New jobs need new skills: shaping the academic programs of tomorrow

Marius Aeberli
Aug 24, 2018 · 6 min read

Before we know it, everyone will be a student. You’ll all have an AI-powered bot tutor on your smartphone making education on-demand, all digital and personalized. It will curate everything you need to learn and will create custom-made courses according to your unique cerebral profile. You’ll learn, unlearn and relearn throughout your life, whoever, whenever and wherever you are.

Yet unfortunately, according to the World Economic Forum report “Future of Jobs”, it also seems that you’ll be out of work.

Not because of automation, nor competition.

But mainly because new jobs need new skills.

In this report, the WEF compares the top 10 required skills in 2015 & 2020.

This pinpoints three major related educational upcoming issues:

  • The nature of work is changing rapidly. Work today is increasingly collaborative and focused on solving complex problems in creative ways. Work is also more trans-disciplinary than before.
  • None of these skills are easy to learn alone, online, or without effort. They take practice and they demand rich, human interactions.
  • Adaptation will be the order of the day. This list of skills will continue to shift over the upcoming years.

Many universities have already started to invent new models, such as cooperative education, with alternating semesters of study and work experience.

Eleven years ago, the EPFL+ECAL Lab was established as one of these experimental programs. Since then, research and applied projects have enriched our understanding of skills that we consider as critical to face upcoming innovation challenges.

Today, one of our key missions is to provide students (in engineering, design or even business & management) with educational experiences that prepare them to face these challenges and the quickly changing working environment.

With our institutional partners, we’ve developed an education strategy that embeds what we consider as the key dimensions to tackle today’s education challenges:


We make students from different universities, and sometimes from different countries, work together. In mixed groups, students in engineering, design, economics and social sciences experience how different perspectives, strengths, and tensions can be beneficial in understanding volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous realities. Working as a team has value for retention, student engagement, transfer, in addition, it spurs systems thinking and fosters the design of unexpected solutions.

A project-based approach

We think it’s futile to make students work in a classroom on things they can do at home with a screen. We foster courses and programs in which students need to create, test and deliver something. Being able to translate an idea into a prototype that produces data is an incredible skill. Teachers support each group and project, providing personalized feedback and advice.

Human-centered design

We incentivize students to twist their point of view in order to create through the eyes of someone else. Using design thinking tools, we make students observe contexts, question people and exercise empathy. We challenge their assumptions, pushing them to reframe and refine problems and opportunities. We encourage them to refrain from jumping to the first solution and we work to bring them out of their comfort zone and usual frames of reference.

Real-life application

We push students to always keep reality in mind. We involve real partners (investors, companies, other institutions, …) that provide briefs, problem statements, reality checks and feedbacks. Students sometimes must pitch, make a live demonstration or even negotiate. They are also encouraged to consider their project from an end-to-end perspective, sometimes until a hypothetical go-to-market.

Radical innovation opportunities

We give students the space to start from scratch and follow their intuition. Yet at the same time we provide technical support and mentoring on methodology. Of course, it’s challenging to accommodate applied and human-centered dimensions. However, it creates opportunities to challenge the status quo as well as the teachers themselves.

Possibility to fail

And last but not least, we strive to create the proper environment to make failure acceptable and productive. It requires the building of trust, psychological safety and being able to provide students with helpful and in-depth feedback. So at the end of the process, we don’t reward the project, but instead, we reward the people and how they deal with the different challenges and understand root causes of their success and failure. For us, both productive success and failure are acceptable; unproductive failure and success are not.

Through formats and iterations

The EPFL+ECAL Lab has created, co-created, runs and supports various academic programs and courses, among others:

  • The Master of Advanced Studies in Design Research for Digital Innovation offers a novel training experience, combining academic research and innovation with concrete application through external partners.
  • INSSINC — for Indo-Swiss Social Innovation Camp — is a prototyping / design sprint in Bangalore on social innovation and entrepreneurship in partnership with swissnex India and SELCO Foundation. In cross-cultural and interdisciplinary teams, participants address problem statements issued by the Indian NGO.
  • We support CHIC — for China Hardware Innovation Camp. This program, initiated by the EPFL College of Humanities, aims to develop students’ T-Shape profile through an end-to-end product development process. In groups, students from engineering, business and design must imagine, design and prototype a connected device in order of a ‘go to market’ perspective. The final stage of the program takes them to Shenzhen, China to create a functional industry-ready prototype. The 4th edition just ended this summer.
  • n-Visioning Tomorrow is an interdisciplinary summer school in partnership with Logitech. During a one week workshop, students generate new and creative solutions to tackle an innovation-related challenge.

Now, delivering experiential learning at scale

Only a few hundred students have been involved in our courses and programs over the last decade. However, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have exposed 81 million remote students to 9,400 online courses from over 800 universities last year (source).

Switzerland and its institutions are privileged ecosystems to build and run pilot projects. But thanks to technology and open source approaches, we believe that these programs could be scaled up soon. Building strong experiential frameworks and sharing them will enable teachers from other institutions to replicate models and enrich them thanks to their experience.

Technology quickly changes both the nature of work and the education itself. MOOCs are maybe useless to make students practice non-cognitive skills. However, testing and sharing models that work will eventually make this kind of education more accessible, decreasing implementation costs and risks for institutions.

If you’re interested to know more about our programs or if you would like to share your experience with us, drop us a line!

Header picture: Two students from CHIC program brainstorming with a designer from ARTOP Group in Shenzhen

About the EPFL+ECAL Lab

The EPFL+ECAL Lab is a unit of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne in partnership with It aims to explore the potential of emerging technologies through design and to transform scientific performance into useful, every day and sustainable user experiences.


We foster innovation at the crossroads between technology…

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