The first known entrepreneurs came from New Guinea around 17,000 BCE. Locals traded volcanic glass used to make arrowheads for other daily necessities. Over thousands of years, civilisations have been built on the promise of business.

The President of the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) believes that the future of education must be founded on the same principles that gave rise to modern society. “We must promote skills like creative thinking and problem solving,” Professor Chong Tow Chong said at an event in October.

Here are three ways SUTD is equipping students to take on the needs and challenges of the future.

1. Nurturing entrepreneurs

Unlike any other university in Singapore, SUTD gives students a break from lessons every Wednesday and Friday afternoon. “We return a day a week to the student,” said Prof. Chong, so that students get time to explore their own interests outside the formal curriculum.

Much like how Google gives 20% of the week for employees to work on creative projects, the university is providing a space for students to take risks. And we can surely expect big things from SUTD students – this same policy birthed Google News and Gmail.

In their first three semesters, undergraduates have to launch their own startups. Students also attend entrepreneurship workshops each year, and they can work overseas in the US and China.

Seniors get to wrap up their undergraduate studies by pitching their ideas for startups. This is part of their capstone project, which is typically sponsored by a company in a related industry, he added.

The university is deliberately creating a vibrant environment for students to develop and bounce their ideas off one another, said Prof Chong. “Don’t underestimate students – they can come up with great things when we give them freedom,” he added. That is why all freshmen have to live on campus for a full year.

2. Multidisciplinary learning

SUTD’s curriculum balances digital skills that are becoming crucial for work with studies of society and history. All students take classes in programming, data statistics, machine learning, AI and other emerging technologies. 22% of the curriculum includes humanities, arts and social science modules – think poetry, early Asian religion, and AI-related ethics.

The university teaches students design thinking principles to help them develop better products and solutions. Most students complete over 20 design projects in the course of their four-year study. “We make sure that design permeates almost everything we do in the university. That way, we address a lot of human needs,” Prof. Chong explained.

SUTD has built multidisciplinary learning into its curriculum using an “outside-in” approach. “We first asked what the world needs,” said Prof. Chong. The university then designs the curriculum around these needs.

3. Encouraging creative collaboration

It’s been said that two heads are better than one. SUTD has taken this principle to a higher level with their classroom design. The tables and chairs feature a modular design, so students can easily shift from a small group discussion to a hands-on experiment. This encourages creative thinking and problem solving while students develop communication skills, explained Prof. Chong.

This “flipped classroom” design has changed the way students learn: they are teaching and learning from their peers. The low student to faculty ratio – there is one professor for every 11 students – has also enabled more discourse and discussion.

Businesses have come a long way since the Paleolithic times. The focus has shifted from acquiring daily necessities to delivering impactful solutions for society. SUTD wants to equip its graduates with the skills and mindset to adapt to this.