Buildings nowadays often integrate high engineering art: glass facades with automatic shutters, elaborate air circulation, efficient light system and new materials. Most people enjoy the benefits of these innovative ideas making buildings more sustainable and resource-friendly. At the same time, occupants of these buildings can find themselves in uncomfortable situations. Be it overly strong heating, shutters operating at the wrong time of the day or construction material not sheltering its occupants from noise or cold temperatures.
These cases might be only minor examples of unintended consequences of modern engineering. However, they illustrate challenges companies that focus on sustainable living and energy can face. Engineers can draw a perfect blueprint to put a good idea into practice. Still, they often lack the expertise of what matters to the people "using" their ideas afterwards. Ignoring people and their diversity might lead to unsustainable "one-size fits all innovations".
Analysing and understanding people, their needs and their expectations is the expertise of social sciences. Students of Sociology or Anthropology learn how to conduct theoretical research or write a paper on societal issues. At the same time, they barely know how to translate this knowledge into skills useful for companies and real-life cases. Students are fit-for-academia, but the moment they have to face the world outside of their university, they do not know how to present themselves and their added value to other sectors - and possible employers.
The Knowledge Alliance PEOPLE, consisting of nine partners from Slovenia, Czech Republic, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, decided to tackle this situation with a new problem-based teaching and learning approach. Gregor Cerinšek, the project coordinator of the Knowledge Alliance, described the process as follows: "The key is moving from the expert mind-set – from which we design and develop new products from an expert engineering perspective – to the people-centred mind-set in which we place PEOPLE at the core of the development processes."
Students of Social Sciences - in this case, anthropologists - together with representatives from companies from the sustainable living and energy sector as well as mentors from industry and academia, collaborated in real-life projects embedded in a newly developed people-centred learning cycle. After an initial discussion of the sector's typical challenges, anthropology students first elaborate strategies and proposals to tackle these. In the next step, they collect data using their academic expertise and specific methodology by focussing on people. They do their research on the "end-users" of the products of the engineering companies, the occupants of buildings. Finally, after a thorough analysis and interpretation of the collected data, the students present recommendations for fit-for-industry products and suggestions for improving existing products and designs to the mentors and companies.
The innovative potential of this KA lies in the fact that students benefit from hands-on experiences with the industry partners - and vice versa. Companies in this sector primarily focus on direct project results. The students deliver, with their particular and broad perspective, insightful - and sometimes surprising - data on what users expect and how these expectations can be met. The results give companies the possibility to improve their conception and planning processes and adjust design approaches.
On the other hand, students learn how to apply their theoretical skills in practice, work in an interdisciplinary way, communicate effectively, train problem-focused thinking and translate findings into business-relevant information. The participating universities implemented PEOPLE's method and approach to ensure that future generations of sociologists and anthropologists will acquire confidence in their skills and knowledge and eventually master a problem many graduates of Social Sciences still face: employability.
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