Inclusive innovation: how a new children’s book aims to encourage the next generation of innovators

Britain’s innovation economy promises huge opportunities for young people seeking worthwhile and rewarding careers. But to encourage children from all backgrounds to consider that a career in innovation could be for them, we need to plant the seed early.

Getting primary-age pupils and their parents to start thinking about the possibilities of jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) can be a challenge.

Step forward children’s author Natalie Reeves Billing who – with the backing of Connected Places Catapult – has created a story called ‘The Animates’ which carries the subtitle ‘Invention is for everyone’. The idea links with the Catapult’s aims of developing inclusive innovation beyond STEM to ‘STEAM’ (including Arts), while also serving to promote levelling-up and spreading opportunity and prosperity from the innovation economy.

The 24-page rhyming picture book follows the adventures of six animals who work together to build a clubhouse and win a competition to blast into outer space. Their adventure demonstrates how innovation is an inclusive activity; involving many different types of characters with various skills and needs.

Hundreds of copies of the book have already been produced and distributed to local schools and a second edition has been commissioned to provide a regional focus on Liverpool. This follow-up will reference the city’s Knowledge Quarter urban innovation district, to encourage children to visit places of learning such as Liverpool’s science park, digital innovation facilities and the Manufacturing Technology Centre.

In time, regional editions of The Animates are set to be produced for each of 12 UK cities and regions supported by the Innovation Districts Group, and may also be created for the Catapult’s international innovation twinning partners too.

“The Knowledge Quarter plans to distribute a copy of the book to every one of around 500 primary schools throughout the Liverpool city region; and there is interest from Belfast and Newcastle in having their own editions illustrated too,” says Alex Cousins. “I heard from a senior figure in industry recently who said the UK needs another 400,000 people to work in the innovation economy, and that we need to engage schoolchildren early. We hope this book will help with those ambitions.”

The six animal characters in the book are an elephant, panda, crocodile, mouse, sloth and ostrich; each with different skills, dislikes, ambitions and personalities. By bringing their collective attributes together, they build an invention and – without realising it – become innovators.

Natalie Reeves Billing, the book’s author, says: “The Animates poses questions, features examples of innovation and focuses on teamwork. The aim for me was to show children how their specific skills sets can fit into the world of work.”

The book – illustrated by Lisa Williams – also supports the aims of the Catapult to encourage a broader definition of innovation beyond technology, and to welcome everyone to join the innovation economy.

Helping to narrow the education gap

Natalie is the director of community interest company Split Perspectivz which creates educational resource packs and workshops for children throughout Merseyside; recognising that different people have different lived experiences. Its focus lies in helping children from vulnerable communities – including deprived families and those claiming free school meals – to “make sure that the education gap is narrowing, rather than expanding”.

“We started just before Covid with a view to making sure every child could have access to quality learning materials, and to encourage children to incorporate craft skills into their studies,” Natalie explains. “I am sure that the more kids can build things with their hands, the more likely they will be interested in reading.”

The company also creates what it calls ‘Builder Book’ literacy boxes featuring written materials and origami models of the Animates characters, to encourage children and their families to read and write together; as well as to develop young people’s speaking, listening and creativity skills.

Over 23,000 literacy boxes have been distributed throughout the Liverpool city region, and a version of the box known as the ‘Planet Pack’ – focusing on sustainability, and asking children to create a green invention for a better world – is to be delivered to 10,000 local households next spring.

“I want to tailor-make education related to children’s interests, and provide a focused experience that is an adventure; rather than something children feel forced into doing,” says Natalie.

Follow on programmes

A further development could see the creation of a smartphone app for children to learn about different career prospects based on what they enjoy doing, through short stories.

The books are not designed to exist in isolation: additional activities are promoted such as workshops to get children “building, making things, thinking and critiquing each other, so that when they reach secondary school they are not defensive, or put off by making mistakes,” Natalie explains. “They’re empowered, resilient and become the sort of people that the country will be looking for to fill the jobs that we don’t yet know about.”

Alex adds: “The books are a means to an end, to get children more engaged. If the book just goes out and nothing else happens around it, we will have failed. We want to grow the innovation economy, and the more inclusive we can make it – the better.”

Natalie’s company is working with the Department for Culture, Media & Sport to produce a social impact report around community engagement work. Along with co-author Jude Lennon, she also received an award this spring in recognition of their work from Government for services to literacy. Builder Book Boxes – Points of Light

The Animates children’s book is endorsed by Innovate UK and Knowledge Quarter Liverpool.