Alfonso Molina

Ashoka Fellow
Rome, RM, Italy, Europe
Fellow Since 2016


This profile was prepared when Alfonso Molina was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.
The New Idea
Alfonso Molina believes that every young person, especially those who have dropped out of school and are not employed, should be given a chance to re-engage in learning while developing life skills such as empathy, teamwork and problem solving. It is difficult to reach out to young people who have been failed by society and to give them new hope and opportunities. By attracting them with the power of technology, Alfonso manages to engage groups of young people into finding new passions and increasing their self-esteem. By building “innovation gyms” within schools or youth centres, Alfonso uses access to advanced experiential technology, from virtual reality rooms to 3D labs, not as an end to itself, but as a means to create a new passion for discovery and learning. Once engaged, Alfonso creates individual paths for each young person, with the help of many volunteers. Some are successfully brought back to education, others to employment. As a political refugee in Europe, Alfonso always had a special eye for underprivileged people and has found in the large masses of young unemployed in Southern Europe a new pool of potential to be unlocked. He began in a peripheral area in Rome where he has built the prototype of a model that has since spread across Italy. To replicate his experience in Rome across the country, Alfonso, as the Director of the Board of Fondazione Mondo Digitale, created Phyrtual. Phyrtual is a physical-virtual environment for innovation and education for life. As a virtual environment for teachers and students, is an interactive on-line platform to share projects and knowledge, socialize and promote social innovation experiences. Phyrtual allows individuals and organizations which are active in the field of social innovation and education to interact, collaborate and learn from each other in an appealing context as well as to develop strategic approaches that integrate both the physical and virtual dimension into processes of change.

The Phyrtual physical space is what Alfonso calls Innovation Gym. Through his innovation gyms, first created in a working class neighborhood in Rome, Alfonso engages young unemployed people and other socially excluded people (refugees, migrants, older people) into several activities aimed at fostering in them empathy, entrepreneurship and creativity. It is a gym for experience learning and practice innovation in all its forms: technological, social and civic innovation. It is a space open to the community, to schools, businesses, universities. It is a meeting place for old and new professions where the spoken language is both traditional and digital, where it is possible to experience creativity and to stimulate professional growth and self-entrepreneurship. By granting access to a series of “cool” and otherwise unreachable technological tools (from 3D printers, to robots, to virtual reality rooms), Alfonso motivates young people to find a new desire to learn, experiment and create. By approaching technological development and coding not as an individual activity, but always as a pretext to socialize, learn from one another, experience teamwork and leadership as key skills which will be useful to the young person’s development, whatever path they choose in life. Alfonso’s dream is that every school in Italy and beyond will be equipped with an Innovation gym, in the same way as they all have a chemistry lab or a gym. To perceive his dream, Alfonso is involving teachers and school managers in implementing Innovation Gyms in their schools through government or corporate grants and crowdfunding. The real challenge is to take these methodologies from his isolated case to the whole education system, which in Italy counts 40.000 schools.

Experiencing technology and its power to change society is not the aim of Alfono’s work, and neither is digital inclusion per se. Rather, Alfonso has understood that traditional teaching methods leave too many kids behind. By focusing on an area in which many of them know more of than their parents and often teachers, technology, he gives young people a second chance. Technology is therefore a tool to bring out the best in young people by making them passionate about learning- not just an end to itself. His vision is to change the whole school system to be able to serve not only the academically fit, but also to give space to those who are lagging behind to be re-engaged. His innovation gyms have already been noticed by the Minister of Education, which has included them in their 2015 School Reform Bill as an example to be replicated.

As well as the institutions, Alfonso engages local, national and international businesses in coming to contact with these young people. In 2014 Google, for example, has partnered with Fondazione Mondo Digitale to create four new labs inside Alfonso’s gym (fab lab, game lab, immersive lab and video lab).
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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