Erik P.M. Vermeulen

@erikpmvermeulen

The Answer to Disruptive Technology is “Education”

But We Aren’t There Yet

Students in Fukuoka Japan celebrated their “creative thinking” presentation with Usian Bolt’s signature move — “To Di World”.
How should we prepare ourselves for disruptive new technologies?
And, how can we distinguish between “hype” and “reality” in a fast-changing digital world?

I am often asked these questions during conferences, workshops, and other events. For many people, the uncertainties of a digital world are the source of considerable anxiety and confusion.

Answering these questions is difficult. After all, none of us can predict the future with any degree of confidence. Yet, I find myself giving the same answer over and over again.

And the answer is “education.”

We need to do a much better job of preparing young people for the uncertainties (as well as the opportunities) to come.

By “education,” I don’t mean a traditional approach to education. I believe that traditional models are mostly broken and do little to prepare pupils and students for the future or even present.

All educators — from pre-school right the way through to university — must become much more proactive about disruptive technologies in a digital age. They need to understand how technology is transforming society and adopt an approach to education that is more appropriate to these new realities.

What Education is Doing (Wrong) Now

There are many obvious problems with current approaches to education.

For instance, I have written before about the importance of teaching everyone how to “code” or learning the mathematics behind emerging technologies like blockchain. Very few of the university students that I meet have studied these issues in their secondary education. That makes no sense to me.

But here are three “less obvious” trends that I notice in the current approach to education and teaching disruptive technologies.

#1 — Thinking about new technologies “in isolation”

When disruptive technologies are addressed in education, they are usually considered in isolation. I increasingly come across discussions about “artificial intelligence,” “blockchain,” or “robots.”

But the world is revolving more and more around these technologies working together. Disruptive technologies are accelerating each other’s development, creating new societal, economic, legal and commercial realities.

For instance, disruptive digital technologies (operating together) are transforming the way business works. Instead of hierarchical and asset-heavy companies, we see flatter organizations/platforms with fewer assets and employees.

Coordination of the assets and workers isn’t done by traditional managers, but digital technologies, sensors, and data analytics. Some even predict the end of the firm.

#2 — Thinking about new technology with “old world concepts”

What is still striking, however, is that “old world”, centralized and hierarchical thinking prevails when considering new technologies. This has two significant drawbacks.

First, teaching digital innovations with traditional societal, economic and legal models in mind, kills innovation, creativity and economic growth.

Disruptors create growth by redefining performance that either brings a simple, cheap solution to the low end of a traditional market or enables “non-consumers” to solve pressing problems in their everyday lives. Employing “old world” ideas seems unlikely to work when pursuing the new.

This brings us to the second drawback: Disruptive technologies have an impact at multiple levels. We have already seen that new technologies have the potential to disrupt existing ways of doing business.

To give an example. Digital technologies encourage companies to move from selling “products” to offering “services.” In the new world, the emphasis shifts from “ownership” to “access to a service”.

The broad adoption of digital technologies (think the Internet of Things or “smart environments”) means re-thinking everything we thought we knew about ownership of property, privacy, and employment. Again, this can’t be achieved with “old world” thinking.

#3 — Thinking about new technology “in extremes”

My impression is that most current discussion tends to “oversimplify” and then — as a direct consequence — “overhype” new technology and its social effects.

Think about the current framing of “artificial intelligence.” Artificial intelligence is often believed to usher in the final steps of automation. Knowledge workers will also not be safe anymore. Technology is about to replace human beings. In its most apocalyptic version, machines will take over the world.

This (obviously) oversimplifies things and merely adds to the technology hype.

Or blockchain. I am a believer in distributed ledger and blockchain technologies, but even I recognize that blockchain technology will not be used for all type of traditional organizations, transactions and business processes in the future. The value of blockchain is very situational. When “centralized institutions” cannot be trusted and an information history must be stored permanently, blockchain applications appear to make sense. A land ownership registry or a history of cryptocurrency transactions, for example.

Too often, new technologies are presented in “all or nothing” terms. This feeds the hype, but it also feeds a skepticism that allows people — especially young people — to ignore and dismiss these technologies.

What Education Should Be Doing

Here are three things that will help students to better prepare for the digital future. In my experience, education must include “design thinking,” “decentralization” and “co-creation.”

#1 — Focus on “design thinking”

This challenge of re-imagining society is as much a question of technology as it is one of design.

“Design” focuses on understanding an area of human experience and expectations and then developing a service that utilizes technology to improve that experience and empower people in new and previously unimagined ways.

Technology will be central to the delivery of new user experience, but it is the experience — again both real and imagined — that will be the key, and this is a design challenge.

What is remarkable in a contemporary context is that “technological experience” needs to focus on combining “connectivity” a technical sense (consider “cloud” services and Internet of Things) with a finely tuned “social sense” (meeting the sharing and sustainability needs and protections of today’s consumers).

#2 — Focus on “decentralization”

Technology is creating a flatter and more decentralized world. The transparency, speed, and connectivity are making traditional organizations and economic models obsolete.

This new world is full of challenges, but the opportunities are enormous. Yet, meeting the potential of the tech-driven world needs a different mindset.

The newly built world revolves around collaboration and reputation. Central institutions and hierarchies will not coordinate this. For instance, a person’s status will be less and less attached to institutions, such as universities, large corporations, and brands.

Reputation will have to be built by individuals who should master the art of storytelling. They will need to create content themselves to become visible and accessible.

There is no doubt, for instance, that building and projecting an identity via storytelling (including understanding social media) needs to become an integral part of a school’s curriculum.

#3 — Focus on “co-creation”

In this new world, individuals will become more and more critical but also more creative. Much more power will be given back to the individual. This means that we have to prepare students to be creative and able to collaborate and co-create.

I have written before about the importance of “odd couples” (technologists and non-technologists) working together.

Understanding the technologies is one thing, knowing how they are changing the world is another.

This change requires much more attention in education. As a result, educators need to teach more what they have created and less of what they have studied and learned in the “old world.”

What’s Next

It seems clear that the kind of disruption currently being experienced is rapidly becoming the “new normal” across societies around the world.

Since the exponential growth of technologies playing off each other will only lead to further design challenges, everyone needs to be equipped with the skills to engage in lifelong learning.

To meet these challenges — particularly given the degree of uncertainty surrounding the future — a focus on design thinking, decentralization and co-creation needs much more attention in the classroom now.

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