Technologies, Disruption – and D&T education


There is a fairly constant deluge of speculations on the internet about technology and disruption, but three recent articles discussing developments predicted to happen in the next 15-20 years (!) have particularly caught my eye.

Firstly, from the Singularity Hub, These Technologies Will Shift the Global Balance of Power in the Next 20 Years explores energy futures, robotics and digital manufacturing. It makes the case that solar power will rise to be a dominant source of energy, bringing to an end the era of oil in the next 15 years; far faster than most people are expecting. It goes on to suggest that robotics will completely change how and where products are made and that robots in their turn will be displaced by digital manufacturing.

…don’t be surprised if by 2030, the industrial robots go on strike, waving placards saying “stop the 3D printers: they are taking our jobs away.”

Wired’s contribution, Dell. EMC. HP. Cisco. These Tech Giants Are the Walking Dead, deals with technological changes that are happening right now.  [Note that this article is not entirely safe for work…] It is an exploration of disruption triggered by the very recent purchase by computer maker Dell of data storage company EMC (for $67 billion…). In short the argument is that these traditional purveyors of network, storage and processing machines will be made irrelevant by the vast web-based (“Cloud”) services provided by companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook.

If you use Amazon, you don’t need servers and other hardware from Dell and HP and EMC and Cisco—and you don’t need databases from Oracle and IBM.

And, back on the Singularity Hub, there is discussion of Ray Kurzweil’s Wildest Prediction: Nanobots Will Plug Our Brains Into the Web by the 2030s. Now, Kurzweil is a controversial figure and not all accept that the singularity is near. However the article does point out that

As reported, “of the 147 predictions that Kurzweil has made since the 1990s, fully 115 of them have turned out to be correct, and another 12 have turned out to be “essentially correct” (off by a year or two), giving his predictions a stunning 86% accuracy rate.”

The article explores some of the consequences of Kurzweil being right about this, including brain-to-brain communication and downloadable expertise, and notes that

If this future becomes reality, connected humans are going to change everything. We need to discuss the implications in order to make the right decisions now so that we are prepared for the future.

The first of these articles ends by noting the importance of education in preparing societies for these kinds of changes:

Countries that have invested in educating their populations, built strong consumer economies, and have democratic institutions that can deal with social change will benefit — because their people will have had their basic needs met and can figure out how to take advantage of the advances in technology.

And this, really, is the point of this post, whether or not the predictions discussed above turn out to be largely right or not, they need debating in advance – and not just by experts, but by all of society.

Key to making this happen is education, though I am less sanguine than Vivek Wadhwa (quoted above) that we have an education system that really prepares all that pass through it for the kind of informed debate required.

If this education is going to happen then it will be particularly, though not exclusively, through D&T. This is why the new D&T KS3 Programmes of Study require pupils to be taught to

understand developments in design and technology, its impact on individuals, society and the environment, and the responsibilities of designers, engineers and technologists

And the proposed new subject content guidance for GCSE D&T requires students to know and understand

  • the impact on industry, enterprise, sustainability, people, culture, society and the environment of new and emerging technologies, production techniques and systems
  • how the critical evaluation of new and emerging technologies, in contemporary and potential future scenarios, from different perspectives, such as ethics and the environment, informs design decisions

D&T departments need to embrace these aspects of the subject and provide leadership in their schools for these elements of critical education. Just designing and making stuff is not enough.

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4 thoughts on “Technologies, Disruption – and D&T education

  1. Another very interesting post here Torben. I am currently writing something similar based on a book I have just read called “Makers”, by Chris Anderson. Chris focusses on the implication of manufacturing on business, so it really draws in the economic side of things, but interestingly highlights the emphasis on design and how good design breeds good making.

    Chris refers to the introduction of disruptive technology including additive manufacture, robotics, internet, programming and coding as “the new industrial revolution”. Fairly strong comments I am sure you would agree.

    I agree with Kevin’s comments about the “Best D&T departments subscribing” and this content triangulates perfectly with your reference to the national curriculum and subject content publications. But, how do we stop this obsession with making junk e.g. candle holders, LED clocks, photo frames, keyring, pencil cases and sustainable bags made from grandma’s old capri sun packaging (you get the idea).

    Ironically, this ‘junk’ is gathering pace and being driven largely now by a disruptive technologies itself (social media and the internet).

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  2. A good article that throws up some good points for debate. ‘Robots’ and the like have been around for many years. I remember having a toy car that drove itself around the floor bumping into things then re-directing itself and going again….and my mums Kenwood Chef doing many things autonomously; and that was 30+ years ago. Designing (concept development and sketching….) is key. Languages and History (of what has happened before…) vital. Art, Science, Businees Studies/economics and Maths also important.

    However, making these products requires an understanding of materials, processes and costs so that they can be made. All the automated machines in the world are only as good as the human inputting the data – and that human has to have an understanding of the processes and properties of materials involved. Both Design AND manufacture has to be at the core of Design education. Problem solving skills and idea generation on its own is not enough.

    It does not matter how many CNC machines or 3D printers you have…if you don’t understand the materials going into them, or the manufacturing processes involved to make them, you can’t speculate and advise on the best materials and process to make that robot that cuts your grass when you are on the other side of the world.

    We have imbalance in our DT curriculums currently. Coders and digital citizens abound so our GUI’s and machine interfaces are sound BUT we don’t have folk with the skills to actually make the products that this tech goes into.

    That’s the issue and that is why, to me, Design (and Technology) education is so important, now and moving forwards.

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  3. Interesting stuff Torben and great links. Thanks. Obviously I don’t need convincing and I completely agree that these are exactly the kind of thing that should be being discussed in D&T by teachers working with their students at all levels. Various national curricuum versions haven’t managed to do effect this IMO, including the current one: I see little evidence that the para we wrote and you quote, is having much impact on schemes of work and the overall nature of the range of activity that should be taking place. BUT, I am hopeful that as this type of activity transcends into KS4 through GCSE requirements, the stamp of officialdom Awarding Boards bring and the threat of the impending examination might just change this. Of course this is completely dependent on the AOs stepping up to the plate and responding to the new subject content appropriately (they must) and then assessing it in ways that require challening young people in ways that typically previous examinations have not. We shall see.

    So yes designing and making stuff is not enough. I share Kevin’s concern too. But I’d even go further and I refer to your earlier reference you make to robots completely changing what and where things are made. I completely agree and am excited by this. I’m a great fan of robots – not least as I own one that takes care of my acre of grass with vitually complete autonomy. I’m considering buyiing the module and the iphone App tha enables it to text me whereever I am in the world if say, it gets stuck or it needs its blades cahnging. It also saves masses of energy its power requiremetns being amazingly low and my time mowing and coping with the resulting cuttings. Its not making stuff but its releasing my time so I can. And that is something that I and probably at some stage in their lives at least, everybody wants to do. D&T provides both the inspiration and the skills to be able to do that. Robots will never make everything we own and more’s the point, want to own. On my way back home from the office I’m calling in at a Blacksmiths to pick up a couple of things for the garden that I’ve commisioned her to make. My guess is and Ill find out later, she probably first got interested in blacksmithing as a consequence of enjoying and doing well at D&T (or what preceded it) when she was at school. The importance of us giving young people the opportuntiy to be creative and realise their creativity through (often) craft based activity resulting in artefacts that are cherished by those who acquire them is in my mind really important. But I know you know that don’t you.

    Back to budgetting.

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  4. Hi Torben, I like the main thrust of the article and agree in most part, although we should not just be educating young people to discuss these issues but they should be embracing disruption as this is what normally dictates all technological and societal advances.
    However, although I do agree that design and technology should be at the forefront of these discussions, it is only the best departments, who will take up this challenge. You say just designing and making stuff is no longer enough, I’d be happy if more schools had that as their starting point! Sadly too many are still stuck in the culture where making is truly the key driver in everything they do and designing stuff, as you put it, is secondary.
    Good article, good discussion.
    G’day Kevin

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