Tomi Alakoski is an entrepreneur who sending Finnish children to work early, in the hope that they too, will grow up to be entrepreneurs.
He is founder and managing director of an educational programme Me & MyCity, a lavishly realised, scaled-down world, where children aged 12 and 13 apply for jobs with companies, earn salaries, take out bank loans, pay taxes, and are imbued with an entrepreneurial approach to problem solving.
But this is role play with a difference: Me and MyCity works in partnership with real life companies such as Nokia, Samsung and Neste oil, which have offices in the 500-metre miniature city. Children apply for actual roles and must perform real-world tasks.
In the last five years, around 140,000 children have held positions in these cities, of which there are eight across Finland.
The scheme, which has backing from the Finnish government and the country’s leading companies is showing how Europe’s education systems must embrace pedagogic innovation, in order to promote the development of entrepreneurial skills and prepare pupils for the realities of the 21st century workplace.
The development and promotion of entrepreneurship education has been a key policy objective of the EU for a number of years.
The need to promote the development of the entrepreneurial mindset has never been greater. The high youth unemployment sparked by the economic crisis has collided with rapid changes in the world of work, and the rise of the digitised knowledge-based economy.
Entrepreneurial skills are essential, to ensure young people are flexible and employable, and to build an innovation culture in Europe.
Some EU countries have been working to foster entrepreneurship education in schools for more than a decade, others are just starting. A report published by the Commission last month detailed the uneven landscape and pointed to a lack of systematic funding for the area of education. Me & MyCity is an exception, being underpinned by the Finland’s Economic Information Office and having the support of a range of public and private sector partners.
The way in which Finland’s 12 and 13 year-old react to - and engage with - Me & MyCity is an inspiring example of how entrepreneurship education can be made appealing to primary school pupils.
Alakoski had 10 years’ experience as a teacher when the idea for Me & MyCity came to him. “I used to wonder why entrepreneurship was only taught at upper secondary level. Why don’t we start it in elementary school?” he said.
This cuts two ways, since education is more than ripe for the disruptive power of innovation. “The classroom looks pretty much the same as it did 100 years ago,” Alakoski told Science|Business.
A friend told him it was, “the craziest idea” but Alakoski won funding from the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture. He opened the door to the first real-life-pretend city in 2010.
No way to earn a living
Before spending a day in the miniature city, children are prepared in a series of lessons, where they are taught both about the realities of working life and civic matters, such as the distinctions between the private and public sector and why governments collects taxes.
They apply for a job, and can choose to run shops, offices, doctors’ clinics, engineering works, technology companies, oil suppliers, or plump for a role in the public sector. They must also be interviewed for the job by their teachers – and as in the real world - may not be successful in getting their first choice.
When they get to the miniature city, public sector aspirants go to the city hall, the rest to work in one of the 15 or so companies.
For all its verisimilitude, the activities are choreographed. Much like adult working life, once they step into the city, the children dutifully follow prepared scripts.
The companies represent real employers, and a miniature office bearing the name of each is built in Me & MyCity. Every day, 3 - 5 students are at work in real-life professions, familiarising themselves with how individual companies operate.
At the beginning of the day, the make-believe executives apply for loans to run their companies from the city’s bank. Once they get their money, business can open and start making and trading.
In exchange for their labour, the children earn salaries. There are three tiers - €14, €18 and €20 - and although inevitably the top tier is the most desirable (the number of girls applying for the CEO positions equals that of boys), “the more they earn, the more they’re taxed,” said Alakoski.
Children running the city hall vote on how these taxes should be spent.
Office hours end at 2pm, with children then giving an account of how their day went to fellow students, of whom there are usually 70, said Alakoski.
A sense of autonomy
Some may question the programme’s focus on realism as being a little jarring for young children, for whom the nine-to-five grind is still mercifully a long way off.
But Alakoski says children lap it up and score the simulation strongly when surveyed. The programme gives children a sense of autonomy but also prepares them for the future. “When you’re 16, you have to decide what you want to do in life. How else would you know at that age?” he said.
Teachers, who receive instruction in educating young entrepreneurs, have embraced the Me & MyCity concept. “They told me they didn’t know how to teach entrepreneurship before we came along with our cities. This was something concrete for them.”
Parents like it too. One mother told Alakoski her child came home and said, “‘Mum, this was the best school day ever. I know what I want to be when I grow up’.”
The company has found endorsement from the highest levels. Last March Sweden’s king Carl Gustaf, queen Silvia and minister of education Gustav Fridolin visited the city. They held a meeting with the city’s child mayor and were issued personal city bank cards.
In 2013 Me & My City won an award from the European Commission for fostering entrepreneurial thinking.More recently, Alakoski embarked on the first stages of exporting the concept outside Finland. “In Me & MyCity, we relay the message to schools about changes taking place in society and we offer young people a realistic environment that allows them to experience working life and entrepreneurship first hand,” he says.