The 21st Century Mantra

My dream is that by the end of this century (2100) humanity will have fundamentally altered the way that we live in a very particular way.

To bring out what this change might look like, let’s ask a question about he past. How much were we dedicated to learning? The answer — in very general terms —  is that learning took second place to surviving. Surviving from day to day was a challenge for most of our history, which meant that most of humanity focused less on learning, especially learning for learning sake. The result? A less than optimal learning path. We could have progressed further than we have in understanding the reality that surrounds us.

There are very entertaining stories that play on this theme, for example Mark Twain’s, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Image result for Connecticut Yankee King Arthur

Things have changed, at least to a certain degree. After the 20th century, many more of us (1) enjoy the luxury of deciding what learning paths we will pursue before entering the work force, (2) enjoy access to a stream of information about what is going on around us, and that from time to time helps us learn, and (3) rely on learning to add value to society.

All of that is progress. But we can do better – much better. We can do better if we understand how learning adds value. What is value? We tend to see value in terms of exchange value —  something is worth what someone else will pay or exchange for it. In other words, value is a a social rather than individual measure. And so when we ask how does learning add value, we are asking how does learning add value in terms of exchanges.

Here is the key idea – our institutions are pretty good at delivering value based on present knowledge. They are not organized to optimize introduction of new knowledge into products and services. Why? Firms make money by selling what they make NOW, not what they MIGHT MAKE in the future.  Indeed, it was expensive to invest in the technology that enables them to produce what they sell now. They have a strong incentive to continue using it as long as possible without investing in new technology. Markets can force them, and that is better than life without markets. But markets acting alone cannot push firms to optimal levels of innovation. If you doubt this, consider that government supported research has financed just about every major innovation that we now enjoy. Greg Satell writes

Take a look at any significant invention today and much of the core technology began with a government grant.

We can do better, if we understand a very basic idea. Learning adds value in terms of exchanges through 3 steps

  • discovery of new knowledge
  • adapting the knowledge to address a shared problem
  • developing products and services based on the adaption

We might add two additional steps. The first one precedes acquisition of new knowledge – it is developing platforms that build the capacity to discover new knowledge. The second one is at the end – developing platforms that track and share the learning paths that make progress possible.

In other words, if we want to maximize the value of learning in society, we need to invest in each of the above five steps.  Each of these occurs in different sorts of groups. But the groups need institutional connections so that they can exchange ideas and build a common vocabulary.

Societies that can make those interconnections work better will thrive in the 21st century. By the end of the century, let’s hope that we all are organized around this pathway to adding value through learning.


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