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On Searching for New Genes

by Rick Smyre

"The important thing is not to stop questioning." --Albert Einstein, the Father of Relativity

"It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be uneducated." --Alec Bourne, Author, A Doctor's Creed

"We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down." --Kurt Vonnegut Author, Timequake

"The aim of the college, for the individual student, is to eliminate the need in his life for the college; the task is to help him become a self-educating man."-- George Horace Lorimer, Editor, Saturday Evening Post (1899 -1937)

As a futurist, I am a collector of quotes that, when connected, may help provide a glimpse into our constantly changing future because of new questions that arise. Two of the most important questions for our age is "what is the future of higher education?" and "what future capacities for an educated person in the 21st Century will be required?"

Traditionally, we have searched the literature for answers. However, we are living in an age where the past is not a good predictor of the future. As a result, chaos theory teaches us it is important to look for new initial conditions for what is emerging. With this in mind, the following article suggests a 21st century "higher education DNA," so that the context of education will be aligned as best possible with a society that seems to be evolving. The only thing that will be certain is that our society will be constantly transforming. It will not be the traditional society of the past on which so much of today's education is based:

* The level of cognitive complexity will be increasing as technologies provide real time information and connections.

* A Creative Knowledge Economy and Society will need individuals who are able to innovate continuously, and capable of building relationships with others at a deeper level.

* The culture will be transforming constantly as new technologies and ideas impact all aspects of the context of our society and world.

As a result, it is my opinion that we need to shift our emphasis from a past of certainty and tangible outcomes, to a future requiring a comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. Thinking in nonlinear ways linking multiple factors will need to complement linear thinking ( the small part of reality where one answer is best ). . . ..and always within a "futures context."

Preparing Millennials

I recently saw an associate, Neil Howe, on Sixty Minutes. He was talking about the Millennials, those students from 8-28, about whom he wrote in Millennials Rising. I was struck by the challenge higher education has to prepare this generation for the future. As children of the Baby Boomers, the Millennials have been conditioned to want structure, low risk, teams focused on singular objectives, defined outcomes, and instant gratification . . . the very opposite attributes to what will be needed for a constantly changing society.

The Millennials are expecting life to provide standard answers and often confuse the need to determine their own moral and ethical standards with a world where "standardization" as norm will be a thing of the past. That is why learning how to combine a creative mind with strong principles of character will continue as a key objective of higher education in the future. My observation is that much work needs to be done by higher education to adapt its focus from traditional learning methods to create a culture that will allow the environment to be more stimulating, more flexible, and more creative . . . where students have their own responsibility to develop varied learning experiences connecting interesting people and new ideas throughout the U.S. and world. This has been evolving in certain institutions of higher education. It needs to become the norm.

In my opinion, It will be very important for higher education to realize that it needs to help its students identify trends and weak signals of the future, see newly emerging patterns and connections, and develop emotional skills to help them risk being truly creative.

21st Century HE DNA (Higher Education DNA)

As a result of the ongoing transformation of our society, I offer the following to be considered as a DNA of ideas that I suggest will be important to the future of the quality of higher education. As you read these twelve ideas, always remember that at the age of 62, I no longer have truth, only opinions. These suggestions need to be considered as a system of interacting genetic elements which, when seeded effectively, will help grow and align the dynamics of higher education with a constantly shifting and increasingly complex society ( 21st Century HE DNA: Higher Education DNA).

21st Century HE DNA #1: An educated person in the 21st century will need diverse knowledge to include history, future trends and technical skills. This person will also need the ability to ask appropriate questions to make connections among disparate ideas and factors to identify new knowledge. An educated person in the 21st century will need to be introduced to new principles that will under gird a dynamic and constantly changing society. These new principles will be based upon the metaphor of a living system because of the dynamic nature of transformation. Therefore, key ideas of biology, ecology and chaos/complexity theory will be central to the needs of an educated person in the 21st century.

21st Century HE DNA #2: Three components of learning will become the focus of building a base of knowledge and skills to insure the capacity for continuous innovation in all college and university graduates. These components are a) a redefined core curricula based on knowledge of 21st century science, technology and liberal arts; b) the skills of identifying and asking appropriate questions; c) the capacity to see new patterns and connections among apparently disparate ideas and factors.

21st Century HE DNA #3: Redesign of the processes of learning which shifts emphasis from the professor to the learner as a part of individualized, reciprocal learning. . . .where a learning guide concept challenges the traditional methodology of one-way information flow and standardized testing only. . . at the same time that 21st century learners develop the capacity to become "self-educating persons." The need to shift emphasis from a traditional context of education to a futures context for self-learning will require a culture which supports such a transformation.

21st Century HE DNA #4: Student services will need to create new leadership development and personal adaptive support methodologies to help the children of baby boomers learn how to a) be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty; b) identify future trends and move beyond the need for instant gratification; c) develop the ability to take appropriate risk; d) create self-capacities to develop relationships at a deeper level; e) understand the difference between a short-term project team and a team networked for longer-term innovation; and f) build the ability to be non-linear thinkers comfortable with processes that are less structured to be able to adapt to constantly transforming ideas and situations.

The future no longer belongs to people who can reason with computer-like logic, speed and precision. It belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind. --Dan Pink, "Revenge of the Right Brain," Wired Magazine

21st Century HE DNA #5: All colleges and universities will need to develop a culture in support of diversity, interconnections and true transformation. As the economy and society moves toward less standardization and more choices and pluralities, there will be a need to prepare students for a world of differences.

"Immelt, 49, is clearly pushing for a cultural revolution. In his General Electric, the new imperatives are risk-taking, sophisticated marketing, and, above all, innovation." --Diane Brady, "The Immelt Revolution," Business Week

21st Century HE DNA #6: All colleges and universities will need to build "and/both" capacities in their faculties and students in order to insure "connective listening, effective generative dialogue within a futures context, and parallel processes which seed transformation and continuous innovation.

21st Century HE DNA #7: Certain sacred traditional principles will need to be rethought totally. As an example, traditional creativity and critical thinking used to solve existing problems will need to be complemented by a new type of creativity that searches for connections among disparate ideas in order to create concepts, products, methods and services that are not a part of traditional experience and knowledge. The focus on developing new principles and methods for 21st century creativity will be especially important for a Creative Knowledge Economy. Any individual in the US workforce in the future who is not technically literate with the capacity to think systemically within a futures context, will be relegated to low paying, basic service jobs that often will have little meaning.

21st Century HE DNA #8: Colleges and universities will need to coach students in how to network people, ideas and processes. We are moving from a world of hierarchies and standard approaches only, to one that will be dominated by constantly connecting and disconnecting networks and webs of diverse individuals and organizations. In the future, standards will have their place for best practices and short-term defined outcomes. However, the ability to innovate continuously will be demanded, requiring nonlinear, nonstandard thinking and behavior that allow quick adaptation while balancing increased risk.

We are witnessing a revolution in the making as scientists from all different disciplines discover that complexity has a strict architecture. We have come to grasp the importance of networks. --Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Linked

21st Century HE DNA #9: Standardized testing at colleges and universities will continue to be done to test the understanding of knowledge content. However, if new methods of evaluation are not developed which analyze the ability of graduates to ask appropriate questions and see new patterns and connections among disparate ideas, these graduates will not be prepared for a society and economy requiring continuous innovation. In the 21st century, new knowledge will need to be identified and created. True-false, multiple choice testing "only" will actually prevent students from understanding how to identify and connect new ideas.

21st Century HE DNA #10: Integrate weak signals and future trends into all curricula. Integrate virtual technology wherever appropriate to shift the design of learning processes to the learner. Model web sites with the connections that become a natural part of the thought process of any learner.

21st Century HE DNA #11: Build webs of diverse people from different backgrounds to help build 21st century learning networks, especially for those not traditionally identified as having college and university potential. Utilize the concepts and methods of "transformation" to bring new candidates into the mainstream of intellectual life by building bonds among students and external support systems. It will be the success of these new types of efforts to raise the level of motivation and passion for learning among previously non-qualified candidates that will determine the successes and limitations of our economy and society in the 21st century.

21st Century HE DNA #12: Utilize indirect and oblique methods to create positive tension to allow students to become intellectually and emotionally equipped to deal with fuzziness, uncertainty, ambiguity and increased risk. Help them understand that the unit of leadership and innovation in the future will be teams of self-motivated, self-learning, deeply collaborative people of great diversity who develop new skills for building "capacities for transformation" in themselves and others.

A Counterintuitive Need

It is going to be risky to become an "educated" person in the future. Why? Because no one will get to "know" enough content before the context changes before their very eyes. We will see a counterintuitive idea emerge. In the past, the educated person had the answer to specific questions that were based on experience and traditional knowledge. To be an educated person in a constantly changing society will require a new set of skills beyond just knowing content of knowledge. . . which will remain important. It will require new skills to identify and deduce knowledge, concepts, principles and methods that don't presently exist. It will also require taking risks to think differently, often at the risk of appearing foolish. And, oh by the way, it will require a type of humility that is difficult to attain. Otherwise, one will not be open to new ideas.

21st Century Creativity

As a result of this transformation in society, creativity will become a core principle related to what is considered a quality education. The skills of creative thinking will be of two kinds. The traditional approach of improving existing ideas, products, services and existing methods will continue to be important for short-term needs. However, continuous innovation will require an "innovation" in the concept of innovation. The ability to see connections among disparate ideas to create totally new knowledge, concepts and methods will become the foundation for all life, whether economic, political or social. The "art" of 21st century creativity will integrate with the updated skills of technology as a core focus for higher education. Evaluative methods will be designed which reflect the ability of students to get outside the box of traditional thinking. They will still need the context of past knowledge, but now as a part of the scaffolding of understanding how the past connects to the future.

In the past, standardized skills were the cornerstone for preparing graduates for an Industrial Society. In the future, knowing facts and content still will be important, but only as these facts become building blocks for creating new ideas. Sal Palmisano, the President of IBM, recently focused on the need for higher education to help students learn how to take risk and be able to develop new ideas and create totally new concepts.

In my opinion, unless higher education rethinks how to create a learning environment owned and designed by each student in individual exploration, the quality of education will be fine if this were the 1970s, but will not prepare graduates for a 21st Century Creative Knowledge Economy and Society.

A New Approach to Diversity

Our society is moving away from the idea of a melting pot where all immigrant children wanted to learn English and were assimilated into a common culture. The knowledge of English will still be imperative. Knowing other languages will provide a competitive edge. . . although the use of translation technology even will make this skill less required. In addition, it will be increasingly important for colleges and universities to learn how to bring diversity together, not just to share ethnic backgrounds, but to realize that in thinking in common about preparing for the future, each will have some important idea to share. In nature, evolutionary growth comes when diversity is present.

The phrase "we are a nation of immigrants" will have even more meaning for colleges and universities as they succeed in bringing attention to the diverse talents of people of color. A great challenge will be to develop a core "futures" culture to which all students can connect, while insuring continuance of pride of diversity of background. It will not be enough in the future to find pride in looking backward. Confidence and personal motivation will come from how well all people integrate their ideas and personalities in common cause to rethink what a new type of society will require.,,,and then care enough about each other, our families, our communities and our society to collaborate at a deeper level of human interaction.


We are entering a time of history where we will need more than intelligence, we will need the increased application of diverse intellect. We will need a workforce and citizenry filled with local, state and national leaders who see the concept of dialoging about new ideas as an important use of time. In the past, we bypassed the importance of the intellect, often ridiculing those interested in ideas.

How often traditional phrases continue to ring in our ears. "Those who can do, those who can't teach." "But are you making any money?" "Enough talking, let's do something." It is slowly becoming apparent that tomorrow's successes will be linked to those who prepare themselves intellectually in a different way, and who develop the ability to connect with others at a deeper level.

The potential of higher education has never been more promising. I also believe that there is an equal danger that many institutions of higher education will not recognize the limits of their traditional approaches, and become increasingly irrelevant in a time of immense change. If one assumes, as I do, that we are in a time of historical transformation for our society, a key challenge will be to rethink many aspects of how we create learning experiences so that graduates will be prepared for a different kind of society. . . one that is constantly shifting, interdependent and increasingly complex. What a wonderful time to be in higher education.

"The definition of illiteracy in the future will not be the inability to read or write, it will be the inability to learn, unlearn and relearn. . . ..(we would add "uplearn." --Alvin Toffler, Futurist

"Truth is eternal. Knowledge is changeable. It is disastrous to confuse them." Madeleine L'Engle, Author

"I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it." --Vincent Van Gogh, Painter


"How the US Can Keep Its Innovation Edge," Sal Palmisano, IBM, Business Week, Nov 17, 2003. (See the article online at )

"It Is More Than Either/Or", Rick Smyre, Futures Research Quarterly, 2004.

Millennials Rising, Neil Howe and Bill Strauss, Vintage, 2000.

Linked, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Plume, 2003

"Revenge of the Right Brain," Daniel H. Pink, Wired, February 2005, page 70. (See the article online at

"The Immelt Revolution," Diane Brady, Business Week, March 28, 2005 p 64. (See the article online at

The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler, Bantam Books, 1980.

About the Author

Rick Smyre is a nationally recognized futurist specializing in the area of building "capacities for transformation" in local communities. He is president of the Center for Communities of the Future and is the architect of the new field of "process leadership." Mr. Smyre is the past Chairman of the Board of the American Association of Retirement Communities and is on the staff of the National Economic Development Institute. PO Box 3508, Gastonia, N.C. 28054. You can contact him via email at

©January 2006

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