In many sectors – and in the energy sector specifically – businesses are operating in increasingly complex and constantly changing environments. They are facing “wicked” problems that are difficult to solve because they usually involve contrasting interests. However, in these sectors product and service design and innovation are still mainly dominated by technical engineering, from which graduates in social sciences and humanities are thus largely excluded. This occurs despite widespread acknowledgment that “knowing” and understanding people should become an indispensable phase of the development process if we want to achieve new categories of products, services, or business strategies that fundamentally address people’s needs and lead to sustainable innovation. As a result, solutions “designed in isolation” or with only a superficial consideration of “user needs and expectations” are often over-reliant on technological innovation, ignore the particular lifestyles and socio-cultural specifics of the intended users. This also comes with a risk of reduced or undesired impact, and – ultimately – giving them a reduced chance of seeing a return on investment.
The key challenge addressed by the PEOPLE project is the skills mismatch between sociology, psychology and anthropology graduates across Europe and the requirements of the industry. This affects the job satisfaction and wages of graduates, while at the same time diminishing the productivity and innovative potential of companies. The situation is exacerbated by the failure of society at large and the business world in particular to understand how young people educated in the above-mentioned fields could contribute towards improving products, services and processes or by driving innovation in rapidly evolving technology areas. The qualification mismatch and relatively high unemployment rate of young graduates prevents countries from realising the full potential of their labour force and to some extent also leaves young graduates unfulfilled.
PEOPLE project addresses the immediate needs of both, graduates and companies. The innovative contribution is the development and implementation of People-centred Learning Cycles as a novel pedagogical approach that brings together interdisciplinary groups of students, faculty educators, industry professionals, as well as target end-users and other external stakeholders. These teams jointly examine and explore real-life industry and societal challenges and aim to discover the unmet needs. Furthermore, they apply and test different people-centred development and design approaches, analyse the results, and convey the work by providing industry-relevant recommendations. Eight different university-business cooperation case studies in the field of energy efficiency and sustainability are being implemented to assess the impacts on all key stakeholders involved. The interim evaluation results demonstrate that:
(1) social science and humanities students have applied their knowledge acquired through their education to real-life and work situations, as well as gained a unique research experience and acquired new skills. More specifically, students have adopted an applied perspective on social science theory and methods, especially by incorporating industry requirements in their research design. They have learnt about the amount of effort and time that is taken up in research projects through identifying third parties whose input is essential to conducting the research and managing relationships with them.
(2) Teachers and researchers have become aware of the different perspectives and contexts in which industry operates and have been challenged to modify their way of teaching to these new circumstances. New learning modules have been embedded in degree programmes, enabling students to gain valuable practical skills to complement their theoretical education, while demonstrating the value of that education for industry.
(3) Industry has benefited through acquiring fresh, “outside-the-box” perspectives in relation to their existing processes and understanding of markets. Activities have contributed towards changing the mindset of engineers, technicians, practitioners and company senior management who have started to question the “taken for granted”, uncovering the surprising and complex ways in which people make decisions.
Overall, the PEOPLE project aims to have a long-lasting impact on higher education institutions and society at large by improving the relevance of social science teaching and research. Key identified added value impacts all stakeholders involved as they are becoming aware of the importance of understanding the complexity of human dynamics and involving people in interdisciplinary co-creation – to develop relevant, meaningful and sustainable products and services. If industry (and even third sector organizations designing public services) brings consumers into the design process from the start they will avoid problems later on and produce something which people are more likely to adopt. Asking people directly what they want and need is not enough and time needs to be spent with them in the environments and contexts where they are intended to make use of a new product or service. In addition, the PEOPLE approach promotes a holistic way of looking beyond clients and passive consumers to cover the perspectives of multiple actors, including of the companies themselves. It sets out without predefined assumptions – it asks broader, open questions – it becomes immersed in the everyday lives of people and organisations – it gathers large amounts of information that may challenge the initial assumptions that companies have. So, adopting the PEOPLE approach allows companies to address wicked problems in ways that they do not (yet) conceive: it allows looking beyond the surface, uncovering the part of the iceberg lying under the water.
Image credit: 1- Blog Header: Stanley Morales via www.pexel.com; 2- In text: PEOPLE Project