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Changes during COVID-19 and the 21st century skills we need for building digital futures!

Photo of Geraldine Fitzpatrick

We talked to Geraldine Fitzpatrick, Professor of Technology Design and Assessment at TU Wien and an ACM Distinguished Scientist and IFIP TC-13 Pioneer Award recipient.

Previously, Director of the Interact Lab at the Uni of Sussex, UX consultant and Senior Manager at Sapient London, and Snr Researcher at the Distributed Systems Technology Centre (DSTC) and Center for Online Health in Australia. Her research is at the intersection of social and computer sciences to support social interaction using mobile, tangible and sensor-based technologies in everyday contexts.

She was a much appreciated keynote speaker at both Digitalize in Stockholm 2020 and the Future Digileaders workshop, events organized by Digital Futures.

You talk about that it is in times of crisis that we really see development and change happen. During 2020 with COVID-19, what are the changes that have impressed you the most? Did something surprise you?

– I was particularly impressed with the adaptability and resilience of people and systems, across a number of domains, e.g., healthcare shifting to telehealth, and workplaces shifting to home offices.  This adaptability was particularly evident in how quickly universities moved to online teaching modes in such a short time – an emergent collaborative effort at scale.  It needed every single lecturer to adapt their content and delivery mode to suit being online. It needed university IT departments or teaching support departments to quickly provide new infrastructure and tools for online learning platforms. It needed every single student to adapt to having to learn online, often in constrained living situations and with limited or contended network access.

I was impressed too with how generous all of these stakeholders were in recognizing we were all in new territory and making it ok to learn on the go. I know all of this was not without its challenges, on all sides. Not everything worked first time but I saw people iterating and improving and also generously sharing their learnings with others. Pre-COVID, many of these initiatives would have taken years to implement, if at all, and only following extensive committee work, consultations, negotiations and so on. I hope we can learn the lesson of the value of being agile, responsive and learning as we try things out.

What surprised me were the disparate uneven impacts and the diverse responses of people to the challenges. I saw colleagues struggling to juggle children, work and home, without the usual support, with a particular burden of care on women. I saw single people living alone in small apartments struggling with mental health issues. I saw self-identified introverts surprised about how much they missed human contact. And I saw people who thrived and were their most productive. And we are still here and making it all work somehow in 2021.

You mention that a broad and diverse set of intelligences are needed more than ever before when it comes to computer science. Why is that?

– Because we are dealing with AND challenges – technical and human and organizational and social and political and ethical and … AND is now needed because computer science has evolved from the days when it was ‘simply’ about what was inside the box or on the screen, however complex these technical issues might be. Or from a time when we could always get a defined set of requirements against which we could evaluate right or wrong, good or bad. Now technologies are embedded into every aspect of our lives. They are entangled with complex open-ended whole-systems challenges, where we often can’t anticipate use or consequences or future development paths. We’re not just building technology, we’re fundamentally impacting what it means to be human, whose faces and voices matter, what is society, and, as we have recently seen, what is democracy.

We still have to deal with the complex technical challenges. AND we have to take a concern for the broader societal and human impacts, the broader contexts in which technologies get put to work, the ethical, moral and policy implications of technologies. AND we need to talk to, and work with, an ever-increasing range of domains, disciplines, stakeholders, perspectives, competing concerns. Consider for a moment all that is involved in a ubiquitous ‘smart city’ vision or driverless cars or personalised health care or social media bubbles.

It is impressive to see many new initiatives like Digitalize in Stockholm 2020 and the Vienna Digital Humanism Manifesto now recognizing that we are dealing with complex challenges and need to bring multiple disciplines together. But there is an elephant in the room – us. The rhetoric often focusses on the aspirations and issues without regard to the practical human interactional work of achieving these aspirations. And this is where there is a real skills gap. How can we effectively work together in teams with people from diverse disciplines? How will we deal with complex ethical trade-offs?  How do we operationalise values, and whose values, in technology? How do we practically engage at multiple levels of scale, and across diverse domains? How do we still make ‘good enough’ decisions when we don’t know what we don’t know?  How will we deal with uncertainty and failure? These are fundamentally human and relational challenges.

To engage with the AND challenges, we need to develop skills for better self-awareness and self management to better manage stress, frustration, uncertainty. We need to develop better social skills – be better listeners, be more curious about others’ perspectives, be more empathetic, be better communicators and collaborators, manage conflict more effectively, and so on.  We need to develop better critical thinking skills, be able to engage with questions of values, ethics, and greater good. And we need creativity and learning mindsets.

Interestingly, these skills are increasingly being identified as the critical key skills, e.g., to thrive at work in the 4th industrial revolution (World Economic Forum), for what makes Google’s best software development teams work so well, for what IBM has identified as the most critical for their workforce, for what makes a good leader, for promoting student success in the classroom, and for enhancing wellbeing.

How come that traditional computer science is good at rational intelligence, but not so much at social emotional skills? What can be done to change this?

– Traditional is indeed the right word here. It reflects where computer science has come from, growing out engineering and mathematical disciplines. Rational intelligence makes perfect sense here. But while computing is now much more than this, we are still dealing with the legacy of curricula and people (self) selected for rational strengths. So change will take time. One thing we can do is open up the idea of who can be part of a computer science faculty and actively seek out people from different disciplinary backgrounds who want to apply their knowledge and skills to making better technology. We can also open who we select as students into our programs, and aim for more diverse subject backgrounds. This will also require us to re-think the way we teach computer science particularly in the first year, to better embrace more diverse ways of thinking and to start from the beginning to engage with the multiple perspectives of computing beyond the traditional technical foci and the consequent new skills sets.

We can look to embed the development of social-emotional-ethical skills across our programs. For example, when we put students into teams for group projects, we can include explicit discussions and activities about what they each bring to the team, and what makes an effective team, and what processes need to be put in place for teamwork. We can ask students to include a values or impact analysis for any application they are developing. We can teach them explicit listening and questioning skills and get them to engage directly with potential stakeholders of their projects. We can put them into teams with people from diverse disciplines.

We can require some mandatory component of their degrees to be courses taken from different disciplines like philosophy, psychology, social sciences and so on. And above all we need to be good role models ourselves in all of these skills. This is a life-long learning journey!

You suggest – stop calling social emotional skills soft skills. Why is it important?

– Soft skills are often counterpointed somewhat less favourably against ‘hard skills’, the rational intelligence skills. ‘Soft’ has negative connotations of being vague and not that important, as being easy, as being something that you may be born with. Yet they are the critical fundamental enabling skills to effectively apply our ‘hard skills’ for addressing our digital future challenges. They are the skills that can’t be easily automated or systematised. They encompass not just skills in the classic sense but also traits, attitudes and behaviours. These are highly complex but learnable, needing focused effort, time, practice and reflection to learn and develop. They can be applied across the whole course of our lives, and every situation challenges these skills in new ways. Let’s stop calling them soft skills. Let’s call them the critical skills, the power skills, the 21st century skills for building digital futures we will want to live in.


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