Never was there a better time for humanity to reflect on its successes as a means to ensure continued success. What are we done right? What could we do better? Across the globe, people are looking for new ways of doing what we’ve done before. We reached out to Aether Global Learning – a think tank for transformational learning and creative leadership that aims to inspire, and nurture the world’s future leaders.

Aether Global Learning was established to bridge the disconnect between education and industry. Its founders, Owen Foster, John McCabe and Tom Gattis, watched as students and companies found this chasm increasingly harder to navigate and thus began to develop a world-class educational experience outside of the traditional classroom. Drawing on a combined experience of over 50 years in both private and public higher education, and design leadership at Fortune 100 and Fortune 50 companies, these men were poised to disrupt professional development for designers and non-designers alike.

Today, Aether partners with organizations and educational institutions around the world to create an environment that encourages discovery, creation, and reflection for a global community of makers, thinkers, changers, and leaders. Their work has affected developing education systems in Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

Credit photo: Aether Global Learning

Since launching in 2013, roughly 2500 makers, dreamers, rebels, movers, shakers, thinkers, designers, scalers, and do-ers have participated in flagship initiatives such as SHiFT – a location inspired programme that uses the design process to connect students and professionals from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds through workshops and community projects. The events range from a single day to a week, and are focused around team building and understanding the power of the design process.

What makes SHiFT so unique however, is its outdoor location and use of zero technology.

Typically held on some 3,000 acres of rural ground, participants are invited to camp and leave their daily distractions behind. The outdoors are a way to level the playing field and quickly force people out of their comfort zones. “They live in the moment and solve problems collaboratively and not just use the internet to search for the answer. The outdoors have [been] a magical way of stripping away the stress of life and building empathy with others through connectable moments while on hikes and during meals,” elaborated Owen Foster. The 60-100 participants, typically college students and young professionals, leave invigorated by the playful nature of design. SHiFT can also be adapted for a much younger audience, where primary school 4th graders have the opportunity to meet senior and c-suite professionals from different corporations in order to expose them to industries and positions that may fall outside of their 10-year old purview.

Credit photo: Aether Global Learning

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the camps scheduled for May and June 2020 were reformatted to ensure the safety of all participants with regards to travel and social distancing. The SHiFT Crew had already been working on virtual offerings prior to this and seized the opportunity to launch them. Supported by volunteers who organized digital experiences that still forced participants to break out of their comfort zones and embrace goofiness in their homes, the SHiFT Block Party was born. Leaders in accessory design, technology and AI, toy design, and film and marketing industries virtually gathered to inspire participants night after night with inspirational “campfire” conversations and other forms of engaging virtual presentations and forums. Each offering is a building block and participants can personalize the experience they want based on schedules and availability.


Q: Preparing for this feature, we found you [Owen Foster] once said, “it’s important to not concentrate on making the world a better place for people, but making better people for the world.” Can you expand on this?

Making the world a better place is a noble goal that we all should be working together to build. The reframing of this wicked problem with ‘first principle thinking’ brings a different perspective that reveals an accessible opportunity for positive change.

For the world to become better, we need to start making and being better people. For us, that channel for change is through education.

By making a positive change in the world around us, we hope to ignite that same passion in others to make positive changes in the world around them. With enough time and people, the world will be full of empowered individuals ready to create a better world.

Q: What are elements of design or design thinking that you extract in order to educate those who specialize in other disciplines? 

We instill design thinking as a fluid creative problem-solving methodology and not a step-by-step process. It’s a mindset that adapts to changing industries, cultural needs, and business demands. At the heart of it all, multidisciplinary, multicultural, and multigenerational collaboration is difficult. A diverse team that has embraced a design thinking mindset will be able to align to shared goals, unlock deep insights, and deliver memorable, cohesive results.

Our process includes a heavy focus on personal growth, emotional intelligence, soft skills development, and collaboration techniques to bring awareness to individual strengths and working styles. By encouraging personal goals to be set and shared, we ensure the team takes the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.

Q: Why is design thinking important? Or inversely, why do you think it is often overlooked in the C-suite or governments, planning departments, etc.

Most organizations used to view creativity as subjective and unquantifiable. And this is perhaps true until mechanisms are in place to collect and measure the impact that design has on the company. For that environment to exist, designers will need to build the atmosphere for creativity to flourish.

Designers must develop an environment that facilitates non-designers to experience the power of design and its effect on all aspects of an organization.

This reimagining of design as not just the creative act of making objects, but also the process of developing a strategy is a fundamental difference between successful modern companies and those of old.

As design and strategic foresight overlap in companies, you begin to see the results of resilient future-focused companies that are reimagining themselves and are prepared for the accelerated world we live in. The historical blind spot for most companies is educated incapacity, where they are blind to an industry or societal change that directly affects their success. Unlearning is an essential part of the Aether process and helps to identify and understand our biases, to recalibrate our viewpoints, and capture new institutional assumptions.

Q: How can [industrial] designers make the world a better place for people and/or make better people for the world?

We can do many things as part of our personal goal of making the world a better place. We need to build a strong sense of community and self. Help yourself and then help others. As you are serving, you will learn about them and from them. These newly instilled lessons begin to build the foundation for empathy. The muscles will start to develop and mature our mindset and capability of systems thinking. As we learn from each other, we need to teach each other, and then we can create something amazing together.

Credit photo: Aether Global Learning

Editor’s note: Many thanks to Owen Foster and John McCabe from WDO Member Aether Global Learning for answering our questions. Their contributions were originally shared in May 2020.

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