These days, many of us exist in two places at once – the physical and the digital. But what if there was a way to bridge this gap while empowering youth to transform community and culture?

The big thinkers at Vancouver-based Ethọ́s Lab posed this very question during Microsoft Vancouver’s 2020 Hackathon with a Hack For Good project titled Hogwarts Meets Wakanda: Disrupting the Youth Experience.

Ethọ́s Lab is a new not-for-profit based in Vancouver, BC, with a mission to empower youth to be their authentic selves and realize their fullest potential. Headed by Anthonia Ogundele, Ethọ́s Lab’s goal is to create a co-operative platform where Black and other marginalized youth can connect with one another while gaining access to technology and exposure to STEM. Ethọ́s Lab endeavors to work alongside youth to both develop and maintain a space where culture, community, technology and innovation all meet – Anthonia refers to spaces like this as “The Fourth Place”.

When Ethọ́s Lab first launched in February 2020, most of Vancouver’s work force had just started making the shift to virtual. Initially, Ethọ́s Lab had envisioned the creation of a physical co-working space that would be designed and used by local youth. Here, teens aged 13-18 would be introduced to STEM through technology-focused workshops, events and social interactions. But as the world pivoted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, so did Ethọ́s Lab. Having already partnered with Vancouver-Based not-for-profit, Urbanarium, they shifted their vision from physical to digital space.

Urbanarium is an online platform that fosters community dialogue about city making. It was first created in 1985 as a series of live events on urban planning and development in Vancouver. Today, executive director Amy Nugent describes Urbanarium using two questions, “how are cities made, and how can we make them better”? As cities and societies evolve, so do these integral questions. Urbanarium drives the conversation by engaging with citizens on urban planning projects, publishing blog posts, and through events.

Amy’s questions apply to cities as a whole and to the moving parts that make them up. Each community centre, neighbourhood park or local online forum has a chance to play a part in shaping that city’s community and culture. The Fourth Place, described by Amy as “that intersection of community and technology that we are all still trying to figure out”, has huge potential in this regard as we understand more than just physical structures in the application of urban design and strategy.

Technology was always going to be at the forefront of Ethọ́s Lab physical co-creation space, and with Urbanarium by their side, they saw an opportunity to dig even deeper into tech and explore The Fourth Place. They would start with the creation of a virtual Ethọ́s – a digital platform designed to connect youth to technology, the city of Vancouver and each other. They’d just need a little help from some friends.

Being in the business of fostering conversation, Amy had already made a connection between Ethọ́s Lab and Chris Richards, Program Manager for Microsoft’s Garage space in Vancouver. Together, the three met to brainstorm on ways Ethọ́s Lab could develop and deliver their mission. Before long they were aligned with a common goal to leverage the Fourth Place and create an online portal with the tagline, “Hogwarts Meets Wakanda: Disrupting the Youth Experience”.

They started simply. What would this platform look like? A perfect question for the youth of Ethọ́s Lab. Chris and a handful of engineers and designers from Microsoft’s Vancouver teams hosted a virtual, mini-hackathon where the Ethọ́s youth – Labers, for short – vision boarded their ideal portal. Inspired by their tagline, and the subcommunities represented by the four different Houses at Hogwarts, Anthonia and the hackers decided the Ethọ́s platform would comprise four different worlds. Each world would have different themes, colours, and features. They would take additional inspiration from the fictional country of Wakanda, from Marvel’s Black Panther. The Wakanda world showcases BlPOC leading and innovating in a tech-infused environment.  For Anthonia, it marked “the archetype that could draw marginalized youth into seeing themselves and their diverse community of peers in STEM, and as leaders and contributors to future innovation”.

The hackathon was a success. The Labers’ pitched four digital worlds – Foreign World, EP World 1 Crew, JKSAD, and Atlanthos – each unique in design, function and features. They shared their ideas in a final meeting with Microsoft’s General Manager and planners from the City of Vancouver.

The event fueled continued conversations with Chris and The Garage as he prepared for the company’s upcoming global hackathon. The Microsoft volunteers who’d worked with the teams also remained on board, coding a framework for the Ethọ́s Lab digital platform with Jessica Udo, Program Manager at Microsoft Vancouver and Chair for the Africans at Microsoft, Vancouver Chapter as team lead.

Headed by Jessica, Microsoft employees Erica, Lori, Senzeni, and Vaijanta teamed up online and mapped out their output for Hackathon 2020. The Hogwarts Meets Wakanda prototype would be a virtual collaboration platform that integrates with Mozilla hubs and runs in a browser without the need for expensive gear. Students would be able to create a profile, find activities happening within the virtual hub and set STEM-related goals. Parents would also be able to enter the platform, seeing the learnings their children accomplished or tagged. Other important features included music sharing, chat functions for students to connect with one another, and easy access within the platform to resources and workshops within the Vancouver STEM space. Jessica summed up the prototype as “a combo of curated learning experiences and a means to encourage students to chase what they are passionate about”.

The world has changed. Youth are exposed to exponentially more information than their parents were and are using a variety of tools to experience and shape the world. Ethọ́s Lab’s goal is to ensure that under-represented youth insert their voices – and that those voices are both heard and valued.

Since the Global Hackathon, Ethọ́s’ goals have become reality. Their virtual portal, Atlanthos, built upon the Labers’ winning idea from the first mini hackathon, is now live. Thanks to Atlanthos, local youth across the Lower Mainland can virtually join the Ethos Lab community completely virtually. Most recently, Microsoft Vancouver had the pleasure of hosting Ethọ́s Labs and Urbanarium for a discussion about Ethos Lab’s mission, and the role of digital infrastructure in the future of city making. And in it Anthonia delivered an important message about power of co-creation within the Fourth Place.

“Ethọ́s Labs breaks your fears away so you can be free to be yourself and learn,” explains Anthonia. “By bridging the gap between the physical and digital spaces that exist, we can empower youth with curiosity and give them the courage reach their fullest potential.”