This woman wants to teach your child how to code and create their own gadgets this Christmas

Bethany Joby
Bethany Koby, one of the founders of Technology Will Save Us

I’m standing in the downstairs office of a remarkable company, waiting for one of its founders. The office is tucked away on a side street in east London, past a long line of taxi repair workshops, in-car entertainment fitters, Turkish restaurants and artesan coffee houses, and the person I’m waiting for is Bethany Koby. Koby spends her time working towards a very bright technological future.

In the window are a collection of boldly but tastefully decorated cardboard boxes with small electronic objects on top of them. There’s a hand-held games console, a tiny amplifier and speaker, a spiky plant with some green and orange perspex and wires stuck into its pot and some others, all bright, attractive, and looking like they need to be picked up, fiddled with, used. On one of the tables is the silhouette of a hand holding a fistful of lightning bolts and the words ‘Technology Will Save Us’, which is both the name of the company and its resolutely optimistic motto.

The Gamer hand-held console

A few pretty gadgets would be neither here nor there when it comes to securing our future, but the point of these particular gadgets is not as much in the owning as the making. Technology Will Save Us make electronics kits, designed for four- to 12-year-olds to make on their own or with the help of an interested adult. Koby’s vision is of an empowered generation of young people who aren’t the downtrodden victims of technology and its attendant giant faceless corporations, but who deeply know it, master it and can make it themselves. They take control of their digital world and they bring their elders along with them.

She said: ‘The mantra internally is about inspiring young people and empowering parents. The adult that’s giving the product wants to be a part of the making experience, whether that’s being part of the making or just seeing what the kid’s doing, they want to be connected to it. We think that is a fantastic thing. So the way we’re iterating the experience of making is allowing more opportunities for that connection to happen. So in our manuals there are opportunities for that to happen. It could be with the gifter, their friends, their parents. It’s not a pacifier for kids.’

Each kit is designed to develop skills through making and exploring. Koby’s eyes widen with enthusiasm as she shows me the Electro-dough kit. She says: ‘this is our youngest kit, for 4-12. It’s electronic play dough, it’s awesome. I mean come on, it’s electronic play dough. It’s amazing. You make the dough in your house. We talk about what is electricity is and we’re using the ipad or a phone but not as a glorified television. You’re using it as a tool and that’s fundamental to what we’ve focused on since we started. We want the experience of making to happen in the world so we want to the screen to be a tool, not the medium.

'It’s about learning together. You don’t have to know. Why not learn at the same time?’

‘Because tech isn’t all coding. It’s sensors, it’s conductivity, it’s science, it’s maths, it’s physical information, it’s physical making and right now kids, parents and the media are focused so much on coding which is good, but …’ She pauses to gather her thoughts and ploughs on.

‘Electronic dough. You’re basically making circuits. Your kid is making the dough, dying it, adding fun things to it like glitter etc to make it interesting, but then you’re turning on LEDs, you’re making buzzers buzz and making spinners spin, you are making circuits together. They’re using play dough as they would anyway, but they’re bringing it to life. They’re electrifying the experience. That’s a really fun and interesting way of including tech.

Electro Dough

‘In all the experiences we want to make sure there’s the doing, the making and there’s this sort of meta-layer about empowering parents. So it your kid turns to you and says well how does this work you can say “well let’s watch this”. We don’t want parent to feel fearful like they don’t know. And quite frankly it’s also about learning together. You don’t have to know. Why not learn at the same time?’

The kits, made in the east London side street and a larger facility in Arundel, West Sussex, are developed with the help of the Technology Will Save Us Young Inventors Club, a group of around fifty children of varying ages who come together each month. They test new products, help to develop the software (the two games that come with the Gamer hand-held console, Snake and Pong, were written by a 15-year-old) and tell Koby and her colleagues how they’re getting on.

Technology lurks down a side street in east London

‘From four to six is a really specific developmental stage. From six to eight there’s a big shift that happens, so we make sure we’re focused on developmental stages. So sometimes we do mixed groups, sometimes we do developmental stage groups, just to understand are we helping young people to develop those skills at those stages. For example Electro-dough is very freeform, it’s about play. When you get to Gamer it’s about following direction and achieving success, when you do something, because when you’re older that’s where you’re at.

‘When you put something in front of a 10-year-old and say you can do anything with it, what we’ve seen is that they don’t know what to do. If you say, let’s build a game console, and now what do you want to do with it? There’s like a million things they want to do. Building in those moments of success helps to unleash potential innovation.’

Electronics elves prepare for Christmas

An Electro-dough kit sits under my Christmas tree, waiting for my five-year-old daughter to open it. We will make things that buzz and flash together so she at least knows what it’s like to build something with electricity, and that it can be fun. In some small way, tech will be hers. That might grow into something bigger, or it might not. Either way she’ll have broken into the world of technology - taken the back off it and delved inside in a safe environment that she can explore - in a way that many people never do.

Koby says: ‘There’s a lot of fear around kids when it comes to tech and we want to be one of those optimistic voices that says yes it’s scary, yes it’s moving fast but let’s demystify it, let’s put it in the hands of kids and parents because you could go the other way, or be neutral which would be even worse.

‘We talk about helping to inspire a creator generation. What is it? Millions of kids making? What does that look like? What tools do they need? What’s the lifestyle around that, what would they need to make that happen? That’s the future for this generation and I think that’s pretty exciting.’

On Christmas morning my daughter and I will be playing with twinkling, buzzing, spinning, brightly-coloured dough, hoping to find out.