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Bringing art into science, technology, engineering and mathematics education

City of Tshwane Mayor, Solly Msimanga, attending a workshop at Aurecon aimed at collaboratively brainstorming ways to reinvent the City

In March 2018, we at Aurecon hosted the Capital City Business Chamber (CCBC), the City of Tshwane and various private businesses operating in the city at a workshop aimed at collaboratively brainstorming ways to reinvent the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality.

The workshop was attended by the Mayor of the City of Tshwane and several members of his mayoral committee. Because the workshop was a great success, the CCBC asked us to give a presentation to a group of Gauteng school principals on why pupils should be taught critical thinking and creativity from a very young age. The event, which formed part of an initiative of the CCBC in collaboration with the Gauteng Department of Education, was held on 10 May 2018 at the South African National Library in Tshwane. By means of our presentation, we proposed to the attending school principals that, as the world is changing at a rapid pace, traditional teaching methods will no longer suffice: our children should be taught to be critical as well as creative thinkers.

Importance of being both technically skilled and inventive in engineering industry

From a young age, students are guided to choose either a technical or a creative career path, as technical ability and creativity are often (mistakenly) believed to be mutually exclusive capabilities. Most engineers are analytical thinkers who have been taught to hone their technical skills – frequently at the expense of fostering and applying their own inventiveness. In the engineering industry of today, those who possess both technical expertise and creativity have a distinct competitive advantage: it is becoming increasingly apparent that engineers need both technical knowledge and artistic skill to produce innovative and competitive designs. We believe that it is crucial that engineers be encouraged to develop not only their technical understanding, but also their creative power.

Aurecon’s human-centred design methodology aim to foster creative thinking

We incorporated design-led thinking into our business processes about two years ago, because our thinking about design was unsustainable in the long term, especially in view of the unprecedented changes we’re experiencing, and will continue to experience, in the industry. We needed to transform our strategy to create a future-ready organisation that could thrive on disruption and that possessed the culture and principles required to embrace a human-centric approach to everything we do. For infrastructure or building projects, engineers typically produce designs that meet the technical requirements they have been taught and are familiar with, but often forget to engage end-user stakeholders. Consequently, their designs are usually technically sound but lack a deeper understanding of end users’ needs. To address this common problem, we made human-centred and empathetic design part of our design methodology – and our new strategy proved to be extremely effective.

Along our journey of design-led thinking, we started asking ourselves what capabilities future engineers would require. It became increasingly clear that creativity and critical thinking were traits that engineers needed to be successful in their careers. We also began asking ourselves what we, as a company, could do to become an organisation where such engineers would want to work. We are currently on a journey of reinvention, strengthening our vast array of technical skills by introducing programmes such as our Design Academy, while also purposefully encouraging our staff to nurture their creative capabilities.

Need for creativity and critical thinking in school curriculums

In order for us to make a meaningful difference in the future of the African continent, we need to start educating and training engineers who are agile and innovative. Future engineers must be able to reinvent themselves and to solve problems quickly. These requirements are not restricted to engineers: private-sector companies and government institutions alike will need employees who are ready to navigate the pressing challenges that exist in today’s global economy – challenges that will only intensify in the years to come. Employees will need to hit the ground running when they enter the workforce. Moreover, many traditional career choices will be tested as technology renders some jobs obsolete and sets the stage for new ones to emerge. As a result, employees will have to be nimble and capable of adjusting to ever-changing needs in the job market.

Accordingly, it is crucial for companies such as Aurecon, organisations such as the CCBC and local government to continue to create opportunities for school principals to learn what they can do to incorporate creativity and critical thinking into school curriculums to ensure that all future employees in the global market possess the agility, critical thinking ability and imagination they will need to thrive.

About the author

Karen Healy

Karen Healy is a Design Innovation Partner at Aurecon. With a foot in each of the analytical and creative worlds, her exposure to navigating challenges and opportunities inside of both has helped her craft an understanding of the technical feasibility and human desirability of complex, human-centred problems.

After spending a number of years in the competitive and fast-paced world of fashion in New York, Karen took an unplanned detour into the realm of engineering in South Africa which instilled an unexpected but very beneficial sense of structure and discipline into her thinking. Karen has spent a further 11 years working in and around the Built Environment, Government, Resources and Advisory markets while completing a Business Administration degree and qualifying as a Pilates teacher.

Her passion for understanding and considering the needs and aspirations of the people behind the problems led Karen to explore design thinking and facilitating workshops with clients to help design solutions for messy, complex, people-centred problems. At the same time, her love for healthy living and physical fitness has taken her on an interesting journey of self-discovery. Learning how to find, and punch through, her own mental and physical boundaries has enabled her to embrace the good and bad experiences along life’s journey and live with passion and purpose.

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