Full STEAM ahead: Putting an A fully and inseparably into STEAM practices for Software Design

Speaker:  Gilbert Cockton – Sunderland, United Kingdom
Topic(s):  Software Engineering and Programming


Continued growth in the human well-being has long been seen to depend on continuing advances in STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). However, in the last decade or so, effective worthwhile innovation is increasingly seen as needing STEAM: STEM with an A for Arts.

STEM disciplines value rationality. This may be wholly logical in mathematics, or mostly empirical in technology work with no strong engineering base. STEM can also be strongly practical, only valuing scientific theories that can be put to good use, typically through trial and error adaptation guided by hard won expert judgement. The most useful STEM practices are not wholly rational, but instead partially rely on judgement, intuition, and other long-established creative traits.

Similarly, the creative arts are not wholly irrational. They can draw extensively on theoretical and practical knowledge, but not for their primary direction or the sole basis of their disciplinary values. They are not constrained by an ancient Greek model of analysis-synthesis that progresses from a well-defined problem to a demonstrably correct solution. Instead much practice follows a conjecture-analysis model, with creative conjectures and reflective analyses interleaved across multiple timescales, even in large budget high risk time-bound contexts such as advertising and consumer product development. They are not just part of the craft practices of the solo designer-maker. They underpin Rittel and Webber’s 1972 seminal formulation of ‘wicked problems’, which was further refined and validated in Takeuchi and Nonaka’s extensive 1980s study of Japanese product innovation.

Analysis-synthesis models remain the basis for textbook engineering process models, which emerged during WW2 and reached their high point in the structured methods of the 1970s to 1980s. From the 1990s, structured methods were augmented and then increasingly replaced by agile approaches that adopt some creative practices. One software approach, Scrum was explicitly inspired by a subset of Takeuchi and Nonaka’s principles (they contrasted linear ‘relays’ with concurrent ‘scrums’). Better use was made of Takeuchi and Nonaka’s six principles in concurrent product innovation approaches.

Agile software practices currently sit awkwardly between rational ideals of structured methods and well documented realities of creative practice. They take stuttering steps towards STEAM (STE-a-a-a-M). That tempting ‘A’ keeps sticking in the throat, held back by a messy breakup from analysis-synthesis models that only work with Rittel and Webber’s routine ‘tame problems’.

Agile software practices must fully embrace the results of over 50 years of studies of creative design by researchers such as Lawson, Cross and Dorst. While misconceived rational ideals for structured methods are well understood, agile currently has no basis for adequately replacing them where they need replacing. In this lecture I will summarise how research into creative design work consistently reveals co-evolution of conjectural artefacts and reflective analysis. This co-evolution is often not driven by existing knowledge or rational plans, but instead occurs within Schön’s “conversation with the materials of a design situation” that support generous creative practices that outdeliver on value relative to just satisfying prespecified requirements.

About this Lecture

Number of Slides:  40-50
Duration:  45 minutes
Languages Available:  English
Last Updated: 

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