The Digital Lab as training ground
The city of Växjö set up the Digital Lab as a training and working ground where young unemployed and refugees work on-the-job to become IT experts, developing smart city solutions. Funded by the UIA DIACCESS project, the Digital Lab worked in the service of the city: municipal departments could approach the Digital Lab with challenges or problems, to have it explore if there is a possible digital solution. Based on such requests, supervised by professional IT experts, the trainees in the Lab produced prototypes that demonstrate how digital technology can work in practice. The Lab was embedded in the social department of the city.
Oscar Lönnerheden, who is responsible for the digital lab in the DIACCESS project, explains that the Digital Lab has been quite successful in achieving its goals: “over the last 2 years, 20 young unemployed people, many of them refugees, obtained new skills, and many of them found a good job rapidly afterwards”. He stresses that the training was not just about technical & IT skills: “especially for the migrants, just as important for them was to learn the Swedish language (by doing, on-the-job), and to understand the work culture in the Swedish context”. A crucial success factor was the mentoring of committed seasoned experts from the business sector, who believed in the social value of the project but also saw it as an interesting pool for new talent recruitment. A survey held among the trainees showed their enthusiasm for the project; as one trainee put it: “for me, it was a good and positive experience. I learned a lot and I think it has given me a better chance of getting a job in the IT sector.”
Over the last years in action, the trainees in the Lab developed eight prototypes. According to Oscar Lönnerheden: “one of the first prototypes developed was a chatbot to assist citizens that apply for a building permit on the cities’ website. It was not perfect, it could not answer all questions, but it helped the department to understand much better what a chatbot can and cannot do, and to make the decision if it makes sense or not to make a full version.”
Another group of trainees built a web application to facilitate the integration of foreign-born people into society. The website gathers all relevant information about employment, studies, starting a business, wellness and health, digital service, networks, facts about Sweden and the Swedish language. The material in the web application is available in both text and film format.
When asked about his favorite prototype developed in the lab, Oscar Lönnerheden does not hesitate: an app for monitoring fireplaces in the city so that citizens can see which ones are still available for their barbecue. “It uses LORA-sensors that register changes in the UV-light in front of it. The sensors were placed around fireplaces in the municipality. The sensor fed the data to the IoT-hub and with a key we could pick out the data and display it in the web-app which was published online.”
Use of the grill spaces
These results are all the more impressive given that the trainees were recruited and trained within short batches of six months only. The first group of trainees (they started in late 2019) did a remarkable job, but not all found regular employment after their training. Petter Berg, former lead of the digital lead, blames the pandemic: “this surely had to do with the difficult labour market, as due to the pandemic the number of vacancies, also in IT, had decreased dramatically”. For the second and third semesters, the Digital Lab had more difficulty to find new trainees that would meet their requirement.
The Digital Lab has ended its operations officially by the end of August 2022, when the EU funding for the DIACCESS project ended. To end the project in style, the team members and trainees took the train to the neighboring city of Kalmar, where they learned about how that city is dealing with smart city challenges. They visited Kalmar’s IoT lab and two ICT companies.
Looking back and forward
Looking back, the Digital Lab can be considered a success in several respects. During its lifetime, the trainees have made a number of prototypes that demonstrate how digital technology can work in practice and it has prepared young people for a job in the ICT sector.
Looking forward, the question is now on the table how to restart the digital lab without the support of EU funding. Oscar Lönnerheden declared that: “policymakers recognize the social value of the project and currently explore opportunities to mainstream it within the social department or the IT department of the city”.
Would he change anything when the project would be restarted? “I think it would be better to hire the trainees for a bit longer, -say one year- because six months is too short to do it all. I would also like to see more overlap: rather than hiring and firing in batches, we should make sure that the fresh recruits can learn from the more experienced trainees”.