Alfonso Molina

Fellow Ashoka
Fellow dal 2016

Alfonso usa la tecnologia per attivare e motivare i giovani che hanno abbandonato la scuola, facendo leva sulla loro attenzione ed apertura per aiutarli a sviluppare abilità legate alla soluzione creativa di problemi e alla capacità di prendere decisioni. Lo fa sia sul piano individuale (con l'obiettivo di aiutare il giovane a proseguire la sua formazione) che a livello collettivo (stimolando tutti i partecipanti a proporre soluzioni per problemi locali o su scala globale). Questo processo permette di sviluppare un set di abilità utili nella vita, come la creatività, la capacità di negoziazione e l'auto-efficacia, per aiutare i ragazzi a migliorarsi costantemente e a percepirsi come attori del cambiamento. Alfonso ha testato questo metodo nella sua organizzazione, la Fondazione Mondo Digitale, che offre alle scuole e a i giovani disoccupati percorsi di apprendimento pratico, con l’aiuto della tecnologia. Alfonso dà accesso a tecnologie interattive avanzate, come camere per la realtà virtuale o laboratori 3D, per stimolare nei giovani la passione per la ricerca e l'apprendimento. Con l'aiuto dei numerosi volontari ed educatori, Alfonso fa leva su queste esperienze per aiutare i ragazzi a trovare la propria strada: alcuni vengono riportati con successo nelle aule scolastiche, altri instradati verso una professione.

This description of Alfonso Molina's work was prepared when Alfonso Molina was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.


Alfonso is tackling school drop out through technology

La nuova 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).

Il problema

Alfonso is eager to give young people the motivation and enthusiasm to be able to find their paths in life. In Italy, as in many other countries in Southern Europe and elsewhere, for the first time in centuries, young people have fewer opportunities and a bleaker economic future than their parents. 25% of young people aged 15 to 29 are not in education, employment or training. 15% of young people drop out of school before finishing secondary education. This is the results of a lack of job opportunities for the young as well as a high rate of drop-out from the school system, which is longer than in most other EU countries and too academic.

Youth unemployment in Italy has reached peaks of 42% and now stands just below 40%. With de-industrialization and economic stagnation those without higher education or strong entrepreneurial skills are left out of the job market, particularly in central and Southern Italy.
Unemployment for young people aged 15-24 varies vastly according to level of education.
Unemployment stands at 75% for those with less than primary school education. This becomes 49% for those with lower secondary education, 38% with those who have finished high school and 30% with those with a university degree.

Divide between private and public, north and south makes it so that public schools in Southern Italy tend to underperform academically. Private schools and those in Northern Italy tend to have better quality of teaching but also better infrastructure. In Southern and peripheral areas, such as il Quadraro in Rome, where Fondazione Mondo Digitale has its headquarters and where the first innovation gym was built, schools tent to be underperforming under every point of view, with classrooms largely unchanged since the 70s. Technology is still seldom used, even in vocational courses, which tent to be overly academic (everyone in Italy who wants to graduate from High School has to take, age 19- and not 18 as in most other EU countries- a national exam, which is the same across all schools.

As a consequence, Italy holds the top fifth position for percentage of early school leavers, which was calculated at 15%, according to EU statistics. The gap with the European average of 10%, is more accentuated for the male component (17.7% versus 12.8%), compared to the female (12.2% versus 9.6%). Data are even more worrying when considering young people aged between 15 and 24 who are neither in employment nor in education and training: in 2014 in Italy such percentage was around 25%. Data on educational attainment show that, in 2014, just four fifths of the Italian population aged 20 to 24 had completed at least an upper secondary level of education: 76.6% for males and 83.2% females. Alfonso’s method works particularly well for young boys, which are more affected by school dropout than their female counterparts: focusing on technology, a particularly attractive area in which young boys can feel appreciated, as they tend to know more about it than adults, is a key to boost their self-esteem as a first step to re-engage them in learning.

Early school leaving is a phenomenon that, if not effectively countered, can have negative consequences in the medium and long term development of a country, resulting in a depletion of human capital. The importance of inverting school dropout trends is also highlighted in the European Commission 2020 Agenda : while being an agreement that spans all areas of economic policy, the field of education and training is identified as the carrier for the development of a more competitive economy. It is in fact requested that the school dropout rate decreases to less than 10% and that the rate of young graduates rises above 40%.

Early leavers from education and training critically face heightened difficulties in the labour market. In 2014, only 4.7% share of the Italian population aged 18 to 24 were early leavers in employment, while 8.3% were early leavers wanting to work but not employed, and the remaining early leavers (2% of the population aged 18 to 24) did not want to work at all. The overall share of early leavers from education and training fell in Italy by 2 percentage points between 2012 and 2014, although it still remains very high, compared to other EU countries, and to the Agenda 2020 goals. Difficulties in implementing education policies are mostly due to the lack of exchange in information between schools.
Italy has changed from having the oldest average age in parliament to the youngest- with one of the highest percentages of women in government. The Prime Minister is the youngest ever to serve and education is one of his key priorities. Reform in under way and teachers now have increased budget for training (which they can themselves pick rather than going through the unions as earlier). The historical moment is right for Innovation Gyms to multiply and for Alfonso’s method to be adopted by more and more teachers to reduce school drop out and increase life chances for young people.

La strategia

Fondazione Mondo Digitale acts bringing together schools, universities, institutions, companies, and research centers in order to pool their forces to face the issue of school drop out and unemployment among young people. The main journey for young people back into learning or employment begins in what he calls Innovation gyms. Has built one in a working-class neighborhood in Rome and is now focused on spreading it to all Italian schools or youth centres. He experiments in Rome what is then offered as an open-source model to all teachers and educators.

Demotivated youth is initially reactivated by experiencing a set of activities in a group of people in similar situations. The Innovation gym in Rome includes different labs and young people are introduced to all of them and they can later choose which one they like best. All activities are very different from traditional learning and appear more like a game than learning activities: this is key for people who have lost trust in learning and would turn away from every attempt to be “taught”. Within the building of his Foundation, you can find an activity space (with dozens of toys, board games for people to begin a relationship by playing with each other), immersive lab, a screening room in which learning takes place through the augmented reality technology, a robotic centre, in which to play with robots and learn about lego technology, a fab-lab to experience how ideas can be turned into objects with 3D printers and other innovative ICT tools, a video lab and a co-working space, for people to be able to turn their experiences with FMD into a plan to improve their lives, a new business idea or a career change.

He and his volunteers organize a personalized journey from each young person across several weeks. Alfonso noticed that those same people with huge difficulties in attending school regularly, would not miss a class of his courses. Once engaged in these activities, Alfonso leverages on their attention and trust on him, to explore with them the importance of key skills that are good for their personal growth, career opportunities and civic engagement. In each young person’s journey across the different activities, new modules are phased in exploring, always in a group setting, the importance of empathy, team work and problem-solving. He does this through teambuilding exercise and exploring mutual trust. Technology is never the end goal of his method, but the means to achieve self-esteem, trust in others and self-efficacy.

At that point Alfonso and his team, together with each young person, decide whether it is better to channel these new found energy towards returning to education or finding work. His solid networks with the institutions and employers, makes it easier to engage the most relevant stakeholder each time, so that the journey of these people can continue elsewhere. He relies on high numbers of volunteers and corporate partnership, such as one with Google.

Once great results were achieved in Rome, with over 3000 young people going through the Innovation gym in Rome, he moved onto a new ambitious goal: making sure that young people everywhere in Italy could experience similar opportunities, re-engaging them in learning or employment and tackling school dropout. His strategy is three-fold: on one hand involve the highest number of teachers in adopting this model; on another work with the institutions to recognize it as a model that works and should be encouraged and thirdly, to find corporate sponsors which can finance its diffusion.
To facilitate the creation of Innovation Gyms in each school, in 2014 Alfonso began by sharing all material related to his work in an open-source mode on an online platform called Phyrtual. He went further than sharing his own method, by making sure all users could upload and share their best practices, communicate with each other, create teams of teams across the country. Aside of the theoretical approaches, he clearly explains to principals, teachers and educators how to replicate his model, including an analysis of cost, a step-by-step handbook on how to get it started.
Users can share any type of knowledge: projects, news, dreams, development plans and artistic or creative ideas. Besides being a meeting place for social innovation projects, is an open environment where organizations and individuals can meet to develop ideas and test co-design practices. It also is an integrated innovation-oriented crowdsourcing and crowdfunding platform.

Alfonso and his team are available to act as consultants to build together with the schools in the network the most suitable educational model and equipment. In little more than a year, he ahs reached out to all Italian schools, with thousands showing interest and about 110 which have already succeeded in sourcing funds and building innovation gyms on their premises. They are also actively connected and are beginning to form a movement. Alfonso has now moved to train teachers across Italy to become “digital animators”, to spread his methodologies in yet more schools.

By working closely with the local administration in Rome as well as the national Ministry of Education. At the end of 2015, Italy’s parliament approved a historical reform of the school system called La Buona Scuola (The good school). Innovation labs featured as a best practice that should be implemented across the country.

Alfonso also engages corporate partners, which can help to provide funds and know-how to build more innovation labs across Italy. Google, Intel and Microsoft are among its partners.

Alfonso has extended his work to other marginalized groups of society. With his “grandparents project” he empowers young people who struggle to learn to become teachers themselves. They are trained to teach ICT to older people, in an intergenerational dialogue which benefits both. The programme has been going on for 12 years with, 27.000 old people graduated and over 18.000 young people trained as teachers.

He is also beginning to work with migrants and refugees, using technology as a tool for them to be able to find work in their new host country.

La persona

Born and raised in Chile, Alfonso Molina’s is the Director of Fondazione Mondo Digitale.
His life was marked by the military dictatorship led by General Pinochet in Chile, when he witnessed the political and social crisis of his country and decided to use his skills to bring a systemic change. One specific episode made him chose to take action to make things change: as a young university student he saw a little child crying for hunger in his own city, a clear sign of the tragic conditions of most Chilean families. Thus, he decided to engage in political and social movements, a resolution that led to his imprisonment and later to his decision to flee Chile and seek asylum. In 1974 he crossed into Argentina to them receive a refugee status in the UK. He quickly gravitated towards the British miners who were fighting to improve their conditions. His active involvement in the mining sector, combined with his background in engineering, made it possible for him to win a PHD scholarship. His interest continued to be in the social and political sphere, but academia managed to give a rare status and economic security to a young refugee. He began a 30-year-academic career and in 1999 he was awarded a Personal Chair in Technology Strategy at the University of Edinburgh. In those years he continued his interest in the social sphere, by being one of the main bridges between Europe and Latin America in the alter-globalisation movement. As he moved to Italy for personal reasons, as it had happened in Chile and in Britain in different historical periods, he spotted a social problem and decided to do something about it. Young people, usually the most active part of society, were increasingly absent from public life, discouraged by historically high unemployment, demotivated by a traditional school system. He began working with young people, starting from a difficult peripheral area. Thanks to his academic background and intensive research, Alfonso was able to develop a holistic, innovative approach to education.

2001 marked a turning point in Alfonso’s life, when he co-created the Consorzio Gioventù Digitale, an Italian public-private partnership involving the Municipality of Rome, the Lazio Region and six large ICT companies. He was appointed Scientific Director of the Advisory Board, leading the strategic development of the Consortium towards its transformation into a Foundation – the Fondazione Mondo Digitale in 2006. From then onwards, Alfonso would focus all his efforts on the development of the Foundation and of his theory of educational change.
He designed the original strategy for the Global Cities Dialogue, including the writing of its Helsinki Declaration now signed by over 180 cities from all over the world. He acted as Chairman of the international juries of the Stockholm Challenge and he is Chairman of the international jury of Rome's Global Junior Challenge.