Unleashing the power of a million innovative minds

Omar Ali 1
Article by: Omar Ali
Unleashing the power of a million innovative minds

Chris, Raza, and Jean were among the 600 inventors who congregated in cities all over the globe last November to address water-related issues. Honing in on worsening droughts, the Dubai-based trio envisioned and prototyped a robot that would extract water from space meteors before transporting it back to Earth.


While their peers looked to the skies to tackle water scarcity, some designers in Florida conceived a prototype to mitigate damage from extreme flooding brought on by climate change. Andrew, Nicholas, and Gabriela's “Home Elevation System” introduced telescoping stilts to the coastal homes most prone to flooding, especially those whose fixed stilts had been failing to protect against rising water levels each year.


At this point, you might imagine that these proposals came from engineers at NASA or perhaps students at MIT. But what if I told you they came from groups of children between the ages of 8 and 12? This sort of remarkable ambition isn’t entirely uncommon for Designathon Works, an organization striving to unleash the creativity of one million children around the world.


“Children have more to bring to the table than most people expect,” says impact designer Emer Beamer, who hatched the idea for Designathon Works while completing THNK's Executive Program in 2012.

Designing for Impact

Since its launch, Designathon Works has captivated the hearts and minds of thousands. Take, for instance, their annual flagship event, the Global Children’s Designathon (GCD). In only three years, this event has not only managed to spread to 18 cities, attracting kids from some 25 countries, it’s equipped them with the knowledge and tools to develop hundreds of ingenious inventions solving all sorts of problems.

This year’s water theme inspired 170 interventions focused on flooding, droughts, habitat endangerment, and pollution. Think about that for a second –– 170 prototypes just like Chris, Raza, Jean, Andrew, Nicholas, and Gabriela’s!

“If you look at the research we did across 18 cities, adults are consistently surprised at the level of knowledge, ideas, and engagement that children have with big world issues.” Yet, for Emer, today’s outmoded educational systems simply aren’t devoting the resources necessary to empower 2 billion school-age kids around the globe to solve social problems with creativity and empathy.

''If we continue to put children in a box that’s too small for their abilities, we’re going to have a very doomed society one day.'' – @EmerBeamer, founder of @Designathons'' Click To Tweet

“If we continue to put children in a box that’s too small for their abilities, we’re going to have a very doomed society one day. We’d like to reframe the way the world sees children,” Emer tells me.

Rather than bombarding kids with lectures, facts, and standardized tests (which reinforce the idea that there’s only one correct answer to each problem we encounter), Designathon Works favors an approach where kids invent, build, and present self-devised solutions to social or environmental issues. In addition to the GCD, the Designathon methodology manifests in school programs, teacher trainings, and other bespoke organizational events.

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“We would like no one in the world to die from thirst,” said one young inventor in Milan as he huddled with his peers around a table to develop ideas for possible interventions.

Co-created Curriculums, Co-Delivered Designathons

Anne Sallaerts was going through the Executive Program in 2016 when she met Emer. Upon realizing that the two shared a common purpose, Emer decided to bring Anne into Designathon Works to serve as Managing Partner. At the time, Designathon was being run solely by Emer and her other business partner, Creative Director Ina Conkic.

“The whole idea of casting the right team –– that’s something I learned at THNK… Finding people with a shared mission allows you to move together, which obviously lets you achieve so much more,” says Emer.

Replacing the traditional one-way knowledge transfers found in most schools today, Emer, Anne, and the rest of their team gathered key insights from design thinking and the “Maker Education” curriculum before synthesizing a unique learning model which places critical thinking, collaboration, and hands-on creation at its core.

“We first share information about the challenge topics. After identifying the component problems and exposing the children to an array of unusual solutions, we invite them to think big… but that part seems very easy for them to do!”

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''Adults are consistently surprised at the level of knowledge, ideas, and engagement that children have with big world issues.'' – @EmerBeamer, founder of @Designathons Click To Tweet

By providing kids with a platform to discuss the future they’ll inhabit and a space to co-create the ideas that will potentially make it more prosperous and healthy for everyone, Designathon Works hopes to prepare the next generation of innovators and leaders.

When impact designers like Emer come to THNK, they often come with the intention to build up an initiative from scratch. “I knew I wanted to set up a program, but I didn’t know what the contours of it would look like. It was really nice for me to consider all kinds of different perspectives and work with people from different industries, to really help me move into a blank frame again,” she says.

In 2012, after completing the second module of her THNK journey, Emer compared the experience to Minecraft.

Emer Beamer
Emer Beamer
Founder & Designer
Designathon Works
"Both have a number of building blocks, some instructions and an ‘Interesting Form of Freedom’ for you to create your own fantasy in… At THNK we get to do this with a group of people who hail from every part of the world, bringing a wealth of cultures, experiences and curiosity with them."
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Five years after participating in the program together at THNK, those very people would bring their kids to GCD pop-ups around the world. A third of these pop-ups would even be co-delivered by THNKers in their home cities.

What can we learn from kids?

Based on data from last year’s GCD, children identified the key water-related issues for their own cities, but 50% decided to create solutions for issues that transcended local boundaries. Said one 9-year-old girl from Zagreb, “I love nature and want to help the nature and people of the world. It’s sad that some have everything, and some nothing.”

But this isn’t the only area where the kids’ instincts diverged from the mainstream of many adults. Armed with a keen ability to embrace the new, 78% of the kids were able to hone in on the root of the problem before arriving at imaginative (and often plausible) solutions that made use of new technologies in unusual combinations.

We may be a ways off from bringing kid-designed social interventions to the global community, but there are still plenty of lessons from Emer and Anne’s work worth highlighting in the here and now. By continuing to develop our understandings and analysis of children’s contributions in the world of design, we can foster a greater sense of their concerns and values, paving the way for them to eventually have a seat at the policy-making table, co-designing solutions to the great societal and environmental challenges of our time.

To discover how the THNK Executive Leadership Program can help you further develop your potential into leadership ability, visit the program page.