How Can You Prepare Design Students for an Uncertain World?

March 7, 2018, 4:16 AM UTC
Fortune Brainstorm Design 2018
016 Fortune Brainstorm Design 2018 Wednesday, March 7th, 2018 Singapore 10:15 - 10:30 DESIGN IN FOCUS: NAVIGATING AMBIGUITY In an age of uncertainty and frenetic technological change, students can’t be handed “right answers.” They need to know what to do when the answers—and even the problems—are unclear. The executive director of Stanford’s innovative offers ideas and advice for leaders who must prepare students and employees to thrive in this brave but ambiguous new world. Presenter: Sarah Stein Greenberg, Executive Director, Stanford University Photograph by Stefen Chow/Fortune
Stefen Chow/Fortune

Sarah Stein Greenberg keeps noticing the same phrase everywhere: “the future is more uncertain than ever.”

Giving a presentation entitled “Navigating Ambiguity” on Wednesday at the Fortune, Time and Wallpaper* Brainstorm Design conference held in Singapore, the executive director of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also known as the, observed that people seem to feel a heightened sense of uncertainty across the board — in politics, retirement, medical, disaster relief, even the weather.

Amid frantic technological change, Greenberg offered ideas from Stanford as to how education can be redesigned to nurture more resilient thinkers in an increasingly ambiguous world.

“The future is always fundamentally uncertain,” she said. But “Navigating ambiguity is something that design does really well.”

How do you approach this as a designer? Citing Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, Greenberg says not with naive optimism, or naive pessimism, but an “informed hope.”

“Fundamentally, we need a way for [design] students to acknowledge uncertainty,” says Greenberg, “but not be paralyzed by it.”

She discussed how the designs such a curriculum with open-ended, real world projects.

One class was tasked with finding better ways for veterans to access mental health care at VA hospitals. Another focused on the criminal justice system, helping people navigate the traffic court system and reduce the system’s disproportionate impact on low-income citizens. Another was challenged to engage with fisherman in a nearby coastal city to understand how they were being affected by climate change.

“None of them have any clear right answers,” says Greenberg. That’s why prototyping — allowing multiple ideas and solutions to exist — and a rigorous reflection process is important.

“When students encounter a set of problems that they struggle with, they end up learning in a more deep way, and are more equipped to transfer that information.”

She challenged the audience embrace ambiguity. “It’s in those moments of productive struggle, that’s when the breakthroughs happen.” was founded by seven professors including David M. Kelley, the founder of design firm Ideo, in 2004. The school develops products and solutions by integrating law, medicines, humanities, and engineering.

“My hope is that we can really start to talk about ambiguity as a way for us to act, even when we feel more uncertain than ever.”

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