Fast forward to the classrooms of today and a new set of students. Gen Alpha are the first generation to be born entirely in the 21st century. Aged from 13 down, with the youngest of their generation yet to be born, they are all younger than Twitter and many are younger than the Paris Agreement.
They are growing up on a planet which has around one third of the mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish than the world that my generation entered, and in a society which has very likely failed to limit global warming to 1.5C. Yet they are also digital natives, with access to unrivalled information, connections and ideas at their fingertips, and have a deep-seated environmental and social consciousness.
Everything is changing, including education, and this is a critical time to ensure that design and engineering education is purposefully equipping these young people with the capabilities that they will need to shape the cities, homes, services and institutions of the future.
An ambition bolder than being less bad
It would be wrong, of course, to say that current curricula are purpose-less, but the reality of our present and future challenges, from climate crisis to social inequality to water scarcity, demand our focus in an unprecedented way. To meet these challenges, we need a design and engineering curriculum which puts at its heart the flourishing of people and communities as part of regenerating our natural world. This is a crucial shift in purpose.
Several years ago, our founder at Volans, John Elkington, issued a ‘product recall’ of his Triple Bottom Line concept of people, planet, profit. Why? Because despite encouraging business and government to include environmental considerations, it had not led to the step changes needed to truly shift the purpose of business from doing less bad to doing good on those three dimensions equally.
Design and engineering education has arguably faced similar challenges when integrating sustainability. Too often educators have had to bolt it on to a curriculum which retains the purpose of skilling students for an increasingly out of date industrial world of mass consumption, high carbon intensity and which views nature as an externality.
At its best this encourages emerging designers and engineers to begin to be ‘responsible’ for what they are creating. But this is no longer sufficient. Products and services must go beyond responsibility into building resilience and working to regenerate and improve the social and environmental systems we rely on. Educating students for less is doing a disservice to them and to the business, policy and civil society organisations crying out for a new generation of employees and citizens who can help them to do this.
Design as an enabler
The businesses we work with embrace their role in proactively contributing to the emergence of a more resilient and regenerative economy, knowing that without this shift their long-term future is untenable. But doing this in practice is difficult work. Building new energy systems and shaping the future of retail requires the creativity to imagine totally new scenarios, to prototype products and services at pace and with live feedback, to problem solve – all skills that design and engineering education can support with.
The line-up of sponsors for the RSA Student Design Awards, an annual competition which challenges students to apply design skills to real world challenges, demonstrates the breadth of industries looking to those with design capabilities to help with live challenges they are facing today, from promoting new relationships with our food to building a just energy transition.
As well as building the design skills which would help me become a designer in the traditional sense, I now know that design capabilities can take you into a wide range of industries. Indeed, according to the Design Council’s latest Design Economy report 77% of designers now work in non-design sectors, such as the NHS and financial services. My work as a designer has led me to support business, policy and civil society organisations towards a more sustainable future.
It's obvious to say, but equally hard to comprehend, just how different the world will be for Gen Alpha. Helping equip them now for that future goes far beyond the design and engineering curriculum, but these disciplines are fertile soil for encouraging students to ask better questions, to collaborate and to explore new horizons that we can’t yet even imagine.
Rishi Sunak has recently championed the value of maths education. Though undoubtedly important, in a time of transformation, we need not just one way of thinking but a whole host of skills to take us forward. Why not use this opportunity to also champion design and engineering with purpose? Going beyond being responsible, through resilience to regeneration, and equipping our next generation with the capacities to leave our world healthier than how they find it.
Josie is a designer by training and systems thinking enthusiast. She works at Volans, helping business leaders to make sense of the emergent future and act in service of creating a better world. She was previously Head of Regenerative Design at the RSA.
Read more article in the series and find out about our vision for the future of design education here.