27 Jun 2017
Executive Director, Science Gallery International
How do we plan for something we can't predict? This is the challenge facing the education field today.
From traditional school education to professional development and lifelong learning, governments and businesses need to prepare current and future generations for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). But it's clear that following the traditional path of transferring skills by means of education isn’t working anymore.
The skills needed to work today change so fast that no education system can keep up with the constant need to reinvent how we work and live together. Most importantly, the radical changes in our society mean that young people need new kinds of skills, many of which are not even fully understood or codified for learning. Today, the new fluencies we need include emotional intelligence, intercultural sensitivity, creativity, problem formulation (rather than problem solving), economic citizenship, empathy, adaptability and resilience.
These are not skills that can be taught in traditional ways. Several experts even question whether these skills can be taught at all - that is, they argue that the context of formal education is not suited to making our younger generations fluent in the skills they need to master.
The solution lies in shifting the discourse from learning new skills to enabling the processes that create these skills. We need to create ubiquitous and contextual opportunities to unlock creativity, to embed empathy, to question and challenge our own assumptions. This design-led approach to education changes the narrative from education as something that is received from outside to something that is generated by experience.
The participants at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2017 will have a direct opportunity to experience first-hand how a design-led approach can change the way we think about education by visiting the 4IR Bio Lab. This participatory experience, co-curated by the World Economic Forum and Science Gallery International with support from the Wellcome Trust, explores the boundaries of synthetic biology, material sciences, and food production. It is a platform for conversations with multiple stakeholders from science, technology, industry, arts and design, and it shows how the narratives around the 4IR become instruments for education and learning.
For example, rather than explaining what synthetic biology is (which would be the conventional educational approach), the 4IR Bio Lab allows visitors to touch and feel a bio-printed defibrillating organ that can be implanted in the human body. This new organ is built using parts from an electric eel, and it can discharge an electric current to the heart when it recognises it going into fibrillation or cardiac arrest, returning the heart to its normal rhythm.
How do we feel about creating new living parts which preempt health problems? Why do these fictional organs feel so real, even though we know they’re not, to the point of making us almost uncomfortable when we look at them? These works trigger a gentle cognitive dissonance that make us reflect on what health means, on how we co-exist with other species, and on our ethical boundaries. All this happens through conversations with other people, confronting ourselves with other cultures, other societies, other economies.
These conversations are the tools with which we can become more comfortable with the other and the different. The projects in the 4IR Bio Lab are statements which evoke social and political consequences. Through the lens of art we are able to abstract, fantasise and then return to reality in a process that shapes our understanding of the future and its consequences for our present. It is the future we want to design that shapes the present in which we live.
Another project in the 4IR Bio Lab is the mycotecture brick wall, a structure made of living fungi which looks, feels and behaves like conventional bricks. How sustainable is a system where building materials are completely organic, where entire homes, offices and cities can be built using fungi that recycle any waste we produce? Isn’t this taking us into a new spiral of consumption - albeit biodegradable? We don’t know the answer to these questions - but we know that these are the questions to think about. And we want our new generations to think about these questions and to be ready to answer them the moment we have the technology to actually implement the transformative shifts we are envisioning today.
Emotional intelligence, creativity, empathy and adaptability are triggered in the 4IR Bio Lab by seemingly uncomfortable situations that cut through our conventional thinking and confront us with totally new frameworks of thought. What if humans can give birth to a non-human species? Technically, it may soon be possible.
And in times of overcrowding, environmental crisis, and mass extinction of endangered species, women could help save the Maui, for example, an endangered dolphin species, by giving birth to it. If this sounds “way out there”, then we invite you to step in the recess of the 4IR Bio Lab where the work by Ai Hasegawa will put you right in front of this (sur)real scenario. Are we aware of what reproductive rights, parental custody and animal welfare may look like in a not so distant future? The fact we may find it quite uncomfortable to talk about these issues today is the signal we need to challenge ourselves and create the tools and narratives we need in order to step into that conversation.
More powerful experiences await in the 4IR Bio Lab. These projects are not predictions of what the future will look like; instead, they are tools for the present. They are instruments designed to help us plan for what we don’t know yet - the future indeed.