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Design Swarms: preparing today’s students for jobs that don’t yet exist

According to the United States Department of Labor, 65 percent of today’s students will be employed in jobs that do not yet exist. To prepare students for an unknowable future, educators must change their focus. Instead of teaching students the skills required to perform well in a particular job, they must teach them to deal with ambiguity, think creatively, and solve problems. 

One methodology that teaches students to use creativity and collaboration to solve an unknown problem is Design Swarming. Similar to hackathons or Design Slams, Design Swarms bring people together to utilize their unique skillsets and collaborative powers to solve a design challenge. At the Pune Design Festival in Pune, India, Autodesk hosted a Design Swarm for a hundred students, who were tasked with the challenge of using Autodesk® Fusion 360TM to design a grocery bag that would address the problem of plastic in the ocean. Surya Vanka, past IDSA chair, conducted the project.

In the Autodesk Design Swarm, which ran from 9:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., the students were divided into teams of 10. Each team consisted of a design student, a business student, an engineering student, and an Autodesk Student Expert, plus design mentors who provided feedback.  “We were all from different backgrounds and different colleges, but a basic introduction and sharing of ideas to attain a common goal swiped clean all the initial bits of awkwardness,” said Don Philip Antony, a product design student at the DSK International School of Design. Each student was asked to identify their “superpowers,” so that the teams could figure out their strengths and harness them. The teams were led by a Swarm Director, whose task was to lead the team in a series of high-velocity sprints, coaching members to practice behaviors of extreme agility, extreme creativity, and extreme collaboration. During the timed sprints, participants adopted the Swarm Principles, using a shared workspace called the Design Swarm Canvas. In Design Swarms, participants are urged to embrace incomplete information, controlled chaos, and a frenetic sense of urgency as the springboard for disruptive innovation. The process is highly visual and collaborative, and outcomes are described in narrative form, such as storyboards.

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Students working together on the Design Swarm Canvas.

The Design Swarm teams went through multiple sprints that took them through the processes of design thinking and prototyping. In the ideation sprints, students had to come up with 50 ideas on how to solve the challenge. They discussed materials, product lifecycles, and the idea of a product ecosystem. They then harvested ideas from one another and collaborated to focus on four or five directions.

Next, the students built prototypes of their ideas in Fusion 360, with help from the Autodesk Student Experts. Using 3D models (pre-built in Fusion 360) of regular grocery items, the students tested whether their designs would fit the required 10 grocery items, including cartons of milk and eggs. Since Fusion 360 is a cloud-based tool, the students were able to collaborate online in real time and share their designs with their mentors who were not at the festival. They then made 3D prints of their prototypes using Imaginarium printers.

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Students built physical prototypes of their designs.

At about 5 a.m., the teams presented their prototypes to the judges. Some festival attendees were so excited about the Design Swarm, they stayed on until 5:30 a.m. and participated as judges and collaborators so they could be part of the action. The three winning teams—who designed solutions as diverse as a machine to dredge plastic from the ocean, to fish-friendly edible plastic bags, to a system that rewards people for reusing bags—then presented their final prototypes to all the Pune Design Festival attendees during the mainstage awards ceremony. Finally, the students were encouraged to submit their designs to the Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge.

By working in cross-disciplinary teams and using collaborative technology and mindsets, the students were able to harness their creativity to prototype solutions to a design problem in a very short amount of time. “The swarm taught us to be proactive and how to wisely process the design in a short time,” said Dhruv Khosla, a digital design student at DSK International. The skillsets, mindsets, and toolsets utilized in a Design Swarm are exactly those that will give students success when preparing for an uncertain future. To learn how you can host a Design Swarm or Design Slam at your own school, check out Autodesk Design Academy’s kit of resources, which gives you everything you need to host the event and get your students excited about design.

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The collaborative and creative skills students utilized in the Design Swarm will prepare them for jobs that don’t yet exist.