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The BBC’s Micro:bit could transform a generation of designers, says Technology Will Save Us founder


First, the BBC’s Micro:bit was given free to one million Year 7s, and now the pocket-sized codeable computer is on sale to the general public. So what does that mean for the design industry? Technology Will Save Us (TWSU) founder Bethany Koby spoke to It’s Nice That about the company’s role as Micro:bit’s design lead, and how she believes it will transform a generation.

Last year we were approached by the BBC to work on a project as part of its Make it Digital campaign. It’s all about educating the next generation on the importance not just of coding but digital making and creativity in engineering and invention. They wanted to build awareness using their reach, which — incredibly — is 98% of the UK population.

In the 80s the BBC launched the Micro and it transformed a generation of engineers — we have a load of engineers we work with who learned from the Micro. So, in partnership with lots of companies including Arm, Microsoft and Samsung, we wanted to ask, what would be the Micro for this generation? Thinking about the fact that this group is digitally native, they understand technology, they have fast attention spans and they see tech as a part of everyday life. The result is the Micro:bit, created. TWSU was the design lead, responsible for the physical design, out of the box experience and the Make platform — dedicated to making and coding through fun projects.

The focus is 11-12 year olds, who are at a transformative stage in their education, so at this point the Micro:bit can significantly impact their skills and confidence levels in digital making. Did you know that for 65% of people in primary schools, their jobs don’t exist yet. Which makes it very hard for teachers, but exciting for young people because they can create their jobs.

Essentially the Micro:bit has an LED grid great for programming animations, buttons for gaming, a motion sensor or accelerometer, a compass, and Bluetooth connection. Plus it can connect to a Raspberry Pi or Arduino, but it’s a much lower barrier to entry than those devices. It’s open-ended, open-source, infinitely adaptable and 100% designed for kids, opening up tech making to a much wider group and teaching them what it means to program and design with technology.

I personally don’t know of any educational consumer tech that’s had this wide effect on society. It’s unique. We like to say it has a low floor, so it’s really accessible, but a really high ceiling, because you can do so much with it. The whole ethos is that we don’t want to scare people off. As design lead, we had to represent 11-12 year olds in the design process and enable them to do the most amount of things. It’s a considered and thoughtfully-made product, with sophisticated Arm technology at its heart, so it has powerful capabilities.

Compared with Raspberry Pi and Arduino, this is a portable and friendly artefact, whereas the others are very tech focused and much harder to use. We hope this will empower many more designers, and I think that has a lot to do with its thoughtfulness — it is a designed object, so it’s attractive and therefore approachable to a broader group of people. Some things are easy to use but not desirable, others are hard to use but attractive, but we think the balance is the secret sauce.

Where designers are concerned, it’s an exciting new medium for them, and it’s going to broaden what designers can achieve with their own mediums. As for us, we can now use it in the next stage of our business. We’re selling it as a board, and as a pack, with everything you need to make loads of projects right out of the box, but we also have lots of exciting plans to build on this. Mostly we want to provide young people with the tools they need to solve every day things using interesting materials, and keep the spark that the BBC started alive, so they can invent the future for us all!