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Design my thinking

When I completed high school, I had the daunting task of applying for a degree. I had a sense that I should apply for a programme in social sciences but wasn’t clear what area specifically. I set up a meeting with an economist at the Southern African Development Corporation (SADC) headquarters in Botswana and asked them a few questions about the future. I specifically asked which careers were most likely to be in demand in Africa, and what area of study would ensure that I would have a job at the end of what was to be a four year degree. I hadn’t factored in bias at that age and took his insights as gospel. The one area of study recommended was Economics, as there would always be a need to record and analyse economic activity, choices and options and impact at a micro and macro level. The other area of study was Accounting, as money would always move, and there would always be somebody responsible for understanding where and how it was moving. These were futurist insights that influenced a whole career.

Today marked the start of an executive education programme, with a thought leadership anchor of Design Thinking. A slide with Gerd Leonhard was put up with the quote referencing the fast pace of human development. The question that followed was - if you were to equip a person today with a skill, what would that be? The responses elicited today are similar to those I have listened to over the last few years that I have sat in various design thinking lectures in different business schools both local and international: critical thinking, complex problem solving, ideation, and humanity.

As one holds space for learning processes one inevitably has ample time to engage with the theoretical constructs and to observe and interact with a real time human interpretation and experience of the philosophies as they (often) collide with intersects of time and resource bound needs, personal and organisation imperatives, mindsets and desires.

The content contributor further probed participants on what choices they would make for their children given a futuristic outlook of the world of work taking into consideration current and future demand and utility of cultivated skills and talents. This question triggered a 30 year old memory and on reflection, a lifetime of wondering about the future. I have copious notes from numerous sessions over the years, each one designed to stimulate and engage thinking about today and tomorrow. Each session inevitably evokes a (sometimes uncomfortable) probe into my own mindset and outlook tempered only by a deep curiosity about our agency and ability to carve a future of our own making.

I have a daughter who is poised to complete her IB this year. Beyond the reality of finals in a few weeks is this looming spectre of her future. Young people today are faced with a whole basket of options called “what to take up as an area of study in a world where the possibilities are endless”. As parents we are channelling that concept of endless possibilities to a structured pursuit of “get this piece of paper at the end of your quest.” Personally I am team “pursue an option diligently while acquiring essential tools and frameworks that will will allow you to tap into your innate preferences and to connect that with a futuristic reality of social and economic utility”. I say that and acknowledge that in her shoes I would have no clue what that means.

The unemployment statistics provide a sobering tally of how many are holding artefacts of education with no social or economic market uptake. Anecdotally thse same artefacts are those which hardly a generation ago graduates framed beautifully and displayed proudly as they secured entry to coveted halls of employment. These pieces of paper are now gathering dust and the outlook indicates that the pace at which they are becoming relegated to dust traps is exponential. It is no surpirse that a futurist outlook on development and utility are a current day fascination for me. I’ve seen courses on critical thinking, complex problem solving and ideation so there’s hope. The outlier for me is the subject of humanity. Is there a course for this? Will we have experts on humanity? Where does one sign up for that? Against what measure will we be able to ask and answer the question - are we there yet?

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