“Inspiring computer hardware for young people in the developing world” – Yonatan Raz-Fridman at #qznextbillion

I’m spending the day at Quartz’s event “The Next Billion”. Here are my notes from the talk by Yonatan Raz-Fridman, looking at giving kids the building blocks to make computers.

“Inspiring computer hardware for young people in the developing world” – Yonatan Raz-Fridman

This talk was basically about two of my favourite things – computers and Lego. With a little mention of Minecraft too.

Only a couple of people in the Quartz audience put their hands up to admit that they knew how a computer works when Yonatan Raz-Fridman asked. And he said imagine the answer you’d get if you ask a bunch of nine year olds.

But he went on to talk about a workshop they’d held in a school, where using the Kano computer kit a bunch of nine year olds very quickly built their own computers.

Yonatan said that one kid in the class told him that adults treat kids like they are incapable, but “today we made a computer! We must be super kids!”

Yonatan went on to ask who is “the next billion”? Is it the billion people at the bottom of the pile, who don’t even have clean water? Or is it a billion children around the world, in places like China and India, who will grow up and start using the internet as they mature.

The Kano computer kit can take anywhere between a couple of minutes and twenty minutes to build – the record is 102 seconds – and it is a set of components that fit together like Lego.

It uses an Open Source Linux, and Yonatan said it makes a huge difference to what the kids can do. They can play Minecraft with code, he said, so instead of building a tower in five hours, they can do it in five minutes because they do it with the code.

We live in a world of ubiquitous connectivity – well at least in London we mostly do – so it is difficult to imagine the transformative power bits of technology can make.

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Yonatan introduced us to Kelvin Doe from Freetown in Sierra Leone via a brilliant photo of him holding up his “Bee-Man Lion Generator”, whatever that was. He’d scavenged bits of electronic components and started build stuff, making his own radio station among other inventions.

Yonatan explained that for Kelvin, connectivity really means “how can I improve the lives of my family and community.”

Kelvin told Yonatan he was proud to be poor, because it has given him an understanding of what things are worth.

Yonatan has worked with him with the hope that it will teach Kano how to empower these types of children all across the developing world.

I do worry about the locked-down nature of things like the app eco-system from Apple et al denying kids the chance to mess about with code the way I was easily able to with my trusty ZX Spectrum back in the eighties. My five year old daughter doesn’t even recognise a PC tower and keyboard and monitor as being a computer, because she mostly experiences “computers” as the iPad and PlayStation and daddy’s laptop.

The key thing for this generation is learning by doing. Yonatan quoted a six year old talking about how to build computers: “No one should teach me – I should do it myself like Lego”

Amen to that.

Read all of my posts about Quartz’s “The Next Billion”:
What makes video go viral in emerging markets?” – Cat Jones
Providing free ad-supported mobile internet access for the next billion” – Nathan Eagle
Inspiring computer hardware for young people in the developing world” – Yonatan Raz-Fridman

Your next ride – Uber in emerging markets” – Jambu Palaniappan
The VPN effect and the web’s missing billion” – Jason Mander