PB: Yes and no. The rise in social entrepreneurship – what we call ‘digital humanitarianism’ – is a grassroots movement that uses innovation and technology to try and help vulnerable communities and solve issues. This happens without support from large institutions. While not always the case, large institutions are slow to adopt the cutting edge technologies which we have nowadays. For instance, refugees as a vulnerable community have access to smartphones. This is something that is utilised by the UN and UNHCR but to some degree is also underutilised, especially once refugees arrive in host countries. This community has various needs which can be met by digital platforms that provide information in their individual language, that’s easily accessible, and they can acquire skills training. This is one area social entrepreneurs are now starting to address.
VB: We’d read about similar projects in Germany. And we realised that, for the moment, the UN and local governments were not offering this type of service so we decided to do this ourselves. Of course we started with refugees because they are the most vulnerable, but we could also imagine in the future expanding our work to other communities. Our idea was not only to offset the shortage of labour in the Swiss IT sector but, given the diffusion of IT skills worldwide, these types of skills are useful for everyone. The Swiss labour force is somewhat behind France and Germany in preparing for this need.
GG: As your work is responding to local needs of the refugee community, this might suggest that not enough has been done at the Canton level and thus you are filling a void. Is this a fair assessment?
VB: Speaking of the Canton de Genève, they do a really good job. Compared to other countries integration is working quite well. But here in Geneva the Hospice Général is a really big institution. Refugees and migrants represent one pillar of their activities. And obviously things move very slowly. There is a huge hierarchy. To implement something can take months, even years. It was actually faster to start something by ourselves.
GG: When you began your work 12 months ago, did you see a clear advantage for refugees to have this type of training?
“We realised that coding skills were the skills of the future and there is a deficit here in Switzerland.” – Priya Burci
GG: Acquiring IT skills is one aspect of your work. As your name suggests, ‘integration’ is perhaps the key takeaway. Many of your students are improving their command of the French language and learning basic computer literacy.
VB: We want to offer our students new options. We want to overcome the mindset that, refugees, when they arrive, are obliged to work in shops or in some unskilled trade.
PB: Digital literacy is really important. This allows our students to tap into online resources they could not previously access. As the courses are offered in French they are familiarising with the local languages. And by joining us at the Impact Hub where the classes are held, our students have access to this community of entrepreneurs. That type of integration is important on a societal level.
VB: One of the things we’re trying to emphasize is autonomous learning. Having access to online learning tools gives students the option for self-directed learning, via MOOCs or even YouTube. What we do is provide a starting-point, orienting refugees toward this online learning economy.
PB: When our students graduate we’ll be able to offer a support network where if they want to continue their education independently, they can ask us for help and we can respond. Without funding we are somewhat limited, as we can’t have a full-time teacher. But we still have the opportunity to introduce new areas for professional studies, such as data-science or design. With a full-time teacher we hope to develop a curriculum that’s geared toward addressing market demands. We can then offer more advanced training on logic and algorithms, or machine learning for example.
GG: How do you gauge success in this field? Not everyone wants to learn coding, and not everyone likes coding once they start. How do you frame the expectations for people who are starting the course?
“We gauge success based on whether our students are pursuing something that interests them.” – Priya Burci
PB: Well we’re careful to limit expectations as we can’t offer to transition refugees into employment. What we’ve found is that learning how to code and being able to immerse yourself in new technologies gives our students a certain level of freedom and self-determination. This happens whether they find gainful employment or not. We gauge success based on whether our students are pursuing something that interests them. They can explore entrepreneurial ambitions, they can go on to trade schools or university, or develop their skills online on their own.
GG: Do you have difficulty going out to find coders who are willing to give their time to train? You are all volunteers, and most coders don’t have the luxury of offering their services in this way.
VB: It was not so difficult to recruit. I’d say our coders are quite socially-minded. Having the opportunity to offer a positive contribution to society, using their rather unique skill sets, is very rewarding. It’s quite rare that IT practitioners can do something which has social impact.
GG: I’ve noticed you have shiny laptops for your advanced programming courses. Where are these machines coming from? Is this part of the relationship with private sector sponsors?
PB: Our laptops come from the Global Shapers, which is a young professionals network associated with the World Economic Forum. They’ve been crucial in getting our project off the ground. Their initiative called ReUse collects refurbished computers from large corporations, which they then offer to charitable organisations or NGOs. I don’t think we’d have our project if it wasn’t with them.
GG: What are some of the unique challenges for refugees living in Geneva, and do you think there’s a place for them in the Swiss economy?
PB: Once refugees and asylum seekers arrive in their host societies, one of the main aims of that community is to integrate, especially to integrate professionally. Having a steady source of income and being a productive member of society is a key aspect of integration. Unfortunately, due to at times language barriers but mostly a mismatch of skills and also a lack of transferable skills from their origin country to their host country, there are high levels of unemployment for the refugee community. This deficit is actually coupled with the deficit that exists in the IT sector. The demand in Switzerland is growing much faster than the rate of training for IT workers. I believe by 2024, there will be 24’000 IT workers needed in Switzerland. Project Integration is acting as a bridge between these two deficits.
“Within a few months we can train someone and have them ready for placement as an intern.” – Vincent Baumgartner
VB: We will most likely stay in tech. We find there is a good balance between the level of difficulty and the demand. For instance, within a few months we can train someone and have them ready for placement as an intern. This is not the same as in the health sector, for example. There are also fewer restrictions. In terms of professional development our students can very quickly see the results of their work. As the demand grows we will certainly add more courses to our catalogue, but all within tech.
GG: Your offices and courses are run from the Impact Hub Geneva. What are some of the advantages of working in this environment?
PB: The fact we were able to start at the Impact Hub says a lot about the co-creation framework. It really has this community feel which is extremely supportive. They have communal lunches every Tuesday where they ask people if they can help – or they ask people in the community if they can help. Having this type of support network is really important when you’re trying to set-up a new project. It was really valuable for Vincent and I to take that first step with Impact Hub.
GG: Did you have the luxury of putting your great idea on paper, and suddenly, everything worked and you’re doing your thing?
VB: We were surprised by just how easy it was. We came up with the idea in October, drafting a small description of our project. The Impact Hub was really welcoming, inviting us to use their space and have been a huge supporter of our work. We contacted the Croix Rouge Genevoise who were also accommodating. We received our first batch of 10 laptops, then two volunteers. Really from the first time we spoke about this project to implementation it was only about 4-6 weeks. It went really fast. We wanted to do something more informal at the beginning, and then given the tremendous response from partners we aimed for a more formal approach. And now finally we are the stage of developing a bootcamp, which can lead to employment. You can say we are victims of our own success.
PB: Geneva is known for its many large institutions, but people are willing and ready to support local initiatives. For instance, Global Shapers has a local initiative called ReUse which collects refurbished computers from large corporations and then donates them to charitable activities. We’ve also had a positive response from computer programmers who were willing to give their time and volunteer to teach refugees. It’s been wonderful.
VB: The potential impact of Project Integration is also very tangible. It’s easy to understand and to explain. We use this image of the bridge, between the shortage of labour and the demand, and people are really receptive. These are two real issues we’re addressing, and we have two simple solutions for mitigating them, not to solve them, but to offer some type of mitigation.
PB: Plus the increase in digitisation of the workforce and the areas of work is something which is talked about a lot. There is more press coverage of the Internet of Things, about automation, data-mining and artificial intelligence. People are mindful of the skills of the future and how the workforce is changing, and there is a role here for refugees as well.
GG: You are also expanding your base from Geneva, what are some other cities where we can expect to see your work?
PB: We’re already exploring the franchise approach with the Business School Lausanne. In this course, half of the students will be undergraduates and half will be refugees.
VB: This is a ten-week introduction to coding, and at the end the students receive a certificate.
PB: We think this is an ideal way to drive interaction between the refugee community and university students. This is an added dimension for integration which we’re really excited about. This idea in fact came from the BSL, who are really socially oriented and innovative in their perspective.