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Picture: 123RF/RAW PIXEL
Picture: 123RF/RAW PIXEL

A staggering 1.3-billion young people the largest youth generation in history — are gearing up to enter the workforce, but are they ready for it? Not really. Less than a third are likely to find jobs because the nature of work is shifting and skills gaps across all industries are growing. Put simply, this means the work that needs to be done and the people who can do that work are just not matching up.

In SA the situation is even more acute. The country has one of the largest youth populations by percentage and also youth unemployment rates in the world at 74%, coupled with a stalled economy. And the situation has been made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is not a good thing for anyone. Without the right skills businesses will fail to thrive and grow, the economy will stagnate further, and young people will remain unemployed and understimulated, eroding their self-confidence, stealing their futures and ultimately undermining social stability.

Education and training systems therefore urgently need to keep pace with the shifting demands of labour markets, technological disruption, demographic change and the evolving nature of work — and they need to do so at scale.

Technology offers us an obvious solution here as a mechanism to accelerate upskilling and reskilling, but what we teach and how we teach it are also key. The shifting world of work demands a skills set that is deeply human, including emotional intelligence, creativity, cognitive flexibility and problem-solving.

Graduates need to be knowledgeable and skilful in a particular field, but also able to deal with the unexpected and adapt if necessary, because they will be entering economies that are constantly in motion. Most educational institutions are training students for jobs that do not even exist yet.

Here, design thinking or design-led thinking — programmes that nurture both creativity and critical thinking around complex challenges — holds significant promise. Evidence is mounting that design thinking can help prepare graduates to be more resilient and adaptive. It does this by encouraging an approach to problem-solving that is interdisciplinary, collaborative and empathetic, and that understands the value in connecting with local realities, knowledge and systems.

Also critically, design thinking provides a framework to apply what is being learnt and teaches people not to be afraid of creativity and wild ideas — to be willing to try, to fail and try again. Design-led thinking is increasingly taught around the world, including at the University of Cape Town, and married to technology its reach could be exponential.

The past two years have brought an explosion of innovation in educational technology that has allowed us an unprecedented opportunity to explore the potential of virtual learning both inside and outside formal education systems. We have seen that while there are aspects of learning that technology cannot easily replace, design-led thinking has shown itself to be a possible game changer in developing effective digital learning opportunities that can enable young people — especially those who are excluded from educational opportunities — to gain the skills that will help them to become productive members of the workforce.

For example, in 2021 the use of experiential learning technology platform Cartedo enabled more than 80,000 young people between the ages of 14 and 35 to take part in the Covid-19 Design Innovation Challenge for Unicef. The challenge encouraged participants to work on an issue that was relevant to their own context and were given the tools, funding and support to scale up their ideas.

Using design-led thinking approaches they were guided through a process of first trying to understand how the challenge affected people, and how their own experience related to that, and then moving out of their comfort zone to generate fresh ideas to tackle that challenge. Finally, they crystallised their ideas into a workable solution.

Aside from equipping people with future-ready skills, this approach also helped surface some novel solutions to sticky problems in a human-centred way. The top innovative solutions to emerge include the use of solar panels for sustainable water supply systems in communities without safe water access; digital applications that enable children to continue learning; and online marketplaces to enable continued income generation during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Imagine the power these kinds of approaches could hold if they could be rolled out to reach more people. The World Economic Forum estimates that closing the global skills gap could add $11.5-trillion to global GDP by 2028. But more importantly, it could also mean giving billions of young people the tools and confidence to build a better future for themselves and their communities. This is a prize worth fighting for.

• Futerman is co-founder and chief learning officer at Cartedo, and a founding programme manager at the Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika. 

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