Forget STEM and STEAM. We need TED!

Europe’s tech-skills gap

All over Europe, cities are struggling to plug the ‘tech’ skills and talent gap.

Some forecasts suggest there will be around 7m technical job openings between 2016 and 20251.

Whilst demand for technical people continues to increase, the number of people choosing to pursue technical careers continues to fall. The picture is particularly bad for STEM Technicians.

The reasons for this are complex and not capable of being solved by a single organisation. Wherever you look across Europe, there is compelling evidence of market failure:

So, many of the EU cities that are trying to stimulate and improve their productivity need to develop integrated plans and strategies to tackle these issues – tackling the availability of skilled labour; strengthening the structures that support skills, business and innovation; and ‘up-shifting’ their industrial bases, to produce more, higher value businesses and jobs.

At the same time, these strategies and plans need to reconcile some of the competing tensions underpinning society’s changing demographic patterns and belief systems to fully realise some of the opportunities/challenges presented by new technologies.

What is also clear is that;

Whilst investment in the creative and cultural industries is an important investment for many cities to make – particularly if they want to create the kind of vibrant night time economy a city needs to retain creative people – there is a viewpoint that the A in STEAM is actually more about (User Centred) Design, than it is the creative and cultural industries.

Why ‘Design Thinking’ is important in the tech inspiration agenda

From a digital perspective, what’s becoming clear is that in order to solve some of the biggest social and technological challenges, digital businesses need to think critically about the human context in which their technology is deployed, which is actually less about ‘creativity’ per se, but more about the more effective integration of ‘design-thinking’ into the technology development process.

This means giving more credence to cross cutting skills and occupations like user-interface (UI), user-experience (UX) and service design, in the technology development process.

An over emphasis on more technical STEM-related skills risks creating a raft of people with a deep technical knowledge, but little ability to apply it. That’s perhaps why some of the highest unemployment rates in some countries across Europe are amongst Computer Science graduates78, despite tech and digital employers reporting a massive skills and talent deficit.

What about Entrepreneurship?

But, there is also another vital component of the tech inspiration agenda which is not yet fully embedded in the STEM or STEAM acronym – namely Entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship is important for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, more and more young people are seeing entrepreneurship as a desirable future career, doubtless inspired by the many positive creative-tech-entrepreneur role models in their everyday lives.

Secondly, because, if cities aspire to develop more people with the ability to survive and thrive in technical roles in business9, they also need to develop the next generation of high growth digital businesses that can successfully ‘pull through’ and develop 9 the local labour needed to exploit them for local economic benefit (rather than seeing them take up jobs overseas with more dynamic, forward thinking businesses)

The need to integrate ‘tech’, entrepreneurship and design-thinking in the skills system

So, as suggested in the title of this article, perhaps cities need to focus on the integration of TED (Technology, Entrepreneurship and Design Thinking) if they are to inspire more people into digital careers.

As the Guardian Newspaper predicted back in 2012, “the future success of the digital economy will depend on the geek, the luvvie and the barrow boy learning to understand each other and work together”11.

This point was further reinforced by Matt Brittan, Google UK and Ireland’s Managing Director at the launch of Media City in October 2011, when he noted “It’s amazing to see the vision you have here and the way you’ve put money behind the vision,” he said. “Culturally mixing students and lecturers from the arts and science faculties is the right way to go. The traditional education system is 150 years out of date and we need to bring the ‘geek’ and the ‘luvvie’ together.”

So, are any cities successfully integrating Technology, Entrepreneurship and Design Thinking in the skills agenda?

Well, Poznan in Poland is leading an Urbact III Action Planning Network, looking at how cities can better develop creative-tech talent (GEN-Y CITY), and has taken some steps to try and embed the development of Technology, Entrepreneurship and Design Thinking at the base of their people development system.

In 2008 the Polish Government introduced a special programme for “ordered courses of studies” (Kierunki Zamawiane) aimed at increasing the attractiveness of university-level STEM course programmes (engineering, mathematical, ICT and natural sciences). This might very well have contributed to the increase of number of students in recent years: ICT was the most popular specialisation in Poland in the academic year 2012/2013. Special attention is being paid to attract more women to choose studying STEM subjects.

This process is given additional impetus by the naturally high levels of interest in entrepreneurship in Poland. According to the Global Economic Monitor, Poland has the highest Youth Entrepreneurship aspirations of all of the 28 Member States of Europe, at just over 50 per cent.

In addition, the process benefits from much of the work that the city has done in recent years to promote and support high-value design in all aspects of society and culture in the city. This includes:

Recently, the city administration has developed a strong strand of its work around ‘living-lab’ style ‘smart city’ collaborations which bring government officials, technology companies and the residents of the city together to develop and test innovative new public services. At the heart of their collaborative approach lies a process which brings technology, entrepreneurship and design thinking together to support the development of high value private sector jobs, helps the city deliver digital public services and makes the city more attractive to young people, by making public services available on the move.

Numerous authors have also recognised Poland’s and Poznan’s potential as an emerging Tech Start-up Hub.

Forbes noted in 2016 that “A recent report from Start-Up Poland shed further light on the country’s digital economy. Its poll of just over 2,400 start-ups revealed that 39% were software development enterprises, mainly selling their products as SaaS. Of the start-ups that were growing at more than 50% annually, most were doing so through the sale of mobile and big data services to large corporations. Over half (54%) of Polish start-ups are exporting, abroad, mainly to the US and UK. Poland is rich in tech innovation and tech talent and its economy is in reasonably good shape compared with other European countries.”12.

In 2015, Red Herring noted “Warsaw and Krakow are currently the best known of Poland’s tech centres. But the country, buoyed by excellent education and a growing economy, may have a new digital contender – Poznan. The picturesque city, home to just over half a million people, has grown to become a vibrant hub for several successful start-ups. And with cutting-edge municipal projects in place, great transport and low rents, it may soon be challenging Poland’s digital duopoly13.

So, what can cities do to improve the integration of these programmes?

Much of the evidence suggests that many young people still perceive that tech careers as being not for them, potentially viewing the subjects as being too hard, too secular and/or lacking any relevant role models.

This may be because research suggests that a large proportion of STEM enrichment activities are still delivered by science teachers, the decision by pupils to study STEM subjects is partly influenced by the teachers who deliver them, but that many teachers also admit to not feeling fully equipped with the knowledge to contextualise their subject and make it relevant to the learner. This can serve to undermine the ability of cities to promote sufficient widespread participation.

If you want to improve the impact of these kind of programmes;

  1. Consider what your city does to promote Tech, Entrepreneurship and Design to the city’s residents – to understand your starting point. Look particularly at the base of the systems – what you are doing to inspire young people into TED careers, and whether any initiatives you are supporting are too secular in their approach;
  2. Explore whether the application of a Design Thinking approach might help broaden the appeal of the activities. Check out this Edutopia blog post on Design Thinking in Schools by Amy Erin Borovoy. Try downloading the Design Thinking Toolkit for Educators from the Design Thinking for Educators website and look at the approach developed by Laura Bennet, as part of the Urbact Tech Town Project, in developing a Design-Thinking workshop for secondary school pupils to inspire them into tech.
  3. Explore the potential of involving entrepreneurs, educators and educational managers in the delivery of a collaborative activity. Check out the video on the European Commission website about what other schools across Europe are doing to involve other Partners and Stakeholders in education. Read this Edutopia blog post on 5 Steps to Better School/Community Collaboration.
  4. Explore the potential of using digital technology in the classroom to inspire more people into tech. Check out iEARN (International Education and Resource Network) is a non-profit organisation made up of over 20,000 schools and youth organisations in more than 115 countries. iEARN empowers teachers and young people to work together online using the Internet and other new communications technologies.   
  5. Why not explore the potential of running a tech festival that brings together traditional hackathons, with service-jams, with enterprise development programmes to strengthen the connections amongst the people in these communities of interest? For example, the City of Pilsen, the European Capital of Culture 2015, hosted a Design Thinking Festival aimed at integrating design approach into business management and processes to stimulate increased digital innovation.

Only by integrating Tech, Entrepreneurship and Design-Thinking inspiration activities more effectively, will cities develop careers programmes that recognise – and appeal to – the broad range of skills that are needed to successfully develop new technology-based solutions.

1 Encouraging STEM: Comparison of practices targeted at young people in different Member States, DG for Internal Policies, March 2015

2 Stimulating interest in STEM careers among students in Europe: Supporting career choice and giving a more realistic view of STEM at work, Alexa Joyce, European Schoolnet

3 Almost 70% of teachers think they do not have the skills to teach coding, Computer Weekly, October 2017

4 Developing Computational Thinking in Compulsory Education, JRC Science for Policy Report. 2016

5 Computing our future Computer programming and coding Priorities, school curricula and initiatives across Europe, European Schoolnet, October 2015

6 ‘Digital Transformation of European Industry and Enterprises’ – report from the Strategic Policy Forum on Digital Entrepreneurship, March 2015

7 See, UK Computer Science has the highest rate of unemployed graduates

8 Why are so few computer science graduates getting jobs?, October 2013

9 See European Unicorns, 2016, GP Bullhound

10 See Can the coalition catapult the economy out of recession?. Guardian, March 2012

11 Google boss praises MediaCityUK, Fresh Business Thinking, October 2011 (retrieved February 2018)

12 Poland On Track to Becoming A Major European Tech Start-up Hub, Forbes, May 2016

13 Poznan emerges as Poland’s latest start-up hotspot, January 5, 2015