Arts, social sciences and humanities in the age of disruption

Thursday 18 July 2019 by Professor Robbie Robertson, School of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities

A laptop, glasses and notebook.

Arts, humanities and social sciences disciplines play a pivotal role in helping societies understand and adjust the challenges of the future.

In summary

  • Professor Robbie Robertson is the former Dean of Swinburne’s School of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities

As universities adjust to funding changes and to the emerging new technologies of Industry 4.0, arts, social sciences and humanities (ASSH) disciplines are often relegated behind science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines as drivers of innovation and as worthwhile preparers for future careers.

In a paper from Swinburne’s School of Arts, Social Science and Humanities, we’ve argued that such an approach misses the importance of collaboration – which we’ve dubbed ‘TEAMS’ - in driving innovation.

STEM and ASSH do not exist in isolation from each other; in fact, they have much to gain from collaboration, especially in teaching and research. Collaboration has never been a conspicuous feature of adaptation to change in the past. Today, however, we can no longer afford to repeat the failures of the last century.

Unfortunately, much of the debate that surrounds the dichotomisation of university programs also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the challenges in employment, technology, demography and geopolitics that all societies face.

None of these challenges can be automatically addressed by universities and their programs. After all, the strongest predictor of graduate employment success will always be a growing economy. Similarly, misleading and apocalyptic analyses of technological change both overstate the pace of change and downplay the capacity of people to adjust. Jobs are changing but not disappearing - hence the importance of lifelong learning, human creativity and interpersonal skills. But, individuals do not act alone. Societies and their political leaders need to be alert to the dangers imposed by rising inequality, unemployment, underemployment and social division to the goal of successfully adjusting to change.

These challenges are not local or national in scope, but global. They will increasingly be faced against a global backdrop of demographic change as populations age and as expanding middle classes and tertiary education transform Asia into the predominant driver of the global economy over the next 30 years. There is much to accommodate.

After examining each of these challenges in detail, we argue that - far from being irrelevant - ASSH disciplines play a pivotal role in helping societies understand and adjust to these challenges. They provide the deep skills so essential for wider social adaptation to Industry 4.0 and for creating innovative approaches to problem-solving with high social and economic impact. They also assist in creating the tools for adjustment, namely through developing human capital, valuing diversity, and transforming learning.

But like all university disciplines, some of the most pressing challenges ASSH disciplines face are internally generated. These mostly concern the learning environment: the way we teach and research, and how we house our staff and students. We should approach these challenges in the same way we face wider societal challenges.

Learning will need to be more boundary-free than in the past. Our graduates should be able to demonstrate a capacity to work across fields, draw on real-world case studies, and collaborate and innovate within networks of teams. The way we teach and engage our students should similarly enhance these goals. Indeed, transforming learning environments is perhaps the greatest challenge facing universities today. Teaching spaces and work spaces should inspire and allow users to flourish. To achieve this will require the same kind of thinking that we desire from our graduates, namely innovation and creativity.

We should not fear the future. Instead, we should embrace it with optimism, remembering that never before have societies like ours been so blessed with the wealth of resources and the know-how to understand and tackle change as our societies do.

To read more, see: Design 42: ASSH in age of disruption

Written by Professor Robbie Robertson, former Dean of Swinburne’s School of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities