Two second-year Institute of Technical Education (ITE) students have emerged winners in a global social innovation competition involving teams from 10 countries, placing Singapore top alongside Greece and Slovakia.
The Social Innovation Relay 2020, which is in its 10th edition this year, challenges youth to develop an innovative business concept that addresses a social need.
Mr Arthur Chong, 19, and Mr Ernest Antonio Ching, 18, had earlier earned their right to represent the Republic in the global finals, which was held online on June 16, by beating nine other teams from schools such as Raffles Institution (RI) and Dunman High School in the final national leg of the competition late last month.
A total of 95 teams in Singapore took part in the local competition and 10 made it to the finals.
The two ITE students had come up with the idea of a social enterprise to train and place youth with autism in jobs that matched their skills. Mentors would be assigned to coach the youth on handling work situations for up to a year.
The pair also developed a prototype of a chat support application making use of emojis, to allow youth with autism to communicate their feelings easily to their mentors or work supervisors when facing challenges at work.
Said Mr Chong, who is doing a Higher Nitec in IT applications development: "We have classmates and friends with autism, so we know first-hand the difficulties they face with finding mainstream employment.
"Some of my friends shared the problems they faced during their internship periods - breaking down when under extreme stress, not knowing how to deal with difficult situations - that's where we got some inspiration."
The duo said they also drew inspiration from local social enterprise Inclus, which helps people with special needs find gainful employment.
It was co-founded by ITE alumnus Anders Tan.
Some of my friends shared the problems they faced during their internship periods - breaking down when under extreme stress, not knowing how to deal with difficult situations - that's where we got some inspiration.
MR ARTHUR CHONG, on their classmates and friends who have autism being the inspiration behind the chat support app.
It's not about individual work... We decided to make our chatbot app prototype after hearing comments from the judges and our mentors after the national finals.
MR ERNEST ANTONIO CHING, giving credit to their mentors.
Mr Ching, who is doing a Higher Nitec in mechatronics engineering, said: "Due to the circuit breaker period, we couldn't really approach Inclus easily for advice."
But now that the competition is over, the duo might look into working with Inclus on the use of the app, he added.
This was the first time that the pair have had to work on a major project online due to the Covid-19 crisis, and it was not easy, said Mr Ching.
But the duo gave credit to their mentors - ITE lecturer Ismadi Suhadi and cyber security risk manager Adeline Chan - for valuable guidance and comments on areas for improvement. Ms Chan is from the non-profit organisation Junior Achievement Singapore, which organises the local competition.
Mr Ching said: "It's not about individual work... We decided to make our chatbot app prototype after hearing comments from the judges and our mentors after the national finals."
From there, they had about 11/2 weeks to the global finals. They worked remotely together through the nights and split up work.
For example, Mr Ching was in charge of researching and coming up with new ideas, while Mr Chong handled the main development of the app.
Presentations during the finals, at both the Singapore and global stages, were conducted online as well, which helped make them less nervous.
Mr Chong said they were not aware that their opponents were teams from schools such as RI, and only realised who they had bested when the top 10 teams were announced.
He added: "But it shows how focused we were on our project. We just wanted to do our best.
"There was a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, but when it came to the global finals, we made sure to challenge ourselves through healthy debates.
"We constantly researched and looked for new information to add value to our project so we wouldn't get too comfortable with our ideas."
The three winning teams - from Singapore, Greece and Slovakia - will get a chance to attend a global conference by Junior Achievement held in Stockholm, with all expenses paid for by the organisation.
The conference has been postponed to next year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.