Markus Gander is giving young people across Switzerland the chance to connect with each other through a platform that facilitates youth engagement and brings younger and older citizens together to work towards social change.
The New Idea
Markus’s organization, Infoklick, connects youth with their peers and serves as a “platform of platforms,” offering a centralized infrastructure for youth participation activities. In it, he brings together youngsters both virtually and physically, and strengthens their bonds with supportive adults, youth organizations, sponsors, and communities.
Understanding that most youth cannot be engaged to shape societal processes with a “one-size-fits-all” approach, Markus brings kids into his movement by drawing on their specific interests and addressing their needs through tailored engagement opportunities. For example, hard-to-reach teenagers are attracted to the movement through entry points such as teenager information websites, concerts, or football games, and are gradually connected with more active youth in the network.
While Markus provides each segment of youth with the appropriate arena to engage, he especially uses the “early adopters” to push his movement forward, training them as multipliers who then bring their own youth networks into the system. In this way, Markus has built a network of nearly 6,000 youth in 60 towns who are either participating in youth projects, creating their own social ventures, volunteering for youth organizations as mentors, helping other youth with starting social ventures, or engaging as decision-makers in municipalities.
Markus is expanding his movement through regional hubs in Switzerland. As the main youth organization, Markus works to unify youth policies at the federal level and to certify youth participation as skill development by the government. His organization is currently being exported across Europe, offering easy-to-scale methodologies to national partners who are encouraged to add their own content.
Adults tend to underestimate youth as decision-makers and initiators of change. In fact, youth are not considered effective contributors to the community at all in Switzerland, even regarding problems specific to them. As a result, youth interventions focus on remedying young peoples’ shortcomings, rather than developing their strengths. This troubling trend is complicated by a hierarchical culture in which severe communication divides exist between youth and adults.
On a practical level, there is no institutional infrastructure in place to support youth participation. Since the Swiss government, unlike other European countries, has no youth support policies, there are no programs to engage youth in their communities. Consequently, many organizations are privately funded or forced to compete for community money, leading to fragmented, high-threshold offers for youth. Of the existing programs, the majority focus on prevention, which tends to be perceived by youth as condescending and geared towards the middle-class.
With regionalism posing a significant problem in Switzerland, youth find it difficult to be part of a larger movement beyond their locality. There are also no prominent young role models for social venturing. Teenagers interested in being part of a movement do not know where to turn or with whom to connect.
Markus has identified three critical factors for youth participation to become a mass phenomenon in society. First, youth need appealing, low-threshold entry points in which they can connect with each other. Next, they need support and partnering networks to start their own social ventures, and last, they need to be a part of a larger intergenerational movement, where youth and adults both contribute in the decision-making process.
To attract all types of young people to his movement, Markus creates a network where youth can become participants. He catches their attention with the social community platform website, “tschau.ch” which addresses common problems faced by youth. Online, kids can find answers or information on hot topics such as sexuality, religion and values, family, career planning, youth events, hobbies, or peer networks. The website attracts more than 1 million viewers each year.
Once their attention is caught, Markus connects youth to his portal “infoklick.ch” which showcases youth events, connects kids to a network of youth organizations, and offers start-up support for their social ventures. For those ready for more elaborate engagements, Infoklick hosts trainings to become youth leaders or municipality experts.
Because money represents an additional hurdle to youth social involvement, Markus has introduced a loyalty program for youth engagement via the “Infocard.” The Infocard, issued and paid for by communities, is a rebate scheme for social activities; signups and rewards are implemented through the infoklich.ch website. An evaluation of the 250 participating youth shows that the card significantly increases their commitment to the community, and Markus plans to reach 20 to 30 percent of all youth with this card within the next three years.
Markus also provides a systematic infrastructure for youth to start their projects. Both institutionalized and informal youth initiatives seeking start-up support call on his Infoklick team, which helps youth with adult on-site mentoring and training in project management, logistics, team-building, and fundraising. The adult advisors connect them to local networks to find partners for implementation. Through this system, 250 to 300 projects have been launched, contributing to a 90 percent implementation success rate.
Markus has identified his pool of 1,000 emerging youth leaders as highly effective for building self-perpetuating networks of youth venturers. He trains the members of his youth initiatives as Junior Experts and sends them out to draw in their own networks, mentor other youth start-ups, contribute to municipality policies on youth-related matters, or forwards them to youth or social organizations of interest to them as “ready-to-go” volunteers.
Ultimately, effective youth participation is dependent on involving adults in the process, as they enrich the movement with their know-how and power networks. As a result, Markus brings adults and youth together to collaborate in the local political decision-making process or in the creation of social ventures. In his program, Jugend mit Wirkung (meaning, “youth with effect” and “youth participation”), the municipality invites Junior Experts to solve community problems related to children and youth. Initially joining the circle out of “pity” for youth, adults soon become excited about the strength and maturity of the collaboration, and take implementation very seriously.
Markus aims to build 200 local youth initiatives within the next three years, which will result in the launch of thousands of projects in Switzerland. He is currently focusing on expanding his program beyond Bern, Basel, and Lausanne.
Markus was born in a small village in Switzerland and is the first child of two teachers. When he was young, he was very active with the Boy Scouts and continued working with the organization into his twenties. As Markus got older, he came to appreciate the organization’s focus on reinforcing kids’ talents as opposed to addressing their failings, and by the time he turned twenty-eight, he had created a new nationwide train-the-trainer curriculum for Boy Scout supervisors.
Because Markus was one of only four “village children” admitted to his local high school, he was often disregarded by middle-class students and teachers. When a rich pupil joined the clique of village boys, his parents were so upset about social classes mixing, they arranged to dissolve the whole group, forcing Markus to be transferred to another class and repeat a year of school. This experience of being treated like an inferior had a great impact on Markus’s life, inspiring him to be more self-determined in society.
After high school, Markus joined the army, and later studied humanities and music. Feeling out of place in these fields, he worked for a year as a teacher for children with learning disabilities. While trying to understand children from the standpoint of their resources, he felt the environment was not entrepreneurial enough for him. Switching over to mathematics, Markus graduated in his late twenties as a math teacher.
Markus was very active in his community, often initiating youth events and developing new social initiatives. In 1998 he founded Infoklick to give youth access to important information. He also created a youth center in the 1990s, and established a kindergarten so mothers could go back to work. Infoklick soon grew from a volunteer project to a full-fledged umbrella organization. Today, Markus leads a hub of social enterprises that revolve around youth promotion and works with over 100 institutional partners.