Embracing the thought revolution

The Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation will change the way UTS graduates tackle today’s problems.

Professor Louise McWhinnieMore than 50 years ago, Professor Louise McWhinnie’s mother was a midwife who cycled around inner city London delivering babies at home. Midwives at that time operated on their own, carried oxygen tanks in their bicycle baskets and worked with little technological support – not even a mobile phone.

Today in Australia, many midwifery students learn about the birthing process on high-tech mannikins that simulate lifelike contractions, cry with pain and then actually give birth.

These mannikins reflect not only the changes in education in one discipline in a generation, but also the impact of collaboration across disciplines – industrial designers, medical experts (including midwives), engineers and robotics experts all working together.

McWhinnie, the Dean of UTS’s new Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation (FTDi), cites this as an example of how work practices and workplaces are changing in often unexpected ways due to the transdisciplinary combination of expertise, and why there’s a growing demand for graduates who can lead  and succeed in this collaborative environment.

“We have had an Industrial Revolution, and now a Technology Revolution and Thought Revolution,” she says.

“Employers desire graduates who not only have the depth of disciplinary knowledge, but also agility and a breadth of thinking.” 

While other universities globally are also launching innovation and creativity subjects, McWhinnie says UTS is the first in the world to have a fully formed faculty that brings together a collaborative approach, weaving through and across disciplines. Offering Bachelors and Masters degrees as well as research opportunities, the new faculty is leading the university into unchartered waters.

“I have been told that these courses and now this new faculty could only happen at UTS,” McWhinnie says.

“And it’s true because, as an institution, we are not siloed by the perceived boundaries of our disciplines. Instead we are building an extraordinary ability in exchanging ideas and new ways of thinking together.”

Creative intelligence

The genesis of the new faculty began in 2014, with the launch of the groundbreaking Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation (BCII) degree, of which McWhinnie was a part.

Students don’t undertake the BCII in isolation but combine it as a double degree, choosing from 25 degrees that range from midwifery and advanced science to law and fashion design. Once UTS put this degree out into the student market, they received an immediate reaction; this year alone, there were more than 3600 applicants for only 200 places.

"We are building an extraordinary ability in exchanging ideas and new ways of thinking together"
– Professor Louise McWhinnie

And it isn’t just the students who are engaging, McWhinnie says: “Parents also recognise that the world is changing rapidly and that students need to be at the forefront of change; they don’t want their children to enter an institution simply resting on its history, but one facilitating the ways of thinking required for their futures in a rapidly changing world.”

Much of the motivation for the new degree came from industry, adds Dr Paul Brown, who teaches both in the FTDi and the UTS Business School.

“Companies love what we are doing because they know that this kind of learning adds value to graduates,” he says.

“And it’s everyone; governments, not-for-profits, multinationals and local start-ups ... they are all facing challenges that can’t be understood or solved by people from a single discipline.”

In the BCII degree, students work on a wide range of real client briefs and projects provided by established companies and start-ups. They learn critical and creative thinking, problem solving and develop entrepreneurial skills through hackathons, hothouse days and think tanks.

“We have companies asking us to work with them. They are reaching out to us and we are fielding their phone calls,” says McWhinnie. Visa, Accenture, Google and many others have all contributed their time, staff and projects to the students.

In their final year, students go out into up to two workplace internships from start-ups to multinational companies to social enterprises to test out their abilities.

FTDi also offers a Diploma in Innovation where students can experience much of the full degree through intensive summer and winter schools. Forensic chemist Associate Professor Alison Beavis, who is the new FTDi deputy dean, has taught at these intensive sessions.

“It’s a special thing to be part of,” Beavis says. “To see students enter their first session with a little fear but also excitement and energy, and then after a short time seeing them emerge, utterly exhausted but with a changed perspective after mixing in with students of all the other disciplines and learning about critical thinking and problem solving. At some point things just start to crystallise for them.”

The Bachelor of Technology and Innovation (BTi) is the faculty’s stand-alone undergraduate degree designed for students who want to work in a wide range of technology-related careers that brings together practices and strategies from a wide range of other faculties.

Animation and visualisation

This year FTDi has introduced a new postgraduate degree, a Master of Animation and Visualisation (MAV), in partnership with Animal Logic, the multi-award winning creators of the animation and visual effects for Babe, Happy Feet, The Hunger Games and many other films. It’s the only industry-led degree of its kind in Australia.

At the UTS Animal Logic Academy, a custom-built studio at UTS, the first 30 students began the course in January, working within a full-time production schedule, five days a week.

“This mirrors the industry’s real practices as the students will collaborate on ‘live’ creative briefs,” McWhinnie says.

Over the coming months, these students will hone their skills in storyboarding, graphic design, character design and background design, as well as rigging, layout effects and lighting. Master classes and intensive industry mentoring will buttress the studio learning.

The course has been formed as a result of collaboration between the faculties of Engineering, IT, Design and Architecture, as well as Arts and Social Sciences.
At the same time, this year FTDi is also intending to act as a research nexus for students and academics delving into issues that cut across faculties and focus on transdisciplinary creativity.

The future

By the end of this year, the first cohort of BCII students will be poised to graduate. Dominica Ingui, who is studying a combined degree with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication (Public Communication), says although she doesn’t know what career she is hurtling into, she believes BCII has equipped her with the initiative, resilience and creative confidence to take the next step.

"Technological advances and social trends will come and go, but our agile professional qualities will prove to be enduring. I know it"
– Dominica Ingui

“Technological advances and social trends will come  and go, but our agile professional qualities will prove to  be enduring. I know it,” she says. “We’re on the brink of our journey and we refuse to wait around for it to happen to us.”

Rekha Dhanaram, who combined the BCII with a Bachelor of Design in Visual Communications explains what she’ll take away from the degree.

“At the core, what I’ve learnt is the ability to tackle the unknown. And I believe that this ability to work towards something that isn’t tangible yet in any form is a skill that will benefit any career path I choose to take.” 

She hopes to combine her passion of service and environmental design with social entrepreneurship.

Developing these new skills are the key to Australia’s future argues Brown.

“Innovation is what will drive Australia’s economy, maintain our high wages and our standard of living,” he says.

“These students have this; they have developed a new frame of reference. They are sensitive to other perspectives and see the world in a whole new way.”

Click here to find out more about the Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation

Story by Melinda Ham
Photography by Kevin Cheung