How can we make the most of booming employment rates and improvements in artificial intelligence? What skills will we need and how we will get them? In this post, Stephen Miller explores what we need to design an education fit for the future.

From self-service checkouts to self-driving taxis, technology is developing at a rapid pace. Some argue that this will end in disaster, destroying jobs and denying many people of their livelihood and identity. Others see it is an opportunity to unleash our inner creativity, with the idea of a Universal Basic Income growing in popularity as a way to both offset job losses and free people to choose the work they want to do. Yet the reality is somewhere in between, and there is an opportunity for design to play a key role in shaping a society fit for the future.

Despite increased levels of automation, the UK economy is currently experiencing record levels of employment. Yet as the recent Taylor Review highlighted, many of the new jobs created in the past ten years are poorly paid and precarious. What’s more, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests the jobs being created in recent years are in fact lower-skilled. For example, a third of all employment in the UK is now in low productivity, low pay sectors such as retail, accommodation, food and administrative services. The robots aren’t exactly unleashing a wave of creativity. But there is a reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Beyond insects and robots

Writing during the first industrial revolution, the German philosopher and economist Karl Marx reflected on the role our skills and labour play in shaping our identities and making us human, despite the onset of automation:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.

Marx believed mechanisation alienates us from our work, and in the process, denies us of our inherent creativity. One hundred and fifty years later this conversation has come full circle, though we might substitute the spider with a 3D printer and the bee with a drone. Yet as the quote above highlights, the one thing the robots won’t have is imagination. It’s, therefore, time to move beyond insects and robots to something more human.

The power of imagination

Humans are blessed with the power of imagination. Imagination drives the creative process. Design Council research shows that what differentiates designers from other workers with technical skills is their power of imagination and knowledge of the design process. Unlike robots or insects, this enables designers to extract maximum value from their other skills. They have the thing the spider, bee and drone don’t have – the ability to design structures and plans in their minds before making them a reality. This is why design skills are worth £209bn to the UK economy, and designers are 47% more productive than the average UK worker.

Those employed in the design economy use a wide range of skills in their work – from the ability to visualise future possibilities or understand user need, to technical skills using digital technologies or physical materials. Analysis by Nesta suggests this combination of technical skills, cognitive abilities and interpersonal competencies will become more and more essential in the future.

Understanding and developing the skills and processes that make design so effective could help the UK increase the value they generate and tackle the challenges we face during a period of significant social, economic and technological transformation.

As the demand for design skills grows, there are questions for the government, business and designers themselves. The House of Lords Committee report on AI released last week raised important ethical questions about the rise of AI. This is a design question. One which design can answer and also must prepare itself to address. How to make sure the code is people focussed, that it can improve lives, be commercial but also avoid the dangers of unforeseen usage such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

A designer should have the answers to this. It is people focussed and ultimately works to improve products, services and the systems that impact our lives. Yet it is not without its ethical challenge. How far can designers look beyond the commercial brief they are given, and are new designers and students in design schools today taught to consider the life-changing impact (good and bad) they can have? These are vital questions we are seeking to answer. What we do know is that design skills are in demand and changing the nature of work. Yet the country does not seem prepared.

Designing an education fit for the future

A 2017 World Economic Forum study of how countries invest in their workforces found that while the UK has access to highly skilled talent (and is ranked 10th in the world on this measure), it is concentrated in specific parts of the economy. When it comes to using the advanced skills and knowledge that are predicted to be required in the economies of the future, the majority of the UK workforce currently does not have exposure to these skills. The UK is instead ranked 54th in the world for the capacity of its workforce to deliver high-value outputs and 51st in the world for the deployment of these advanced skills and knowledge. As a practice that spans sectors and occupations and will be in high demand in the future economy, building on our pool of design skills is one way to remedy this.

Yet there are concerns across the design economy that the future pipeline of these design skills is narrowing. In 2017, just under 166,000 GCSE students took design and technology subjects, a 61% decrease from the year 2000. Added to this, there has been a substantial decline in both the number of teaching hours dedicated to arts and technical subjects such as design, as well as in the number of associated teachers. This potentially narrows the pipeline of future designers, who have the skills the economy will require in future.

The traditional pathways into design careers – such as GCSE Design and Technology – are being eroded, and without an obvious alternative pathway, the UK risks losing these skills just when they are needed most. This is why we are calling on the Department for Education, schools and academies to re-introduce GCSE Design and Technology as a priority subject in post-14 education to secure these skills in the short-term. To ensure a resilient economy in the longer-term, policymakers and education providers must consider how they will develop the complex problem-solving, critical and creative thinking abilities that are essential to innovation. Design is central to this. Along with Art, design methods, tools and approaches should be incorporated into STEM subjects to boost the skills required in the future economy. 

Finally, government should also explore with business leaders and the design industry what incentives could be used to encourage greater use of, and upskilling in, design across key areas of the economy. In particular, incentives should be targeted at the sectors with the lowest levels of productivity and the highest chances of automation (such as retail and administrative services), which could benefit from an uplift in productivity while creating more meaningful, creative and higher value jobs in the process. It is this we must capitalise on if we are to move beyond a society and economy of mindless webs and hives.

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