Entrepreneurship In High School & Tertiary Education - Why We Need To Nurture Ethical Creative Thinking

There has been growing interest in introducing entrepreneurship in school and tertiary education over the past few years, with an ever increasing array of schools and universities interested in implementing new programs. So why is ethical creative thinking so important in the classroom?


There's no doubt that you're well aware of the growing number of issues our current and future generations face. But in understanding why a student's personal 'ethical compass' needs to challenged and developed, it's important to frame some of these problems and changes.

According to The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) New Work Order report "7 out of 10 young people currently enter the workforce in jobs that will be radically affected by automation." On top of that "60% of students are being trained in jobs that will be radically changed by automation."

Alongside that, the FYA's The New Basics report shows the demand for enterprise skills such as digital literacy, critical thinking, creativity and problem solving are on the rise.

There's no doubt that the ability to adapt, take risks, think creatively and respond strategically to rapidly changing circumstances will be a vital skill for our future generations.

The Centre For Independent Studies, Youth Unemployment in Australia report states that, "youth unemployment has nearly doubled since mid-2008, with around 300,000 youth now unemployed in Australia, accounting for over a third of total unemployment." Australia has a growing number of retirees, with the Renewing Australia's Promise report showing that a falling proportion of workers and taxpayers will need to support an ageing population.

Beyond the impact of a shift towards the 'gig economy', automation, growing youth unemployment and an ageing population, the world is facing an array of wicked problems. Many of us don't need to be reminded of the rapidly growing population (the UN predicts that the world population will grow to almost 10 billion people by 2050) which will have doubled in a period of only 60 years.

Image source:  Global Footprint Network
The Global Footprint Network, has warned of the effects of increased resource consumption, "today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. 
The result is collapsing fisheries, diminishing forest cover, depletion of fresh water systems, and the build up of carbon dioxide emissions, which creates problems like global climate change. These are just a few of the most noticeable effects of overshoot.
Overshoot also contributes to resource conflicts and wars, mass migrations, famine, disease and other human tragedies—and tends to have a disproportionate impact on the poor, who cannot buy their way out of the problem by getting resources from somewhere else."

"As damage to the planet's ecological systems - triggered by human actions - continually increases, there is a pressing need for the way we human beings live, act and engage the world around us, to change" says Professor Tony Fry in his book Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice. Fry goes on to affirm that "design ethics is massively underdeveloped and even in its crudest forms remains marginal within design education." 

Get rich quick! Right?

A plethora of co-working spaces, entrepreneurial hubs, incubators, accelerators, hackathons and bootcamps are springing up on a daily basis promising to support new 'innovative' ideas. A large proportion of these are focussed on supporting tech based startups, with dreams of securing solid VC funding from Silicon Valley. Aspiring to 'make big money' and 'grow, scale and become a millionaire' is not only a common goal of students in classrooms, but an objective often encouraged by educators in this space. It's not the 'making money' part that is concerning, but the lack of focus and understanding about the potential social and environmental impact created by an enterprise. Trying to gain an understanding of the true impact of a startup needs to be an integral part of an entrepreneurial mindset. Recently, even well known One-for-One social enterprise models have come under fire for the unintended consequences that negatively affect the same people they are trying to help.

How many of the ideas being developed and tested in programs actually respond to pressing social issues? How many of these new products and services go beyond responding to first world problems, to creating something of real social and environmental value? Where is the primary focus; people or profit?


In his book Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving, Jon Kolko describes wicked problems as "problems (which) can be mitigated through the process of design, which is an intellectual approach that emphasises empathy, abductive reasoning, and rapid prototyping."

Design thinking has gathered much interest in recent years as a popular approach for turning problems into opportunities. When used correctly, it can be a powerful tool to help entrepreneurs get to the core of the problem they are trying to solve. Encouraging and celebrating entrepreneurship can be dangerous when there is a lack of understanding around the true impact new products and services can have on the world. Design thinking can be used as a valuable process to help entrepreneurs to test value propositions, iterate concepts and arrive to ideas with a stronger chance of success and an understanding of the impact their product/service may have.

What does success mean to our current and future generations?

Defining what success means on a personal level is part of the  Jump Start  program.

Defining what success means on a personal level is part of the Jump Start program.

With governments measuring a nation's success with GDP, that is, total economic activity, how is this interpreted by the younger generations? Economic sustainability is fundamental to any great entrepreneurial idea or social innovation, yet a primary (and sometimes unique) focus on profit generation is misguided and can distract from using entrepreneurship to tackle problems that create benefit for society.

Apart from understanding the clear difference between an economically viable business and a hobby, students must also learn the value and absolute importance of using business as a force of good. Their 'ethical compass' can be used to steer decisions and participate in projects which create greater good for society as well as more work fulfilment.

The Economist's Old Problems, New Solutions: Measuring the Capacity of Social Innovation Across the World report talks about there being, "some concern among analysts of social innovation that efforts to promote it focus too heavily on social enterprise and social entrepreneurship. Since much social innovation happens outside any form of enterprise (in public sector bodies, for example), or is needed to tackle issues for which no market exists (e.g. homelessness, recidivism or truancy), the concern is that devolving responsibility for solutions to private-sector risk-takers is at best insufficient and at worst ethically questionable."

There's no doubt that our future generations hold the keys to some of the most pressing issues of history. In teaching entrepreneurship and encouraging such activity, we must ensure that students develop their 'ethical compass' which helps guide decision making during the design process. 

Students must learn about the potential consequences of launching new products into the world, beyond financial profits and economic rewards. As the Global Footprint Network puts it, we need "a world where all humans prosper and development succeeds because we are finally recognising ecological constraints and using innovation to advance more than just the economic bottom line."

"Social and cultural diversity, connecting technologies and a multi polar world are all contributing to a more chaotic worldview based on constantly evolving complex systems and networks. Not only why we learn and what we learn will change but also how we learn. The biggest challenge, therefore, for education leaders, and not only education leaders, is to ask the big questions concerning the purpose and processes of learning and education in the 21st century." - Josephine Green 
Students presenting new concepts to their group as part of the Jump Start program.

Students presenting new concepts to their group as part of the Jump Start program.

Tom Allen (Founder of Strategic Design Consultancy Seven Positive) is a design strategist and experienced educator. He lectures at leading universities in entrepreneurship and design, consults in the field and has implemented successful programs and workshops into schools and tertiary education. Get in touch if you'd like to collaborate or learn more.