Fact: kids think in fundamentally different ways than we do. And when we talk about thinking outside of the box, our best assets are usually the people who don’t yet know there is a box. We’re usually pretty quick to dismiss “childlike wonder” as cute but impractical – but as kids have shown us time and again, their sheer imagination and brain power can have ground-breaking impact. Kids are powerful problem-solvers, and despite the usual idea that selflessness comes with maturity, these (very) young entrepreneurs are revolutionizing the world of helpful tech, simply because they want to make people’s lives easier.
Take Mahika Sharma, who’s nine this year. Her engineering career began at five years old, when, as she told Smart Machines and Factories, “[Her] mum was helping a blind lady across the road but she tripped up.” Unexpectedly, this moment really stuck with Mahika. Hours later at a picnic with her family, the young UK resident was drawing up her first design of the Smart Stick – a high-tech assistive walking stick for people with vision impairments.
According to Forbes, the Stick features “ultrasonic sensors that detect obstacles, a water sensor that identifies puddles and motors that direct users,” as well as Bluetooth and GPS capabilities. Each feature, from vibrational alerts to LED lights to make users visible in the dark, supplements the same goal: to allow people with vision impairments more independence. Beyond the design itself, Mahika is also leading the engineering team (comprised of third-year University College London engineering students), and helping to guide and refine the Stick’s features while it’s built. While her team sings the nine year-old’s praises as an analytical thinker, Mahika simply explains, “I like connecting things and making stuff.” What’s most impressive though, is her natural ability to connect her skills to a worthy cause and affect people’s daily lives in the process.
Similar to Mahika, 13 year-old Freddie Howells used his imagination to condense a complex social problem into a common-sense (though admittedly high-tech) assistive solution. When Freddie saw firsthand the struggles his great aunt, having been diagnosed with dementia, experienced each day, he set out to design a home monitoring system to increase her independence. Here’s where it gets interesting: instead of installing existing facial recognition technology, Freddie built his own system from scratch using a Raspberry Pi controller – a debit card-sized computer typically used by people learning to program.
Once programmed, the device works by sensing motion at someone’s front door, using facial recognition to take their photo, and comparing it to a “database of known faces.” When the visitor scans their ID to confirm, they are let inside and the visitor’s voice recording is played for the elderly resident to remind them who they are seeing. A truly comprehensive assistive visiting system from start to finish – all prompted by a concern for his great aunt’s safety.
As issues of accessibility rise to the forefront of social impact conversations, these young creators are a reminder that inclusion doesn’t need to be a chore or burden, but rather an inspiring act of innovation and compassion. And no one seems to understand that better than kids, whose sense of possibility naturally gravitates towards the new, inclusive, and exciting. If the future is accessible, then it’s also clear that we can count on our youngest – and most uninhibited – to boldly lead the charge.