The Child Innovator: Looking to Kids for Tomorrow’s High-Tech Gadgetry

We all know there’s a huge industry built around the child consumer. Design and technical innovation abound—from toys and bedroom furniture to school supplies and sports gear.

But traditionally, we’ve rarely given children the opportunity to innovate for themselves, and we haven’t often asked for their opinion on how real-world products or processes could or should work.

But Western society—and America in particular—is becoming more child centered, moving away from the belief that children should be seen and not heard. This spells a new opportunity to give back to children both their voice and the tools and skills necessary to innovate well into the future.

A recent article in Fast Company argues that kids, if given the chance, can bring a fresh perspective on design and technology, providing designers with new tools to approach age-old problems. And I couldn’t agree more.

We have a generation of electronic- and cyber-savvy kids who can surf the world before they’re allowed to ride bikes around the block. It’s given them a global perspective well beyond their community, connecting them to a world that can challenge them to think about how products and services could be developed and provided.

Take a recent dinner conversation I had with my own 10-year-old twins. They were pretty psyched to share their design concept for an electronic desktop for schools, which they compared to an oversized Nook or iPad.

The desks, they informed me, would be interactive and allow kids to communicate with teachers and students across the globe. According to them, the electronic desktop would get rid of the dreaded take-home folder because letters for parents and parent signatures could be shared and collected via a portal. The desk would call up links to tutorials when extra help is needed or a teacher is busy with another student, and include all textbooks with corresponding graphics and videos.

In addition, with the new electronic desktop, kids could sign up for daily lunches, plan afterschool activities and more easily engage in competitive school games (math, social studies, general trivia) with others around the world.

And finally, the “MOST COOL” feature of the desktop would be a connection between it and home computers so there’d be no need to lug things back and forth in an oversized, heavy backpack.

One firm, Latitude Research, is attempting to harvest these kinds of ideas for tomorrow’s innovation. Latitude is an international consulting firm that offers creative research around content, technology and learning to uncover emerging trends and new user behaviors.

It recently completed a multi-phase innovation study, “Children’s Future Requests for Computers and the Internet, which asked more than 200 kid-innovators across the world, ages 12 and under, this question: “What would you like your computer or the Internet to do that it can’t do right now?”

Here are some of the responses:

“I’d like to touch the things that are in the screen – feel and move them.”

“The computer becomes three-dimensional and, instead of a keyboard, it’s controlled by voice.”

“I want an interface where we can search, not by text, but by drawing – and get image results with that particular shape or pattern.”

“A laptop that can be used outside and charged by the power of the sun.”

Another research project by Latitude is Trash to Treasure, which asks children ages six to 12 around the world to think about important waste management, pollution, and sustainability issues, and to draw their solutions for reducing, reusing and recycling.

Technical innovators and designers should be paying attention to conversations like this one, and to the ones we all have with our kids around the dinner table.

I’m pretty sure we’ll be seeing that interactive electronic desktop on the market in the not too distant future.

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