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Universirty Challenge

All over the world, in dissimilar cultures and traditions, institutions of higher learning have an aspiration (possibly sometimes felt as a moral obligation) to lead. Often this remains just an unfulfilled goal. There are good reasons for that.

As a result of the complex dynamics underpinning change, leading implies a degree of thinking and conduct that is strategically relevant and systemically inclusive. Today that entails envisaging a coherent role in a society poised precariously on a fault line between imminent collapse and a paradigmatic re-awakening.

But herein lies a paradox. Since the invention of the modern university in the 12th century, higher education institutions have responded to, rather than led, fundamental changes in society. They have generally done this in ways that have increased our understanding of currently accepted truths, at the same time creating knowledge to challenge those truths. Typically the latter eventually leads to an evolution of world-view, invariably accompanied by new value systems.

In the past, the dominance of successive meta-disciplines (originally theology, then classics, humanities and, more recently, science) have certainly provided frames of relevancy for learning about significant world-views and societal transitions. Even so, the forces for change have generally emerged from society – not from within the walls of the academy. In fact one might reasonably assert that academic institutions have simply been an alternative way of engaging with the world.

However, in an age where knowledge is a commodity and more easily acquired than at any other time, where, by the year 2010, technical knowledge may be doubling every 72 hours, and where new technologies are constantly enhancing our capability to connect and interact with anyone, at any time, for any purpose, the sheer numbers of people now inhabiting the planet (or, more correctly, the tensions inherent within contradictory sets of values that ultimately motivate self-interest) are causing a tectonic shift we are only just beginning to grasp.

This shift is transformative. It is changing dominant truths while intensifying and accelerating our capacity to share ideas. Our response must be to adapt and change - not to retreat!

In order for universities to remain strategically relevant and viable in this context, we must recalibrate our relevancy frames once more so as to accommodate different perspectives and uncommon beliefs.

But whereas previous societal transitions resulted merely in subtle re-framings within the academy, usually accompanied by small transfers of disciplinary emphasis and influence, today’s dynamic complexity resulting from successive phases of globalization presents an opportunity for universities to step into a genuine leadership role, as well as contributing to a development in the nature of leadership itself.

Globalization, of course, is not a new phenomenon. Stretching at least as far back as 1420 when nation states began to send out fleets of explorers to discover new lands they could then colonize and pillage, followed by corporate forays into international markets at the time of the industrial revolution, and culminating in the more recent emancipation of individual entrepreneurship through web-enabled technologies and more or less unrestricted access to capital markets, successive waves of globalization have effectively fashioned a new reality.

The dynamically complex circumstances in which we now find ourselves, the state I refer to as globalism (increasingly referred to as globality) represents a paradigm shift in our ability to comprehend more fully the human condition. But while it signifies a novel set of truths it also requires a novel set of responses.

Globalism is already characterized by some unique qualities: multi-polar hubs of economic and geopolitical activity; urbanization; the electronic distribution of networked information and knowledge; disruptive innovation (particularly through the convergence of digital and genomic codes); cultural fusion; a move away from managing tangible things to shaping intangible relationships and experiences; the merging of Asian philosophy and Western business models; and the demise of boundaries once thought sacrosanct – particularly in terms of geopolitical, racial, functional and class distinctions.

And although there is yet little evidence to support such a view, I believe globalism may also have triggered a power shift of economic and moral authority away from the US and Europe towards China, India, South East Asia and, potentially, even the forgotten and most plundered continents of Africa and South America.

What we may be witnessing, too, in the current credit crisis is the beginning of the end of the US model of capitalism. This really should come as no surprise. Globalism has created unprecedented material wealth for a few and untold misery for many. But the engine of economic growth and the assumptions on which that growth was premised are unsustainable given current demographic and environmental trends.

How do we know? Because issues such as the current turmoil in financial markets, global warming, spiralling food costs, water scarcity, peak oil, endemic poverty and conflict, are not discrete issues. Nor should they be dealt with as discrete issues – in spite of the fact that overwhelmingly this has been the political response to date.

On the contrary, all of these problems are but interconnected symptoms of a catastrophic design flaw inherent within the entire ecosystem of which we are a part. Unintended though they may be, these symptoms are a clear indication that the notion of progress, at least in terms of limitless economic growth and development, a rationale often used by free market economists to defend and to sustain our profligate life style, is ultimately flawed. Any reputable systems designer would tell you that such a system must eventually fail.

The most critical aspect of this particular design flaw seems to be the certainty with which we have fabricated a society founded on three untenable pillars:

  • competition as the basis for much human interaction and development
  • non-renewable energy (i.e. petrochemicals) as the source for transportation, production and consumption
  • debt and the politicization of money as the foundation for all economic activity.

It seems clear, therefore, that over the coming few decades we are going to have to do something we have never before attempted. That is to reinvent the entire material and philosophical basis of our civilization – substituting new assumptions and intentions to relieve the stresses on the current system and thus prevent a catastrophic collapse.

This will require leadership at an altogether different level of consciousness. Leadership that is able to transcend ego and put aside individual self-interest. Leadership that is a force for good in the world. Leadership that is inclusive of all voices and cultures. Leadership that utilizes new practices, new methods and new tools to achieve new breakthroughs.

Above all it requires that we navigate changing conditions intelligently (by making decisions using real-time information from the whole system) and wisely (by engaging entire communities intent on creating better futures for themselves and for each other) in order to avoid the hubris, mind traps and design flaws of the past.

Naturally, there are considerable undertones concerning this proposition (comprising opportunities as well as uncertainties and risks) for the business of learning in the years ahead. And there are choices to be made: to tenaciously cling to the well-worn, venerable traditions of the past or to step into a new epistemology of leadership, for example...

It is my passionate belief that universities will either find themselves struggling against the odds to retain their delusions of autonomy and independence or they will come together (perhaps reluctantly at first) to help and guide society in reacting more intelligently and purposefully to current circumstances in ways that enable a more rapid transition to a global ecosystem based upon renewable energy, underpinned by principles of sufficiency rather than avarice, and supported by a public more inclined to collaborate than to compete.

The latter is a strategic leadership role. Strategic leadership of this nature will entail a significant renewal of the academy’s role and responsibilities within society. It will include the invention of entirely new models and structures for learning about and using new knowledge. It will necessitate demolishing the ivory tower in order to reconnect more effectively with the global community and its actual needs rather than its superficial wants. Above all it will mean transcending narrow-minded institutional self-interests in order to unshackle regional cooperation and international partnerships.

The notion that cooperation is of critical importance comes from a realization that we need collaboration on an unprecedented scale if we are to resolve humanity’s most pressing issues. Most of today’s more pressing problems are universal in nature. They cannot be solved, as in the past, by old thinking or problem resolution by discrete entities. There are no boundaries now. We live in a borderless world – a world of zero geography.

The willingness to collaborate, however, must rapidly evolve into the initiation of a global dialogue where the intention is to create the kind of world we want rather than merely to punctuate circumstances and respond to events as victims of circumstance. Perhaps I am asserting the obvious. But leadership of this nature is what most venerable institutions, including universities, have been content to avoid.

I am deliberately proposing a revitalized role of strategic leadership for the academy. A role that elevates the importance of collaborative inquiry and research in terms of enacting a globally distributed brain that functions on behalf of the global community.

Within that context, conversation and translation are of the essence. Transformative narrative will be a necessary component for whole-of-system innovation and design discoveries.

Consequently the processes of dialogue I envisage must be able to keep people engaged; surmount bias, blind spots and self-interest; and deconstruct meaning prior to reconstructing and legitimizing new meaning. Narrative processes of this nature should liberate wisdom and diversity that can be applied to the design of strategically relevant and generatively viable systems.

Knowing oneself is generally regarded as a prerequisite for any such collaborative process. At an institutional level it is to be anticipated that the learning business of the future will focus more on the creation and application of integral knowledge across global networks than on the dissemination of knowledge by a teacher in a classroom.

This is an uncomfortable proposition for many academics even to consider let alone accept. Being inextricably entangled with issues of identity and purpose it has existential implications. But the digital world has no respect for tradition and this is something we need to admit in order to make progress.

We might expect then that the future business of learning will shift from its traditional role in the teaching  of separate disciplines to the establishment of more integral forms of inquiry and more diverse forms of collaborative research and intervention.

This will invariably give rise to collective initiatives that point to the future rather than merely recycle past knowledge; allocate resources across global networks in ways that allow us to deal more effectively with the major issues of our time; connect with and engage diverse beliefs and world views rather than insisting upon the continued relevancy and superiority of the Eurocentric worldview; offer an integral (whole systems) approach to resolving the complex issues of our time and to understanding better the human condition.

I find it curious that the mechanisms we humans have devised to enable orderly evolutionary change (just take the law, media, nation state and academy as examples) are the very institutions resisting deep-seated change. All at a time when the status quo and the dead hand of bureaucracy have become enemies threatening our very survival.

That will change. It has to. But only if the academy is seen to be generating truth, wisdom and utility will it survive. Anything less and it probably deserves to perish. No industry is immune from the unsettling paradigmatic shift impacting today’s world - least of all businesses of learning. But it remains to be seen whether or not the learning business can respond in ways that are appropriate and viable in the longer term.

That is the real challenge for institutions of higher education in going global. It is an exciting and a formidable challenge. But it is a challenge the academy ignores at its peril.

These thoughts are an imaginative after-the event reconstruction of the closing plenary address delivered to delegates at Going Global 3, the British Council’s flagship conference on higher education, in London on Friday 5th December 2008.

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