Educating Gamechangers

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Climate change is one of the most urgent issue that we are currently facing. It is a catalyst that sets off a train of demographic instabilities resulting in global conflicts over natural resources, which, in turn, will lead up to social inequalities, ethnic frictions, war zones, and degraded living conditions. In the near decades, even the most affluent societies will be deeply affected, as we are already seeing a surge in migration and social exclusion as well as a growing distrust in the validity of politics, corporates and institutions.

Both Willem de Kooning Academy, University of Applied Sciences in Rotterdam and Moholy Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest (MOME) have put social challenges at the core of their trajectories. Attention is focused on societal complexities that entail major cases for teachable issues that are indisputably relevant for our curricula. Societal complexities are notably abundant in the dynamics of climate change. It is broadly recognized that they cover a wide range of challenges, on a scale that quickly becomes difficult to comprehend. We therefore zoom in on local, incremental developments that are exemplar of worldwide incongruities.

Societal complexities are embedded in a long-range program in which interdisciplinary is key. How to educate students for facing the societal complexities of climate change? How to create a learning environment that accounts for a need for empowerment, agency, self-efficacy and resilience of those who will suffer most? How to educate accordingly? What is the purpose of design and design education in this arena?

In this interactive break-out session our students will share their findings and dreams as next future’s protagonists in parallel sessions. Feel free to join their search for impact!



Workshop Impression

What Design Can Do launched a ‘climate action challenge’, stating that (summarized): “Climate change is already here. We shouldn’t just focus on renewables and preventing CO2 outputs, we have to prepare for what disruptions the climate has in store for us.” It’s been widely recognized that the so called “refugee crisis” is in big part due to the effects of climate change. One domino piece falling and setting in motion other pieces that continue to fall until civilized society ceases to exist and people are forced to flee their homes. This crisis was actually the topic of the previous ‘what design can do’ challenge, so besides just that one crisis apparently now the focus is on all the other adverse effects of climate change as well. (That’s not to say that we shouldn’t also keep trying to keep the earth from “tipping” the dreaded 2 degrees that will set in course a runaway greenhouse effect and make our planet more like Venus that like Earth. #existentialcrisis)

If we look back in history there has definitely been real concern for the climate change problem, at least since the 80s. But even though we saw it coming we were not able to prevent it. Just like we couldn’t “prevent” Facebook from becoming the dominant social media platform that we don’t necessarily like (pun intended) but also nearly can’t do without- like we can’t do without the comforts of a fossil fueled economy. The problem is in short: we thought we could change the outcome, while we kept playing the same game.

What has changed is that these kind of topics are now more actively being taught in schools than in the 80s. More than ever, there is a need to mentor our future leaders (students) on the urgency for inclusion, empowerment, self-efficacy and resilience. Things that aren’t self evident when merely learning a profession. That said, we shouldn’t only focus on the symptoms of climate change. You have to be aware of the complex interplay of politics, technology, environmental science, design and markets, consumer behaviors, etc. Because just trying to solve one part of the problem will not change the complete system. But then again, trying to teach all that in one curriculum is also madness.

So how do we educate our students to become gamechangers while dealing with this complex interplay at multiple levels? That was we wanted to find out together with the more or less 50 participants at our session at What Design Can Do. During the event, 4 groups of students from different social practices who worked on different assignments, each gave a presentation on their projects and were questioned by our participants on the process they had during their courses and how that stood in relation to the education they were given. After that we actually asked the students themselves to tell us how we should better educate them. This is what we got (here is the gold):

The students told us that in hindsight they appreciated very much being brought out of their comfort zones because it opened up their eyes. This is for example what we try to do when we pair them up with local people in Rotterdam as part of their assignments. But it also involved having to dive into subjects they knew nothing about previously or weren’t part of their own discipline.

In relation to this the need for discussion, open conversations, was expressed. Social topics, unsurprisingly, require a debate. Not just from teacher to student, but students amongst themselves. Teachers have to step back as a source of information and start acting more as a facilitator that helps students learn together. As said, politics, are a player in the grand scheme of things, and the students became really aware that they didn’t speak the “political language” yet. In fact, learning different languages, not only national but also contextual or professional jargon, is a must for being able to dive in deeper and connect the creative profession to the governmental.

A feeling often felt is that a student project finishes and remains just a good idea but never goes further than that unless a student decides to pursue it herself/himself. Connecting those ideas to the market, actually testing it with people and working out a business plan should be a part of their projects. Then again, we have to stay cautious that we don’t keep playing the same game. Sometimes their projects do not immediately catch on simply because they are challenging the status quo. That also raises the question of when such a project is actually a success. How do you measure that people’s attitudes have changed because of this project and/or the positive side-effects that might occur because of it? At least a lot of knowledge is usually created in these projects and we pay more attention that this knowledge is transferrable so that other people can pick it up. That is also an interesting new concept within the creative industry because it changes how we look at ownership. It challenges the position of autonomous or commercial artists that previously still felt they needed to own the intellectual property to make a living.

Summing up it seems like we need to rethink the question. Can you actually “educate” a gamechanger? A gamechanger challenges authority (that’s us, the teachers) and changes the rules. She/he therefore creates new ways of being, living, consuming, doing politics, technology, and so forth through her/his practice. So perhaps... we replace “educate” with “make room for”.

Gaspard Bos
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