority, and will equip trainees with all of the above skills, and more, to improve your job opportunities as well as strengthening your CV.

If you are interested in finding out more you can register your details here.

Photo by David Wheater on Unsplash. Creative effects by the author.