The case for electric cars

This blog post started when I signed a Greenpeace petition aimed at Volkswagen to stop producing diesel cars

I posted the following on Facebook: Well worth signing IMHO, transport emissions are the big problem with regard to global warming so it would be good for diesel to go followed in fairly short order by petroleum

Dave Hills Taylor replied : I have one of their TSI petrol engines that they are currently pushing – these give the performance people want from a VW but with smaller engines and at much lower revs and hence lower emissions. VW have made a mess of things with dieselgate but this is a step in the right direction. Obviously electric cars have to be the future long term.

Then my son Tom joined in: Problem with electric cars is that they don’t go anywhere near as far on a single charge as a liquid fuelled car does on one tank of petrol or diesel. The idea of stopping every two hours (at least) to put my car on charge for 30 minutes – complete nightmare. Once that’s changed maybe they’ll be a more attractive option.

I replied: I agree but battery technology is rapidly improving. I know they aren’t meant for cars but Elon Musk’s battery development in Oz is impressive,  so I think it’s only a  matter of time.471769860.0-1

Then Tom wrote: Will happily make the swap in the future once the technology is delivering at a reasonable cost. Electric cars are stupidly expensive compared to ‘old fashioned’ ones.

And I replied: Not if you added to the cost of old fashioned cars a tax that accounted for the environmental damage they do. And there is so much less to go wrong with an electric car lots less parts.

Then Tom wrote: The nearest I’d get to electric at the moment due to the size of car I’d need is a hybrid. And just looked at my lease pricing for appropriately sized car for our family needs and it’s more than 50% extra every month. Price needs to come down before the man on the street will adopt.

I replied: You’re right but with the right incentives the price will come down and we all need to think of the planet.

Tom wrote: It’s quite simple really, the manufactures need to take the lead, if they were thinking of the planet then they’d make the cars affordable then more people would buy them and we’d have greater adoption the electric car. But the problem of battery life means purely electric cars are only good for short around town journeys. Another couple years and I’m sure the picture will be different. Fingers crossed.

I replied: Dead right – manufacturers are key but government and the people can have an influence so I’m keen for a bit more support for environmental groups and their lobbying and pressure on manufacturers to become an election issue.

Tom wrote: If you really want to get into it you also need property developers to be building housing with car charging facilities from the outset. That’s another cost that will need to be considered at some point as and when we get one to add to our 116 year old property. (Not really into the idea of trailing a lead out the living room window). Also not quite sure how you deal with charging of cars where residents have to park on the roadside, i.e. don’t have garage or off road parking on their property. The ambulance chasers will have a field day with claims from people who’ve tripped over or injured themselves on electric cables lying over the paths to the road.

I replied: All these technical problems can be solved if there is political will. I remember when it was economically expedient to stop baking coal to produce coal gas and use North Sea gas instead. Every gas cooker in the country had to be modified and cooker manufacturers started producing cookers that worked on natural as opposed to coal gas. If we could do that then we ought to be able to do something similar with regard to charging electric cars.

Tom wrote: And just another thing, well two things, 1) if we did have an electric car and came to visit you in an electric car where could we charge up once we’d got to yours. And 2) Louise has just informed me that different makes of car have different style plugs (FFS that’s as bad as these electric / gas smart meters not being a standard so you can’t switch suppliers and stay SMART) and there’s a number 3. So 3) you actually have to subscribe to different charging point suppliers. Change is always different and something businesses are always facing so doing that with a population is a massive challenge.

I replied: Definitely a massive challenge but what else would one expect when the fate of the planet is at stake. Oh and by the way, this is a great conversation.

All this led me to think about the way we might teach young people about the problems facing the planet and the role of electric cars in the solutions. It’s easy to say we should go electric but as Tom pointed out it’s much easier said than done. We certainly won’t be able to go electric without auto manufacturers stepping up to the plate and playing a major role. Government will have a major role in providing incentives both to the manufacturer and the motorist. And in democracies the general populace will have a role in voting in such a way that government has a mandate to provide these incentives. As with all technology it’s a complex combination of the technical, the political, the economic and the social. This is by no means an ‘easy teach’ but if we are to produce an informed general public that plays its part in lobbying government then its something D&T teachers should prioritise.

And then by chance just before I began to write this post I came across an article in January 29 edition of Time entitled China takes pole position in the electric car race. Some key quotes:

  • China (not a democracy) has offered subsidies to buyers to the tune of $15,000 per vehicle,
  • Threatened to block automakers that don’t make electric vehicles from selling traditional cars,
  • Funded electric vehicle infrastructure like charging stations across the country’s highway network.
  • China is expected to spend $60 billion in electric-vehicle subsidies in the half decade preceding 2020.
  • Chinese automakers are expected to produce more than 4.5 million electric vehicles annually in 2020 compared with 1 million from Tesla.

To come full circle, elsewhere in this issue of Time a piece about the future of transport commented on the cooperation between Google and Volkwagen to build a quantum computer which will enable research to focus on three areas: traffic optimization, materials simulation for vehicle construction and battery research, and the development of new learning processes and AI processes needed for self driving cars. The CIO of Volkswagen, Martin Hofmann, is quoted as saying, “Quantum computers give us a completely new dimension. In 10 years, they will be orchestrating mobility in metropolitan areas, routing autonomous vehicles, predicting traffic flows and optimizing urban mobility.

I’ll finish with a quote Alfonso Albaisa, SVP for Global Design Nissan Motor Company, “It is a thrilling time to be a designer. We are being asked to dream.” How often do we enable the young people we teach to dream designerly dreams?

As always comments welcome


As a courtesy I ran the post by Tom and he commented, “As a teacher I personally would probably make more of a point of medium term change. For example, it currently takes me 10 minutes (max) to refuel my car (and pay for the fuel) enabling it to travel a distance of up to 500 miles. Lots of vehicles can use a petrol station in a single day. That isn’t currently possible with an electric car due to the amount of time required to fully charge an electric car or the distance it can travel on a single charge. We aren’t going to get an electric equivalent over night therefore we need to think about changes that move us in the right direction and enable people to adopt electric cars and this isn’t just getting government backing but also I think local authority. One way of recognising this in a class room environment would be to ask the students where they (or their parents) would charge an electric car if they owned one. Or what changes would need to be made to enable them to have an electric car. And that would come back to my point about charging cables out of windows and over pavements.

Now here’s a thought, a class of year 11 or 12 students using what their parents have said about charging electric cars as the basis for interviewing a local councillor about transport policy. All part of their ‘considering the consequences of technology’ D&T lessons focusing on important local issues.



Will this report make a difference?

It is generally acknowledged that the proportion of the future workforce with engineering and other STEM skills will significantly determine the UK’s future economic success. Yet the low visibility of engineering in our schools means that the nation is heavily reliant on a narrow cadre of young people, often from families with engineering heritage, to become the nation’s industrialists, manufacturers, innovators and designers. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will require a technically-skilled workforce from more diverse backgrounds and with a wider range of interests and talents.

There have been a plethora of reports extolling the virtues of education for engineering in secondary schools in recent years. The sad fact is that they have made very little difference to the status of subjects that support education for engineering and the numbers of young people studying named engineering courses at schools has remained low. One can but hope that the new report from the Institution Of Mechanical Engineers, “We think it is important but we don’t quite know what it is” The culture of engineering in schools  will not suffer the same fate.

The report is the culmination of two research studies that explored perceptions and experience of engineering in secondary school education. The first study sought to understand how 11-14 year old pupils, their parents, teachers, school governors and school leaders, frame engineering. The second presented a deeper engagement with engineering through the experience of post-16 students, participating in bespoke engineering debating competitions run jointly by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Ideas. This report calls on Government, education practitioners and the engineering community to act together to ensure that more young people discover what engineering is, both as a creative intellectual process and a rich source of future career opportunity.

The report makes four recommendations

  1. As part of its industrial strategy, Government should situate engineering at the heart of schools education by:
  • Setting up a working group of leading educationalists and other stakeholders to review and report on innovative ways to integrate engineering into young people’s education
  • Appointing a nationally respected Schools Engineering Champion to provide a channel of communication between schools, Government and industry, and to advocate the wider cultural value of greater technological literacy alongside the economic rationale for investing in skills to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution
  1. National Education Departments should begin this process by ensuring that engineering is integral to classroom learning by:
  • Advocating curricula that better reflect the importance of the made world to modern society, and make explicit reference to the engineering applications of science, mathematics, and design and technology
  • Promoting approaches to teaching that emphasise and value engineering ‘thinking skills’ and problem-based learning
  1. Individual schools should adopt an engineering vision and strategy, with support from local employers and national governors’ associations, which would include:
  • Appointing a member of the school senior leadership team as an Engineering & Industry Leader to establish and communicate a vision for the school and to drive change
  • Appointing a dedicated Industry School Governor to work alongside and advise the Engineering & Industry Leader, and to embed employer relationships in school governance
  • Implementing a robust careers strategy such as the benchmarks set out in The Gatsby Foundation’s Good Career Guidance report, with special emphasis on embedding careers awareness in the curriculum
  1. The engineering community should present a unified narrative around engineering that will be attractive and relevant to a wider range of students by:
  • Stressing the creative problem-solving nature of engineering, its social benefits and relevance to individuals
  • Providing opportunities for students to take part in activities that explore the political, societal and ethical aspects of technology.

For those of us who support education for engineering these recommendations will seem eminently sensible and that the various bodies charged with taking them forward should do just that. But will this be the case? Who will act as agent provocateur with those agencies and organisations called upon to take action to ensure that this report, like so many before it, does not sink into oblivion? So I’m asking that Peter Finegold, the Head of Education and Skills at the IMechE uses his influence and that of the engineering community to galvanise action with regard to Recommendations 1 and 2. Clearly all the professional engineering institutions, the Royal Academy of Engineering and employers have their parts to play with regard to Recommendation 4 although I think it will be necessary to identify a focus for this support if it is to be effective. As to Recommendation 3 I think design & technology departments in individual schools can and should support an engineering vision and strategy. Readers will have noted that I have used the term ‘education for engineering’ not ‘engineering education’. I firmly believe that teaching young people design & technology at school is much more likely to open their eyes to worthwhile technical careers in general as well as engineering in particular than named engineering courses. Such teaching will not only predispose some young people to consider a career in engineering but will give all young people studying the subject a positive attitude towards and appreciation of the contribution designers, technologists and engineers make to our society.

The report argues that ‘the made world’ should have a much higher profile in the school curriculum. In response, my message is simple – if we want more young people to understand the made world and engage in STEM careers then we need to “BIG UP” design & technology and make sure the new GCSE is a huge success.

As always comments welcome and I’ll be happy to forward these to Peter at theIMechE.


You may consider the youtube video Slaughterbots  a piece of science fiction but that would I think sell it short. I prefer to think of it as a thought experiment with regard to how swarm robots coupled face recognition software might be used as autonomous killer robots. That is robots who can decide for themselves when to kill a human target when the face recognised matches a ‘threat’ identified by those who own and control the deployment of the swarm robots. It’s easy to see this as fanciful but many serious folk are taking the possibility of autonomous killer robots very seriously. From a government’s point of view deploying robot soldiers as opposed to human soldiers has many advantages, not the least the lack of human casualties. At the moment robot soldiers of various kinds operate in collaboration with humans who have the ultimate ‘say’ with regard to a ‘kill decision’. This was explored effectively in the film Eye in the Sky Face recognition software played a significant part in the human decision to initiate a lethal strike. So Eye in the Sky to some extent endorses the thesis in Slaughterbots of the near reality of autonomous killer robots. The use of swarms of killer robots reduces the research and development costs significantly – each bot is cheap and mass manufacture is relatively inexpensive and the software guiding swarm behaviour is not that complex – as indicated in the youtube video. Where is this issue taken seriously – look no further than the Ban Lethal Autonomous Weapons website This provides a call to action and links to a campaign to stop killer robots

This is an important issue facing society and the question for us involved in teaching young people is to what extent should such an issue be explored in school? One of the justifications for teaching design & technology as part of a general education for all young people is that it introduces them to such issues and gives them the intellectual tools to think about them in a critical yet constructive way. I look to the day when such issues feature in the written examination of the recently introduced D&T GCSE. Would this be too much to ask of a GCSE introduced to reinvigorate the subject?

As always comments welcome.

Let there be science

The book Let there be science  by David Hutchings and Tom McLeish explores the case for Biblical support for scientific activity. I found it a fascinating although in many places I think they conflate science with technology. Rather than seeing this as a weakness I think it provides an opportunity to extend the consideration of Biblical revelation as to the nature and purpose of technology and what if anything this might have to say about the teaching and learning of design & technology in the secondary school. With these thoughts in mind I have written Let there be science – considerations from a design & technology education perspective as both commentary and critique.

My friend and colleague Torben Steeg, the very opposite of a ‘faith head’, has read the piece and raised the following comments and questions:

On page 5 you write

Those without faith might see the universe as being ‘ordered’ in this way as a result of its intrinsic nature and not through its being created by God but that seems to me to be just as much an act of faith as believing in God.

I think one might argue that it’s been the exploration of science/scientists that has revealed that the universe does appear to be ordered – for whatever reason. In that case it’s a working assumption that could be falsified; but I guess it’s a bit circular since without such an assumption the enterprise of science wouldn’t make much sense. So you could label that ‘faith’; but I don’t think it’s the same kind of thing as religious faith. (Though I’m sure some scientists operate from a faith that is more like the religious type…)

On page 6 you write

And it is echoed in the writings of Robert White (2014) a prominent geophysicist.

Natural processes such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and the natural greenhouse effect are what make the world a fertile place in which to live. Without them, it would become a dead, sterile world and no one would be here to see it.

(page 10)

But… if you wanted to push this, why couldn’t an omnipotent god create a world (an the underlying science) where a fertile and rich environment wasn’t dependent on such things?

In your discussion of Chapter 10, (pages 8-9) it occurs to me that the notion of precautionary principle is useful – with practical examples being the original and the recent Asilomar conferences on, respectively, genetic engineering and AI.

On page 11 you write

However, the construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1 – 9) by which humans could reach heaven was confounded by God through the creation of multiple languages so that those building the Tower could not communicate with one another. This can be seen as a denial of technological activity when it is being used to thwart God’s purpose.

It seems to me that the Tower of Babel story is of dubious relevance; if she’s an interventionist God, why the arbitrariness of when to intervene or not? For example, why not intervene when torture or gas chambers are being built – or is she only concerned about threats to her own domain…?

But then I do think that there is a tendency for religious types to assume that God’s interventionist aims align with their own (though they would probably say that their aims align with hers…) – as when all sides in a war (or election…) pray for victory.

Nick Cave captures this nicely…

I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Not to touch a hair on your head
To leave you as you are
And if He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms

(You can watch/hear the whole thing here)

I have heard it argued (persuasively to me) that the second of the Ten Commandments (You shall not use the Lord’s Name in vain) refers not to casual ‘blasphemy’ but rather to the use of phrases like ‘It’s God’s will’ to persuade folk to the opinion of the speaker.

You go on to say that:

Hence it seems that God is placing the responsibility on humanity to use technology in ways that are consistent with the covenant between God and his creation, in particular our world, the living creatures that inhabit it and the ecosystems that maintain it.

But this responsibility is given without, it seems, very clear guidance; my, admittedly casual, observation is that Christians seem to disagree about a lot of things that relate to “our world, the living creatures that inhabit it and the ecosystems that maintain it“.

Rev. Colin Davis, Rector of Carrowdore & Millisle, Church of Ireland has also read the piece and made the following comments:

It can sometimes be a popular misconception that science and faith (mostly Christian, but I guess others as well) are in opposition and yet in reality, as Tom and David indicate, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Bible teaches that God created order out of chaos and although the Earth can often seem a very chaotic place, in fact it ‘operates’ by very definite ‘laws & principles’. Science rather than being a ‘spoiler’ (removing the mystery from nature through explanations that are arid and lacking in wonder) helps us to understand more of how things work and provides greater insight that we can use to appreciate the wonder therein. We can see Biblical writing as exploring and revealing the relationship between God and humanity and in revealing something of the nature of science and our obligation to pursue scientific activity also reveal something of the nature of God.

We know from experience and history that gifts can be used for good or ill, and seeing science as a gift from God places on us ‘the burden of responsible use’. The story of the Tower of Babel points very much to a warning for humanity to use God given gifts, including science and technology in the light of this burden rather than for us to raise our own sense of achievement without regard to God’s wishes putting humanity in the position of challenging or denying God. The futility and arrogance of such challenge/denial is captured well in this anecdote I remember from my days when training for the priesthood.

A group of successful scientists were so accomplished and confident that they thought to challenge God and create their own human being. God accepted the challenge and taking a handful of dust he created a human. The scientists bent down to grab some earth and God stopped them saying, “Get your own dust!”

God, in creating the Universe including the Earth and all creatures living on the planet wants a special relationship with humans. God loves us and wants us to love Him/Her in return and to love one another but in doing this takes a huge risk. We have a choice as to whether we love God, one another or not. The way we live our lives, treat one another and use the gifts of the creator will be determined by the choice we make. For the Christian St Paul sums this up in Chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans:

3 For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.

4 For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function,

5 so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.

6 Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith;

7 or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching;

8 he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good.

It is not too much a stretch of the theological imagination to envisage another verse along the lines:

Or she that is scientific or technological to pursue this with due humility and regard for consequences.

As always further comments or questions welcome.

Comments in response to ‘design for good’ and the Contextual Challenge

I received interesting comments from Andy Mitchell (Design & Technology Association), David Spendlove (University of Manchester) and David Ellis (Southern Cross University, New South Wales) which they are happy for me to share. All three indicated that the Contextual Challenge provided important opportunities to show the worth of design & technology as a subject suitable for ALL young people.

  • From Andy Mitchell … considerable opportunity for the subject and students being encouraged to address real and relevant challenge
  • From David Spendlove … To me this is where design is potentially at it’s best as there are opportunities for pupils to reflect upon their own design thinking. So in my mind there should be a real opportunity to speculate and question
  • From David Ellis … an excellent opportunity for students develop their empathy for authentic design problems. I also think that the engagement in projects such as these are ‘gold’ in terms of promoting what we do to the wider community.

However none of them thought that such ‘design for good’ responses were a forgone conclusion.

  • From Andy Mitchell … (I) fear that the damaging and polluting effect of what has been the expectation from AO over recent years is going to take some undoing. If schools don’t see this as an opportunity and rise to the challenge, as I have also been saying, their future is at best insecure.
  • From David Spendlove … It offers so much scope but could simply end up in contrived tokenism.
  • From David Ellis … to add to the list of authentic design problems where teachers could develop a rich narrative, concepts such as eco-designing haven’t gained enough traction here.  The infiltration of environmental education values in the Australian curricula has presently been a missed opportunity in my opinion, and teachers could do a lot more.

Andy and David (S) were clear that teachers would need help in rising to the challenge.

  • From Andy Mitchell … But as you also imply, teachers really do need the type of support and input to help them think about the changes in ways that I suspect representatives of the AOs are unlikely to provide.
  • From David Spendlove … I wonder how many schools will fully embrace this and see it as an opportunity? So whether it is designing inclusive play for a park or designing for the elderly what is influencing students decision making and thinking – is it prejudice, cognitive bias, delusion, self-deception, etc.  The book Critique in Design & Technology Education would be particularly valuable here.

And I would add that in adopting a ‘design for good’ approach to the Contextual Challenge it is important for departments to talk in some depth with their SLT and governors so that they understand the potential of the approach but also the risks if an AO is unsympathetic to the approach. Knowing that you have your SLT and governors on side strengthens resolve and enables a department to present a robust case to a sceptical AO.

As an aside both Andy and David (S) mentioned the poor state of recruitment for D&T teachers and wondered whether some of the training providers would introduce their trainees to a ‘design for good’ approach to the Contextual Challenge. I wouldn’t want to underplay the crisis in recruitment or the fragmented nature of teacher education but one thing does seem clear to me. Unless schools can ‘up their game’ with regard to the subject it does not represent an attractive proposition for new teachers. If you have an engineering degree for example you would be qualified to enter a PGCE course for science, mathematics or design & technology. Unless the practice you see in schools inspires you why would you choose to teach design & technology? Observing young people tackling real and relevant problems that they themselves have identified using a ‘design for good’ approach could well provide such inspiration.

As always comments welcome.

The potential for ‘design for good’ in the new D&T GCSE Contextual Challenge

Design activity can inform the development of a wide range of products and services. It does this across different levels of detail: from the positioning and nature of a switch at the level of fine detail to the overall nature and purpose of what is being designed at the grand scale level and for a device that required one or more switches this might be an electrically powered toy. And in most cases the designs operate within complex interacting systems and have to be conceived so that they can do this successfully. In previous GCSE specifications the Awarding Organisations set relatively closed design briefs for candidates to tackle. This led to young people spending much if not most of their designing time making decisions concerned mainly with fine levels of detail. This is not the case for the new specifications which start to be taught this September (2017) for examination in May/June 2019. The Non Examined Assessment or Contextual Challenges will be announced in June 2018 and candidates will spend the autumn and spring terms responding to them. Candidates might still design and make similar products to those they produced in previous specifications but this to my mind would be a lost opportunity. The whole point of the Contextual Challenge is that it requires candidates to explore situations and identify the needs and wants of people in those situations. From this consideration of needs and wants candidates develop their own design briefs to which they then respond through designing and making. This approach gives ownership of the activity to the candidates and enables them to pursue an endeavour which they consider to be worthwhile. Here are some sample Contextual Challenges posted by three Awarding Organisations.

From OCR we have

  • Public Spaces

The sensitive design of public spaces can enhance users’ experiences and interactions with that space. Explore a space in your locality with the view to enhancing the users’ experiences within that space.

  • Security

Theft of people’s personal possessions is a problem in modern society. Explore the role design can play in securing people’s belongings.

  • Dining

Dining can be a wonderful social and cultural experience that does not only focus on the eating of food. Explore the ways design can enhance the experiences for any of the stakeholders involved.

From AQA we have a rather more minimalist approach

  • A high profile sporting event
  • Addressing the needs of the elderly
  • Children’s learning and play

From EdExcel we have

  • Improving living and working
  • Contextual challenges

(a) How can living spaces also be used for a work environment?

(b) How can objects be used for different purposes in a living or working environment?

  • The sporting arena
  • Contextual challenges

(a) How can technology be used to improve a sporting situation?

(b) How can merchandise be used to promote a sporting situation?

  • Expanding human capacity
  • Contextual challenges

(a) How can an aid for people with disabilities improve their capacity to perform a given task?

(b) How can we provide more protection for humans from the environment?

As an aside here we might ask if a more current and relevant contextual challenge would be the reverse?

Before we consider how these might play out in a ‘design for good’ approach it is worth looking briefly at this through the writing of Emily Pilloton. Her book Design Revolution is a clarion call to designers to make the distinction between ‘good design’ and ‘design for good’. To quote Allan Chochinovin writing in the foreword, when you move from good design to design for good ‘the design conversation moves from form, function, beauty and ergonomics to accessibility, affordability, sustainability and social worth.’ Allan is scathingly critical of much design activity, ‘Perhaps the wholesale poisoning of every natural system through industrialisation are “unintended” consequences, but there’s a cruel irony in designers running around, busily creating more and more garbage for our great grandchildren to dig up, breath, and ingest, all the while calling themselves “problem solvers”’. Emily’s book features more than 100 contemporary design products and systems including safer baby bottles, a waterless washing machine, low-cost prosthetics for landmine victims, Braille-based building blocks for blind children, wheelchairs for rugged conditions, sugarcane charcoal, and a universal composting systems. These and all the other items described in the book will make excellent case studies for D&T students on the theme of ‘design for good’.

So if we want our young people to embrace ‘design for good’ how might this play out in their responses to the GCSE Contextual Challenges. In theory all of the challenges identified above could be viewed through the lens of ‘design for good’ but some seem to offer more obvious opportunities than others. First a word of warning, as I explored this issue it became increasingly apparent that some if not most of the suggestions were outside the sorts of outcomes we have come to expect as D&T outcomes. Be that as it may I still think the exploration is worthwhile and in fact may encourage us to widen the scope of what is seen as an acceptable D&T outcome.

  • Consider Public Spaces (from OCR) as an example.

What could be done for a park that was run down and poorly maintained or a piece of uncared for waste ground. Planting a meadow that flowered throughout spring, summer and autumn such that once seeded it would require minimum maintenance, be a joy to behold and adding furniture made from reclaimed materials to enable passers by to sit and enjoy the surroundings would surely be ‘design for good’. And this isn’t simply aesthetic indulgence. Meadows are of ecological importance because they are open, sunny areas that attract and support flora and fauna that could not thrive in other conditions. They often host a multitude of wildlife providing areas for courtship displays, nesting food gathering and sometimes sheltering if the vegetation is high enough. Many meadows support a wide array of wildflowers which makes them of utmost importance to insects like bees and other pollinating insects and hence the entire ecosystem. Clearly there are obstacles to be overcome in negotiating with the local authority and their parks and gardens department but surely worth a try. And how to manage this as part of the NEA? Too big a task for a single student well then, could it be a group project in which several individual students take on different aspects of the challenge? Providing there was sufficient design and make activity for each student this should not be too great a problem. Each candidate would have to be able to demonstrate clearly their own individual involvement, reflections, ideas and outcomes that were not simply using the work/outcomes of the peers they were working with, acknowledging interactions with others as they occur. The group dynamics would need to be good and each student committed to a fair share of the effort, no room for passengers. And as for a busy city street that has existed since Victorian times there would be lots of history to be revealed which could be shown using augmented reality (AR). Developing a series of location specific histories using open source AR software that could be loaded onto a tablet or mobile phone would enhance the experience of users within that space. Would such a digital solution to the challenge count? I asked Jonny Edge of OCR and he gave this useful and considered response.

There would be possibilities and problems in this. If they are simply developing location specific histories that rely on freely available AR software, this is more App development and therefore the domain of Computer Science / ICT. Ideas and potential outcomes would have to be considered against the Marking Criteria. What is the physical 3D ‘final prototype’? If the teacher isn’t mindful then this could be leading candidates into a situation that will disadvantage their assessment. The problem seems to be that there is no physical product unless the learner designs a holder or hand support / glasses / heads up display / special accessory etc. for the tablet/phone. If this was included I see no real problem as long as the right balance is achieved. This could be a series of prototypes, rather than just one. Part of it might be the digital/virtual aspect, but in order to meet the assessment criteria of all boards there would need to be evidence of the use of hand tools, machinery, digital design and digital manufacture. The way the OCR assessment works means that this does not all need to be shown in the making of the final prototype(s). The consideration that a candidate needs to make here is the physical attributes of their design solution. Other solutions/considerations to those given above may be how they are displayed/presented in the location. A criticism of the AR approach to enhancing users’ experience of the space would be that not all users have access to mobile devices and this should be considered as a limitation by the candidate.


  • And what about Addressing the needs of the elderly (from AQA)?

There is no doubt that we are living longer and that this is creating problems for our health service. The elderly become infirm and frail and sometimes suffer from dementia. Providing care for the elderly is a problem that is likely to grow (see for example and it is important that young people appreciate this and become engaged with developing solutions. So this is a challenge that has implicit appeal to ‘design for good’. And it is essential that any approach to the elderly treat them with respect and dignity. How might young people tackle this challenge? Visiting and listening to the elderly is surely a first step, perhaps their own family members, perhaps residents in local sheltered housing or care facilities. Simply hearing about their lives now and in the past would provide a wealth of information that could lead to suggestions for the elderly and the young people to consider together. I’m not sure what would come out of such considerations. But then, that’s the point of a Contextual Challenge, you don’t know at the start what you’re going to be designing and making. One idea that might appeal to both young and old alike did occur to me. A treasure box in which an elderly person could keep particularly precious mementos of times past – letters, postcards, photographs, jewellery, medals – which he or she could use as reminders of the past and as stimulus when talking to others about their life. Exactly what such a box would look like would be up to the young and elderly to decide together but there would certainly be lots of opportunity to design and make to an exceptionally high standard.

  • And How can merchandise be used to promote a sporting situation (from EdExcel)?

I must admit my heart did sink a bit on this one; merchandising had the ring of “creating more and more garbage for our great grandchildren to dig up, breath, and ingest” to re-quote Allan Chochinovin. However I know from personal experience that lots of sporting events are linked to charities of considerable worth – fun runs to raise funds to support research into diseases and support for those caring for the ill. So the question for me becomes how might young people re-interpret the idea of memorabilia so that the items designed were not trivia to be discarded after the event. I was drawn to the idea of packets of seeds that could be planted to give various coloured flowers to act as a reminder of the event. This might involve choosing the seeds, ensuring that they do in fact grow well in various conditions, providing instructions for planting and care, developing ‘memorabilia’ pots for the seeds – not typical D&T activities but then perhaps one of the challenges of the Contextual Challenge is that it will broaden what counts as designerly activity in D&T.

Engaging D&T students with ‘design for good’ through the Contextual Challenge will not be easy but is I think worth doing. If we are successful then the results will be plain for all to see and this has the potential to raise the profile and status of the subject with a wide range of stakeholders – parents, SLT, governors, the local community and local businesses. And D&T departments will I believe find allies in this endeavour. Sponsorship from local DIY stores (B&Q), local building supplies (Dewson) local banks (Barclays has several innovation centres) would be possible and desirable. Good PR for the sponsor, the school and the subject. Is this just too idealistic? Well may be, but what’s the point of being a teacher and trying to enable our young people to flourish if we aren’t idealistic? And remember there’s almost a whole academic year to lay the ground for the Contextual Challenge before they are announced.

As always comments welcome, particularly from Awarding Organisations.

  • PS

More can be found out about Emily Pilloton’s work; US based but there are lots of lessons for us in the UK here and from her Ted Talk Teaching design for change

Apple, Google, Microsoft or Amazon – which of these tech giants will help you live your life and spend your money? Whose AIs will you trust?

  • Google has Google Home, a hands free smart speaker which will be able to answer questions supported by advances in translation and image recognition.
  • Microsoft hopes to dominate the business space.
  • Apple has the HomePod to be launched in December and is investing in emotion detecting technology
  • Amazon has Alexa which will on request provide access to goods and services with more to come.

And according to an article in the September 2017 edition of Wired, authored by Liat Clark, Amazon is the front-runner. Whereas Google can provide information, Amazon can bring you things! Google Home is the smart friend at a party whereas Alexa is a benign butler. According to Liat Clark …

Amazon wants to introduce Alexa into every area of your life: your home, car, hospital, workplace. The ‘everything’ store is about to be everywhere. Alexa has to be human like because it is essential that people trust her, enough to let visual and audio ‘surveillance’ into their homes ad lives. Alexa can try to empathise with words alone at the moment but when she has cameras at her disposal she will be able to respond to visual clues as well as aural input. And in response Alexa is becoming more human like. Alexa can whisper, pause, take a breath, adjust its pitch and allow for key words such as ‘ahem’ and ‘yay’ to be emphasised in more engaging ways. Forging an apparently ‘emotional’ response from Alexa is the goal. An AI will need to know a person well to engage in a relationship based on emotional response. Amazon may well know more about you than your closest friends and so, of course, will Alexa and be able to use both what you say and do to forge, maintain and extend that relationship. The insightful film Robot and Frank asked the question, “Can an AI be your friend?” Amazon has the answer, “Of course, if you trust the AI as you might another human.” And that is Amazon’s overriding intention – to get us to trust Alexa as we might a human friend in the knowledge that she is not in fact another human and hence will not pry into your life or betray you as a human friend might.

Of course Jeff Bezos (and the CEOs of other tech giants) are constructing cathedrals of capitalism where they intend consumers to come to worship and offer up as sacrifice their wages in return for the goods and services recommended and provided by AIs they trust. But here there is a supreme irony. The very same AIs that are the heart of this new faith are also being deployed to automate many of the functions the worker-worshippers utilise to earn the wages they need to live out their consumerist lives. AIs may be simultaneously the engine of capitalism and its doom. What are we to make of this conundrum? Surely it is worth discussing with the young people whose lives will be most affected by this impact of technology on society and society’s response. And where better to do this than in design & technology lessons.

As always comments welcome.