How education can prepare for a future that has already arrived?

You should be scared … or should you? This post is not about computers but it’s a result of their impact. The graph below depicts calculations per second capable on a single computer in each year since 1940. In 1940 a computer was capable of one calculation per second but due to exponential growth in speed and power, the world has experienced an exponential impact from computers and their accompanying technologies. Preparing for exponential change is difficult because of its two phases. Phase one: Today looks just like yesterday; Phase two: What’s going on? If you compare current developments we are experiencing in phase two, phase one made life in 1940 and 2005 essentially the same.

Exponential changes where each number is double the last. New computers have and continue to double their power every 18 months.

You can understand these two phases if you just take a moment to think about numbers themselves. The first phase is where the growth is comprehensible, for example, you can understand 1,2,4,8, and 16 and later on the graph understand 1 trillion, 2 trillion, 4 trillion etc. but you get to a point where you can’t pronounce the number. It is at this point you enter the second phase where we then double the already unpronounceable number and suddenly numbers change in an incomprehensible fashion. Human experience to date has not prepared society to consider change in this way but it is already happening all around us. I thought I would use the examples below to exemplify the current developments and how they already affect society and in particular educators, who are meant to be preparing young people for a new world they don’t understand. 

You can imagine this change like a field that is just about to bloom into flower. Between 1940 and about 2005, the world look like the field on the left but hidden in the grass were flowers developing taller and taller stems. Then, almost overnight (on the graph, about a decade), all the flowers bloom across the world at the same time and suddenly the world looks and feels completely different. 

For the last 7 years, I have been showing this double photo of Shanghai to students. It highlights a very important extra challenge to our more linear mindset. The developing world are making more significant use of these developments. One way to look at it is that China has effectively done America’s entire 20th century in just two decades. In the last 5 years, China has continued this exponential growth and gone from being one of the biggest polluters to becoming an example for the adoption of green energy and cleaner air.

Until the 21st century it was very easy to considered that the developing world would always be around 150 years behind the developed world. The time and money it would take to develop the infrastructure of roads, power lines, and communication lines would always have them lagging behind. Exponential change has completely turned this one it’s head.

The various Technologies developed in the last 10 years have virtually removed the need for those traditional infrastructures. Just recently solar power and the accompanying battery technologies have become the most efficient and cheapest way to reduce energy. This means many developing countries will never need those core infrastructures that were the backbone behind 20th century advancement in America and Europe.  

Exponential change also means we can solve many of our major world issues at exponential speed. The technology that now allows us to communicate globally in seconds is sharing the information so that scientists and technologists can make huge leaps to match the increasing power of the computers themselves, such as this image of 100% Prime beef that was produced without the need for a cow. This science is being trialled in a number of countries and being looked at by multiple food producers.  Even a small percentage shift from cattle to this form of beef production would have significant economic and environmental impact on the world.

The same goes for milk production. Yes that’s right, this photo shows 100% cow’s milk that just happens to not involved a cow. If you are thinking that you would never drink this stuff, you need to be aware that much of today’s milk is used in general food production. If you look on the packet of any wheat crackers or other supermarket products you will find they involve milk powder. Imagine what this means to those many countries who rely on beef and dairy for a major part of the GDP.

Another technology to accompany many shifts in the last 10 years is the plummeting cost of LED lighting. You may well now have LED lighting in the headlamps on your car or the Christmas lights around your house. The low cost of purchasing and operating LED lighting, especially the low power consumption, has changed possibilities in the growth of plants and vegetables. In this photo you can see a Berlin-based company setting up vertical indoor farms that are many more times efficient and reliable than conventional farms using only 1% of the water and their not weather dependent either. What’s with this mean to land use, employment and the cost of food?

You may well have read much about challenges to employment through automation, AI, and web-based services. McDonald’s hit an all time high on the stock market this year as it essentially promised to fire most of its workers around the world. McDonald’s is making use of multiple Technologies for automated serving and food production. How will young people make it through their teens if none of them can work at Macca’s? 

It is not just McDonald’s either as most retailers have looked at utilising technology in store or online to reduce the need for human capital. Amazon (see below) has automated the entire purchasing experience, recognising who is shopping and what they put in their bag, removing the need for any manual confirmation or payments.

To continue on this Second phase of exponential change the way we live and work and construct the lives around this is also changing simultaneously with everything mentioned previously. The way we construct houses with prefabrication and even 3D printing has both appeared and become a significant market in just one decade. When I started teaching in my current school, the youngest children were 11 years old and I had now heard of 3D printing. Those 11 year olds are now 16 and 3D printing has meant the production of thousands of buildings around the world.

This technology alone is a great example of how quickly things appear and are adopted across the world in such a short space of time. There are many cities in the world currently suffering a housing crisis with house prices skyrocketing, especially where I live in Auckland. This housing crisis is driven by the speed at which we can build houses, the lack of skilled labourers And the explosion of the rental market where those who already owned property have the equity to purchase yet more and rent it out. The adoption of 3D printing property, especially given it’s low production cost, could solve all of these problems simultaneously.

Now that we are living in the more vertical stage of exponential change it is very common to find yourself discovering the new technology that might change the world while it’s replacement is already under development. This is so with 3D printing. Traditional 3D printing has been a matter of slowly drawing layers of material on top of each other building up 3D object but this was not good enough for some people.

This new 3D printing technology allows a physical object to be pulled from liquid material in a matter of minutes rather than hours. It does this by playing a UltraViolet movie, where each frame is a layer of the object, as it pulls the object from the liquid resin. I have seen many things but this is the most Star Trek to date.

What all this exponential change has led to his company’s realising that in most cases nobody can really be ready for what is going to happen in any 12 months. This has led many companies to question the idea of whether actually knowing any particular piece of information is necessarily going to be of any worth. In New Zealand, 250 companies signed an Open Letter explaining that good, talented people can apply for their roles, regardless of whether they carry formal qualifications or not. As long as there is evidence that one is willing to learn and keen to work with others in solving problems then the company will be able to adapt better to all of this rapid change and not be wiped out by a competitor.

The key thing to surviving exponential change is a constant awareness of what is happening around you and inability to work with others in joining the dots and realising how one thing impacts on another. These are the skills that school should be focused on as we produce expert learners who are keen to embrace change and showcase how they can adapt and help others move forward.

We are lucky in New Zealand to have a national school curriculum (coincidently written in 2007 at the very base of the vertical rise in exponential change) that recognises we are no longer in the horizontal first phase of exponential development and very much on the second vertical phase. The vision for school leavers laid out by our curriculum (see below) perfectly outlines what organisations are now seeking in young people. The challenge that New Zealand schools are working through is one of change management as we educate our population in how they change their habits and assumptions that’s still consider world development as only a linear process.