The future is no longer what it used to be. How do you prepare for it?

Suvarchala Narayanan April 21, 2017 9 min

Anyone who knows me well will attest to my obsession with futurism, especially as it concerns the future of learning. Future of work is the current belle-dame at the ball who is hogging all the limelight, but as I relentlessly reiterate at every panel, roundtable I’m called to do and every article I write, it’s the future of learning that’s the Cinderella in the room. It’s inconceivable to talk of the jobs of the future without talking about how learning has to radically shift. And because being a gig-worker / digital nomad can represent that edge of working and learning, this week I’d like to explore the beginnings of what new learning paradigms can look like.

To be a gig-worker is to continuously unlearn, adapt, re-learn and change — especially if you don’t subscribe to the idea of a fixed identity or discipline  

To be a gig-worker is to continuously unlearn, adapt, re-learn and change — especially if you don’t subscribe to the idea of a fixed identity or discipline. When you work across industries, skills and roles, you need a way to keep up, to preempt trends before they can sneak up on you, and to catch the waves of change at just the right moment. Too early and your target audience / market won’t be ready for those ideas; too long and you’d have lost the early-mover advantage.

The Interactive Telecommunications Program, NYU. Credit: ITP, NYU

Schools today are hopelessly inadequate in preparing us for the impending disruption in living, working and skilling. Traditional education is built as a monolithic idea, where one spends a few years, progressing in a linear fashion, and at the end of it, armed with a bachelor’s or master’s degree or a PhD, you are somehow magically prepared for the rest of your working life.
This paradigm may have worked in a previous era (though even that is debatable), which was characterised by predictable skill demands, mass jobs and factory-style outputs. But in this time of digital acceleration where jobs will soon be automated faster than they are created, the very definition of “school” needs a sea change.

Having spent 15 years as a gig-worker, unlearning old paradigms, and picking up a multitude of new skills and knowledge as quickly as possible, there is only one thing I know for certain: The future will belong to those who can learn to learn. Whatever skill you learn today may be obsolete or automated tomorrow. Even programming, which is such a valued skill today, may lose its elite position when the tools are democratised, and the ability to program is made more accessible. We see this with the democratisation of the maker movement, with tools such as Arduinos and Raspberry Pi effectively allowing anyone to become a hardware prototyper, not to mention 3D printers and their effects.

Building a wearables prototype using an Arduino. Credit: Suvarchala Narayanan

So, if we have to constantly pick up new skills and learnings and quickly at that, the 10+2+3+2 years education formula is obviously not the way to go. And while new approaches are still in their nascent phase, a few early concepts are already emerging. Many of these face issues of adoption / affordability / scale among other things, but it’s an early glimpse of things to come.

One such concept is Hyper Island. Founded by Jonathan Briggs, David Erixon and Lars Lundh, it set out to “design learning experiences that challenge companies and individuals to grow and stay competitive in an increasingly digitised world.” Based in seven locations, including Stockholm, Singapore, New York and Sao Paulo, Hyper Island offers full and part-time as well as intensive, online courses in subjects ranging from business transformation to digital marketing to user experience. An interesting aspect of Hyper Island is that besides offering learning programmes, the school also has a business consultancy arm. This setup ensures that the programme works closely with industry and that students can “learn by doing”, in the process of solving real-world problems.

Hyper Island set out to “design learning experiences that challenge companies and individuals to grow and stay competitive in an increasingly digitised world”  

Also read: Other posts from the Digital Nomad series

Joel Tukianen, a digital strategist and entrepreneur who studied the Digital Data Strategist programme at Hyper Island (HI) sums up his experience on his website: “Hyper Island isn’t just a school about digital, it’s kind of a ‘life school’. You learn to push yourself to the limit, to steer your personal development into the path you wanted to go.”

“The actual learnings are built upon different modules. One module at a time. We have no teachers, no books. So the school is really different compared to regular ‘schools’. This didn’t actually feel like a ‘real’ school. Lectures from “industry professionals” are a big part of the modules. For every module we get a brief, most likely from a real client. The learning happens in the practical work, supported by relevant lectures and workshops. It’s not really about how good you are, but how much you evolve during your time at HI.”

Events at Hyper Island’s different locations. Credit: Hyper Island

Then there are other challengers to mainstream education, like Exosphere. Founded by Skinner Layne and Andy Ellwood, Exosphere’s stated mission is to build the educational institution of the future.

Ellwood, whose kaleidoscopic work experiences included selling luxury jets for Warren Buffet, believes strongly that “every team needs a hipster (designer), a hacker and a hustler. He took his questions and his hustling skills, and along with Layne, built Exosphere to respond to what they perceived as two core problems :

  • People didn’t work in alignment with their calling. They were doing work that they were unhappy with or that was just not a good fit for them
  • A lot of people’s lives were characterised by broken relationships with the people around them
A group of Exosphere students. Credit: Exosphere

The second point, though it may come as a surprise, is typical of millennial values. As opposed to previous generations who sacrificed relationships, personal lives and integrated life experiences at the altar of careers and entrepreneurial success, many Millennials are revolting against this binary expression of living. There is a dawning recognition that a truly happy, fulfilling life requires healthy, present relationships as much as business / career success. Which is why a lot of burgeoning learning programs will include subjects such as non-violent communication, group dynamics and empathy-based leadership. Hyper Island, for example, has a programme called Understanding Group and Leader (UGL), which has been used as a basic leadership course in the Swedish Armed Forces.

Success at the cost of relationships is a fast-failing approach that is quickly punished, as can be seen in the case of Uber’s Travis Kalanick. Partners, employees, customers today hold values and personality on the same scale as achievement, and the latter can lose all meaning if shortcomings in the former are not first addressed. So, in a reality such as this, programmes like Exosphere view “education” as a holistic goal, where participants learn as much about themselves as they do about the latest technologies.

Current areas of focus at the Exosphere programme. Credit: Exosphere

Sagar Dubey, a former engineer from IIT Mumbai is an Exosphere alumnus, who attended the programme in Santiago, Chile. He shared his thoughts about Exosphere and the reason he chose to attend the course:

“The world is changing far too quickly on an experiential level. The reason we don’t think about it is it’s scary. So we hide behind status quo, pretending like not much is changing. But it is. If you’d have told me in 2005 that rickshawalas would own cellphones, I’d have laughed at you. The same way I would have laughed if you’d have told me five years ago that Google would open source machine learning with tensor flow,” he says.

Exosphere is a unique experiment and an opportunity to get out of the narrative of your life  

“Exosphere is a unique experiment and an opportunity to get out of the narrative of your life. Generally we all live on some sort of a ‘track’ to some extent or more. As an example, for an urban educated Indian person like me, the standard track is engineering -> IT company -> MBA -> executive position. Replace engineering with medical or — as is commonly said ‘if you can’t hack it’ then you go with the law or the arts,” he adds.

“This, on its face, is absolutely terrible. Yet every day millions of young Indians wake up and go through it, year after year since the 90s. And no one stops to question why. Things are changing very rapidly though, and visibly so, but a large percentage continues along the usual route. I should know because I was one of them. Like many of my friends, I knew it was wrong, but couldn’t really articulate how and what I could do about it.”

“The world is changing far too quickly on an experiential level. The reason we don’t think about it is it’s scary. So we hide behind status quo, pretending like not much is changing. But it is” — Sagar Dubey, a former engineer from IIT Mumbai is an Exosphere alumnus  

“Exosphere allowed me to experience a massive shift in context, to ask the hard questions (What do I really want? Why do I want it? What’s holding me back from going after it?); to acknowledge my insecurities and be able to talk about them honestly and, most importantly, the ability to be flexible, adapt and listen to an internal compass. Along the way, I met and interacted with an amazing group of people and we continue to stay in touch and help each other out till today.”

Credit: Exosphere

Luke Crowley, is another alum who found himself and his approach to work transformed after his Exosphere stint: “My wife Lourdes and I came from a background in construction. I was bored at work and felt that, long term it was a dead end. The program has worked wonders for me personally. I have a new love for learning that was awakened while at Exosphere. In the three years after we completed the program, my partners and I have started a real estate company based in Chile and have developed a love for 3D architectural modeling and building information modeling (BIM). Learning these new skills has provided new opportunities for me I could have never imagined.”

Design thinking workshop. Credit: Exosphere

Exosphere is an six-week residential program out of Florianapolis, Brazil. Applications for their next cohort start July 3, and is now open. If interested, you can apply here.

Hyper Island is based in multiple locations and runs courses through the year. Check out a list of their programmes here.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” — Antoine de St Exupery

 


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