Creating a Culture of Innovation Through Design Thinking | 2021 VocTech Challenge

In March, Ufi will be publishing its Green Paper which sets out the findings from Ufi’s VocTech Challenge ‘discovery phase’ to explore the question:

How can VocTech improve vocational outcomes for people most impacted by the digital divide and at greatest risk from the long-term impact of the pandemic on access to training and jobs? 

How do we then link those vocational skills to real employment opportunities?

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts that share Ufi’s reflections on using ‘design thinking’ principles to shape its work programme.

Innovation doesn't happen by bright ideas popping into great minds.

Blog Post by Manjinder Sangha, Project Account Manager for Ufi VocTech Trust

Innovation doesn’t happen by bright ideas popping into great minds (well, not most of the time!). I could give you many examples but one that is close to my heart is James Dyson. He did not invent the vacuum cleaner, and nor did he invent the first cyclone – but he was the first to combine them. You may know he didn’t get it right the first time either!

What he did do was identify a problem he could see in his everyday life, something wasn’t fit for purpose. He learnt from his environment and the world around him, identifying cyclones in sawmills, and then tried and tested different prototypes. He reflected and learnt from what was working and what wasn’t each time (5,126 times to be exact) until he had his final product.

So, the question I pose in this blog post is what can we learn from Dyson's attitude and approach to innovation and how does that relate to Ufi’s work on the VocTech Challenge?

The things that stand out to me are that he was focused on solving a real problem, he wasn’t afraid to fail and he was always willing to learn – 5,126 times!

Having taught Product Design for many years it was great to see that Ufi was using ‘design thinking’ principles for the first time to shape a work programme. I know, from my experience as a teacher and an edtech entrepreneur how really great solutions can come from having a design thinking mindset. In fact I think having a design thinking mindset is essential to all aspects of life!

At Ufi we’ve started, like Dyson, with our discovery journey to explore the real challenges are out there, for different people and perspectives, so that we create impact through using VocTech to solve real problems vocational learners face in their everyday life.  The first stage has been to engage, connect and create a safe and unbiased space to have conversations to understand our users or stakeholders. We've looked at what is clearly being identified and what are the underlying themes emerging,  and who are they significant to.

This exploration is interesting in itself, but to be effective it is underpinned by a commitment to learn. Many of us have heard the saying ‘Every day is a school day!’ – this is a reference to learning being a continuous process.

The last year brought about challenges and situations that no one could have foreseen and really, I think we can safely assume every new situation we find ourselves in during our lives (even if not as extreme as last year) presents its own set of challenges. So, if we are not able to reflect, analyse and learn from our situations then are we making the most of our journeys or the situations themselves? Are we missing an opportunity to develop ourselves or our organisations? Are we being self-aware?

Most of us survive the difficulties and challenges presented before us, even when things are hard we all get through one way or another but if we do not learn or evolve our behaviours then won't we end up in similar situations again or have we even made the most of the experience we have been through?

If we relate this to the challenges presented by the pandemic for vocational education – education and training in many cases may have moved online in a rapid way but are we looking at this online provision as a band-aid or short-term fix?

This rapid change has been enforced upon ALL of us and has caused so many challenges for so many of us on a personal and professional level. Whilst working on Ufi’s covid response work, to support vocational providers to adapt, at pace, to online delivery,  it was eye opening to hear some of the challenges of educators, learners, businesses large and small. Everyone was facing something new.

I focused on how this was a great opportunity for everyone to be able to look within to make changes and adapt – whether I was speaking with grantees, educators, or my daughter's teachers, but I know this comes from having a design thinking mindset. For many, the desire to resume a 'normal' way of working and teaching has been a real focus  - and with my design thinking hat on I ask - have we reflected and learnt from the situation to draw lessons that can help us innovate and design a better tech-enabled future?

At Ufi we're embracing design thinking to help us take a step out of the business-as-usual practices in a direct way with VocTech Challenge, so that we can focus on how VocTech can solve real vocational learning problems faced by those impacted by the digital divide. Ufi can’t solve every problem raised through this process but I am hugely excited to be engaging in the ideation phase to how these learning and insights can develop into impactful and rewarding work! 

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2021 VocTech Challenge

Read more from this series of blog posts that share Ufi’s reflections on using ‘design thinking’ principles to shape its work programme.

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The outputs we are striving to achieve each year are set out in our Delivery Plan.

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