Last weekend, I saw the future.

Oh, I haven’t witnessed a miracle, I haven’t had a vision of the world in 50 years, I did not have a religious epiphany or discover the secret of science fiction.  No, I have seen young people full of curiosity and imagination.

I was at a conference, but it didn’t happen at the conference.  It happened before I got to the conference and after I left the conference.

On the flight to the conference, I had a window seat.  The middle seat was taken by a little boy called Maxie, probably 6 or 7 years’ old.  I offered him my seat, which he was eager to take and sit by the window.  His mother was with an 8 months’ old baby and wanted to remain next to the aisle so that she could get up, stretch or pass the baby to her husband.  So, for three hours, I sat next to a six-year-old who had no one to whom he could talk apart from me.  The curiosity and imagination of a first-grader are apparently boundless.  He told me his life story, all the places where his teacher had lived, explained about their holiday in Sardinia and taught me all about different types of whales.  He questioned me about everything and nothing – in particular, I had to dredge up whatever memories and notions I had of Queen Victoria and the royal family, how many rooms (and toilets!) there might be in Buckingham Palace and so many other topics I don’t remember.  He was a wonderful little guy and made my flight quite tiring but so interesting and fun.

The never-ending curiosity about all things is one of the most beautiful peculiarities of children.  At the same time, one has to be concerned about the complete trust they place in the answers received.

After the conference, I got the opportunity to visit a local coding club.  Youngsters between the ages of 14 and 18 presented something on which they had been working: a program to manage genetic engineering!

Based on a document that appeared to be an automated translation from Russian into English, these young Romanians needed to understand the project.  They then proceeded to learn about genetic engineering, CRISPR and the PAM sequence; they had to learn how to identify the DNA structures that they were supposed to locate, how to isolate strings and extract RNA from DNA.  They studied Python programming and built a solution.  All this was completed within one month, after which they had to submit their proposal to the competition organisers.

Their solution was submitted less than 15 minutes left before the deadline and accepted by the organisers as a valid approach.  They have now moved on to the next phase, building up their in-vitro demonstrations of the technology before they go to Moscow to present the final solution to the jury.

Seeing the interest, the curiosity and the willingness to learn of all these young people was a very humbling experience for me.  Frequently, young people are seen as having insufficient motivation or interests, more focus on their phones and having fun; frequently they are even considered as being addicted to computers or… let me call them “various substances”.  This group of young people demonstrated the joy of discovery and learning.  With little outside support, they motivated themselves to achieve what many adults would have abandoned as an impossible situation.

The boy on the plane was motivated solely by curiosity and the pleasure of knowing things, but he was the kind of boy who had the opportunity to grow into someone like the young people at the computer club.

These young people had managed to combine, alone and in a very short time, many skills that one would expect to see in the business world.

  • Organisation: they got themselves organised as an integrated team in which they could best use the skills of each individual and collaborate to deliver the result.
  • Learning: they took the time to truly understand every aspect of the job that needed doing. From a dubious translation, they went beyond just implementing the requirements to make sure that they understood the industry, the technology, the needs and expectations of the organisers of the event.
  • Control: while delivering a project only a few minutes before the deadline is not necessarily something I would recommend, the manner in which they managed to develop, test and correct the product within the required time frame demonstrates a level of control rarely seen in professional contexts. One of the young people told me that when they discovered, with only a few hours left, that the system was not working, they decided that “they didn’t have time to panic”, they just got down to work, researched, identified and fixed the problem instead.
  • Creativity: when trying to solve a problem that like this, a creative approach to developing a valid solution is indispensable. One of the advantages of youth is that you do not yet know what cannot be done, so you can focus on getting it done without complaining that it’s not possible.
  • Engineering: this project was, first and foremost, an engineering project. It involved basic engineering practices and, without having a manager telling them what to do, they implemented the fundamentals of engineering.

Seeing these young people at work gives me great hope for the future.  I hope that they never lose their curiosity, their willingness to ask questions, their ability to learn, create and grow.

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