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Transforming the 20th Century Mind

by Rick Smyre

"The living organism must adapt to changes in the environment. The extent to which it can do so successfully will determine the organism's place on the evolutionary scale." -Richard Restak, The Brain

"Evolutionary change is not something that only happened in the past, it is going on now from second to second, leading to the appearance of more and more complex systems, by which organisms come to live in every more diverse ways." -J.Z. Young, Programs of the Brain

We live at a time of historical transformation, requiring new ways of thinking and new concepts of perceiving reality. The age of a clockwork universe which maintains a static structure of predictability and control is giving way to one of changes and continuous dynamics . . . and we are not ready to see the world from a different point of view.

Recent magnetic resonance imagine studies of brain activity for people who live in different industrialized countries have revealed an interesting observation about Americans . . . that, generally, left brain activity dwarfs that of the right. Whereas in other industrialized countries brain activity was more equally distributed between left and right hemispheres, resident of the US sample were found to have developed their left brain, analytical, problem solving and linear thinking abilities much more than their right brain connective and intuitive capacities.

So what you ask? Does it really matter that we are a national of action oriented problem solvers and not thinkers? In fact, isn't that why we are the leaders of the free world? Are not our great achievements in science and technology based on the ability to solve problems using linear, cause and effect rationality and the scientific method?

Of course they are. So let's begin this dialogue recognizing and affirming the great achievements of science and the importance of traditional learning to our present society. The last 100 years has witnessed amazing advances in products and inventions which have changed our very way of life. The integration of machinery and electronics has taken us to the moon, reduced the need for manual labor through automation, and reduced the effective size of the world as planes fly beyond mach 2.

However, as progress accelerates, reality changes . . . increasing the strain on traditional ideas until the dam of convention breaks, and we are left with apparent chaos. Look around us. Aren't our institutions struggling to deal with today's complex issues? Our educational system seems to be falling apart; our political system often grinds in gridlock; our leaders and their experience can no longer point the way; our local and national economies are sucked into a global competitive system which takes no prisoners. It dawns on us that most of traditional ways no longer work. Yet, some decide to do more of the same, attempting to get away from the chaos of increasing ambiguity and uncertainty.

We search for the new right path to the future based experience . . . hoping it will lead us away from this whirling cauldron of millennium change. Some advocate a return to traditional values . . . some push for more efficiency with what exists . . . some predict a new age . . . all ask for meaning, wherever it appears.

Wait a minute! Do you sense that something is important to our future in that phrase, "wherever it appears." Such a simple phrase, but seemingly with such potential for transforming how we think about our society in the 21st century. I sense synchronicity is at work.

Rethinking How We Think

Of all the changes which are occurring, there is none greater than the change in the context of our society. The impact of speed does more than rush us ahead at a faster pace . . . it seems to redefine everything about our life.

It's here that we need to stop and think. Think about what, you say? About speed, and its impact. Why? What do we need to think about? We just need to learn how to go faster, doing the same things we have always done more efficiently. Just like speeding up a manufacturing process or using technology to provide more information to governmental decision makers.

But what does this assume? What does what assume? We aren't assuming anything . . . we're just becoming more efficient. So let's get on with it. We need to do something . . . if we don't act we can't get anything done.

But there "is" an assumption at work in just the way you respond to my suggestion about thinking about speed . . . and it's the product our educational system. We teach achievement, content, outcomes, and results. The way we are taught to learn imbues us with the assumption that outcomes and actions are the most important factors. As a result, when we evaluate learning, we test content and knowledge. Why? So that we can get on with it. . . so that we can do something . . . so that we can achieve.

Our educational system doesn't emphasize conceptual thinking . . . knowing "why" things work, and knowing how to ask appropriate questions. Historically we haven't put a premium on ideas. In the past we haven't seen "talking about concepts" as a good use of time. So we hold underlying assumptions constant and seek improvements in what we do. We just decide to speed things us and make them more efficient.

Such "thinking" has led us to set standards . . . to get to the bottom line quickly. The premium has been on doing, not thinking.

Such an approach has served us well over the years because the assumptions undergirding our society and its institutions have not changed in many years. In education, lecturing based on standard curricula has served us well. In government, representative democracy is seen as the model of citizen decision making. In economics, capitalism has produced the height of affluence for industrialized countries.

So what is different as we approach a new millennium? Is the increased speed of society creating a new context in some way? And, as a result, are we going to have to think differently?

Let's see what some key people who have been very successful in our traditional society say about these questions:

I argue that the current state of affairs is unsound and unsustainable. Financial markets are inherently unstable and there are social needs that cannot be met by giving market forces free rein.

My critique of the global capitalist system falls under two main headings. One concerns the defects of the market mechanism. Here I am talking primarily about the instabilities built into financial markets. The other concerns the deficiencies of what I have to call, for lack of a better name, the nonmarket sector. By this I mean primarily the failure of politics and the erosion of moral values on both the national and international level. --George Soros, The Crisis of Capitalism

The questions is not whether the transformation to instant public feedback through electronics is good or bad, or politically desirable or undesirable. Like a force of nature, it is simply the way our political system is heading. The people are being asked to give their own judgment before major governmental decisions are made. Since personal electronic media, the teleprocessors and computerized keypads that register public opinion are inherently democratic . . . some fear too democratic . . . and their effect will be to stretch our political system toward more sharing of power, at least by those citizens motivated to participate. --Lawrence Grossman, The Electronic Republic

Knowledge is at the heart of a dynamic civilization . . . but so is surprise. A dynamic civilization maximizes the production and use of knowledge by accepting widespread ignorance. At the simplest level, only people who know they do not know everything will be curious enough to find things out. To celebrate the pursuit of knowledge, we must confess our ignorance. Dynamism gives individuals both the freedom to learn and the incentives to share what they discover. A dynamic civilization allows its members to gain from the things they themselves do not know but other people do. Its systems and institutions evolve to let people develop, extend, and act on their particular knowledge without asking permission of a higher, but less informed, authority. --Virginia Postrel, The Future and Its Enemies

In each case, an underlying assumption has changed. As the society moves away from hierarchies to webs, broad participation becomes possible. As telecommunications speed up connections, top down decision making becomes inefficient. As knowledge explodes, innovative thinking replaces standard answers.

And so we come to a new understanding as society transforms. A web society requires new concepts . . . new underlying assumptions. With a society in transformation, we are faced with a future where we need to "think" and "do" simultaneously. We must create the capacity for communities to build parallel processes to act on present issues while building new capacities for a constantly changing, interconnected and increasingly complex society.

The Need for Futures Institutes

If context has emerged as a key concept for education, what do we do to help people learn how to understand how to build capacities for transformation? If the underlying assumptions are changing, how do we coach people to think within a futures context? And possibly the most important question . . . how do we introduce into educational curricula the need to think about the impact of future trends as well as transforming underlying assumptions? How can schools, community colleges, and universities begin to create a learning environment so that issues are considered within an evolving "futures context?"

There are probably many answers to these questions. However, let's return to the phrase "wherever it appears," and consider its implication

Present curricula are usually based no standard answers. Our society is increasingly fast-paced, interdependent and complex. As a result, a problem exists in how to adjust to prepare a different kind of learning experience which will prepare learners to think differently and build skills of innovations for a constantly changing society. Therefore, a concept of focusing on the future within a context of a transformation would allow new ideas to "appear" as generative dialogue occurs.

What is needed is a separate and parallel structure which can be attached to existing educational structures to think about future trends, but remain autonomous. Such a "futures institute" could be established to provide community research and development and allow new trends and knowledge to "appear" in the thinking and operations of educational institutions and local communities.

The Target . . . Community Colleges

Although any educational institution can establish a "futures institute," there is no better place to position one than at a local community college. Not only is there potential to prepare existing students to utilize a futures focus and to think differently, but there exists the opportunity to introduce 21st century ideas into the thinking and operations of organizations in the local community.

Local community colleges can establish new structures and outreach efforts more easily than public schools and universities as a result of their mission.

There are several approaches which any community college can take when creating a curricula for a "futures institute."

  • Establish a day of "futures orientation" where all students are introduced to future trends of all types.
  • Develop a set of "futures modules" for all areas of knowledge. Utilize these modules in many different ways, both within the structure of the curricula, as well as for community seminars.
  • Create a series of courses which can be utilized during any quarter or semester.

There are a set of ideas and concepts which should serve as foundation principles for any futures institute. All students should be schooled in the simple concepts of chaos/complexity theory. With the inability to predict specific outcomes and control standard processes (as in the past), all people must learn how to think about and participate in nonlinear processes of uncertainty, using generative dialogue to help solutions "appear." This is called the concept emergence, and is a key concept of Integral Science. Other chaos/complexity ideas become important for people to understand how to deal with a constantly changing society.

In addition (other than a list of future trends), the following concepts should be a part of any futures institute:

  • openness to new ideas
  • focused on interdependency
  • transforming, not reforming
  • collaborative individualism
  • building connections as a part of web of people, organizations and ideas
  • choices, not standardization
  • generative dialogue, not debate
  • process leader, not leader-follower
  • webs, not hierarchies
  • a futures context
  • living systems as models for society
  • capacities for transformation
  • focused on synthesis
  • connective listener
  • self-organizing
  • emerging truth
  • parallel processes


A "futures institute" can be many things, taking many different forms, and offering continuously new ideas. It is very important not to search for the one perfect model to use, for there will be no such thing in the 21st century. Just as important as it is not to build a standard curricula with a fixed structure, it is very important to establish key principles which undergird the development of such a dynamic institution. There is no greater challenge for educational institutions than to find appropriate ways to build "futures context" capacity in the thinking of all local students, citizens and organizations. The idea of a futures institute will become a necessity for learning in all communities in a 21st century society.

About the Author

Rick Smyre is the President of Communities of the Future. He can be reached at 1319 Heatherloch Drive, Gastonia, North Carolina 28054, 704-864-9136.

Copyright © April 2000

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