You can start anywhere, you can end anywhere. Elanor Huntington is rethinking career journeys, skills and attributes to beat global challenges


Elanor Huntington

Professor Elanor Huntington, Dean of the Australian National University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, is guided by a grand vision: a new paradigm in education and vocational training, and a new discipline that government will need before the middle of the century.

Huntington has chalked up a list of impressive scientific and academic accomplishments along with a series of firsts as a woman in her field: not only the College’s first female dean but also the the nation’s first, the ANU’s first female engineering professor, and the first female chair of the Group of Eight engineering deans.

“[This] tells you more about my discipline than it does about me, particularly because all of that happened over a three-to-four-year window starting in 2015,” she said in a keynote speech to open Public Sector Innovation Month.

With the fourth industrial revolution underway, Huntington sees a pressing need for a new generation of trusted experts by mid-century to set standards and tame technology so it is harnessed safely, fairly and ethically. This global challenge is not restricted to her field or even just to universities. She believes all levels and types of education also have to change, in order to build new links between traditionally linear career paths.

“This is, frankly, societal transformation. That’s okay; I like a good problem.”

The approach is to think big but start small, try to contain any risks and learn from the experience. Huntington and her colleagues are trialling a set of experimental postgraduate courses, in partnership with large public and private-sector employers. Funding for scholarship courses has come from big blue-chip companies and government bodies; one qualification was co-designed with an advisory committee of APS deputy secretaries from relevant agencies. They are trying to imagine “the engineering and computing skills that will be needed in the middle of the 21st century, who will be exercising them and how” — and not so much in terms of current engineering disciplines like computer science.

“How on earth does one single university start to actually think about this? … Just give it a go.”

A famous 1970s study of creativity by Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi began by classifying a group of fine art students as either “problem solvers” or “problem finders” based on how they completed the same task. Each was given 27 objects, asked to arrange them however they liked and draw the result within a time limit. Their works were independently judged by art critics, who very clearly favoured the group labelled as “problem finders” by the researchers. A decade later, they found the same group were far more likely to have gone on to careers as artists. Huntington said the “problem solvers” set about the task in a linear fashion; they were given a task so they got on with it.

“The second group looked at the pile of objects, sorted them, unsorted them, started making something, didn’t like it, unmade it, remade it, generally faffed around for an hour or so and then made something really quickly right at the end …

“And in general, if you if you do a meta-analysis across most of the literature in psychology about creativity, what they find is that creativity tends to rest on four pillars of deep expertise, motivation, divergent thinking, and confidence.”

A big question on her mind is how to build career pathways to get people with the right attributes, combined with the right skills, involved in dealing with major global challenges.

“And if you look at what’s going on in our world at the moment, we’ve got climate change, sustainability, massive urbanisation – by 2040 two thirds of the world’s population is going to be living in cities – wearable technology, implantable technology, we’ve got geopolitical shifts that have been unseen … for many decades. We have economies where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing very substantially. It seems to be running out of control; we have no means of dealing with that. We’ve got software that’s going to eat the world, with the societal and economic disruption that will follow. And of course, we’re all terrified that killer robots are going to escape into the wild.

“So what are the areas of deep expertise in particular, as well as the confidence, that we’re going to need in order to find the right kinds of problems to solve as we move into the middle of the 21st century? Now, I can’t predict all of that to a great degree of precision. That’s not up to me, that’s up to all of us. But again, I can pose some interesting questions, and I can posit some characteristics.”

What is required is people who can design “large-scale heterogeneous systems of systems” and that probably requires novel combinations of skills and attributes, in her view.

“I would argue that, if we go back to the very core of what engineering in particular is about, [it] is about designing at the intersection of people, technological systems and science. And if we are trying to pull together heterogeneous systems of systems, then that’s the kind of expertise that we’re going to need, but it is not the kind of expertise that we have had so far.”

For example, she noted computer programs now do a lot of the maths that civil engineers used to do. More of their time is spent thinking about the problems that infrastructure might solve, like how to get “a couple of million people” home from work in about half an hour every day.

“Play the tape forward another 10 years or so; what those civil engineers are going to be doing is working out how to get tens of millions of people home safely from one side of the city to another, in an environment where you’ve got dynamic delivery of electricity, not just to a particular railway station, but across the whole railway network, a whole city, possibly a whole country.

“And at the same time we’ve got dynamic delivery of in-home healthcare — based on Twitter usage or something like that — as well as … alternative transportation options. And so you’re going to need to be able to understand and have deep expertise across all of that. And not just the traditional engineering concepts like ‘system flow’ and things like that, but the fact that we’ve got all these wet squishy things which are called people in the middle of all these systems. And so you’re actually going to need to understand enough about people in order to be able to understand how you’re going to safely design and operate this thing.

“Now, that is a set of skills that at the moment, in combination, simply don’t exist.”

While people in her discipline often discuss the “leaky pipeline” where too many students drop out of STEM subjects early on in life, she is thinking beyond this linear understanding of education and careers.

“So the different metaphor that I use a lot is the idea of the London Underground, where you can start anywhere, you can end anywhere, [where] what we’ve got is a series of educational experiences, life journeys, whatever you want to call it, where the job of people in my sector, and in fact, not just my sector, but the [vocational education and training] sector, employers, everyone … our job is to build that map and explicitly build in the little switching stations that allow you to get from one railway track to another.”

The many interconnected lines on the map of London’s vast tube network make a good visual metaphor – just as travellers find their destination and use the map to get there, she believes people need wayfinding assistance with the education system from a young age, and throughout life, so they can pick a vocation and work out how to get there. Huntington imagines a world where giving up maths as soon as the school system allows does not preclude one from going back to it later. A world where it’s not such a big deal for a public servant in their mid-40s to suddenly be expected to learn about a new application of computer science, like data analytics or artificial intelligence.

“So one of the experiments that we have been doing is to start to create some postgraduate qualifications that allow people to come in with a range of different experiences. What we’re interested in is attributes and characteristics and capabilities, not your prior experience. And we are bringing people together, who come in from a range of different backgrounds, and they learn a set of different skills that allow them to switch between different stations.”

That means there’s no “value judgement” involved in those experimental courses and they are going very well. Another new course run by the college’s Autonomy, Agency and Assurance Institute is “attempting to redefine what a new specialist discipline would look like” and, in a way, making it up as they go.

“They’ve taken a cohort of students who know that they are building the degree with them — so they’re building the 747 while it’s in flight and they’re just having a go. Now, these are just little experiments from one little university. But the key point here is that the Australian higher education sector is hyper-competitive. And I’m absolutely confident that if we get this right, the entire rest of Australia will copy us really quickly.”

Huntington says there are historical moments of “simultaneous economic, technological and societal disruption” that are “highly correlated” with the emergence of new fields of engineering. For example, the era of steam engines and urbanisation that was the original industrial revolution coincided with the birth of mechanical engineering, which began to tame the dangerous new machines and set safer standards for their use.

“Now, I would argue that we stand at such a moment in time, right now,” she said.

“Brexit, Trump, fake news, post-truth, Russian troll farms, the Christchurch massacre, all of those sorts of things. We need the next engineering discipline, the one that will tame the way that artificial intelligence is changing the way we live in our world at the moment. And that, if we achieve nothing else in this whole decade-long program that I’m working on … that will be the most profound contribution that we make, not just to Australia, but to the world. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re having a red hot go at making the next engineering discipline.”

Huntington said a lot of the world’s other top universities were looking at courses that combine AI and ethics but not many were thinking about how to “carve out a whole new disciplinary space” to deal with the growing human impact of new and emerging applications of digital technology – powerful analytical software run by powerful machines, attached to vast stores of data.

“You can see the anxiety that’s going on all around the world at the moment. We’ve allowed this technology into our lives and we’ve now just started to wake up and figure out that actually, there might be some negative consequences to it.”

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