Just around the corner…

As one might expect of someone with an academic leaning, I read lots. Unlike that time when the PhD was all consuming and I found my brain-muscle shift shape into a certain athletic-like state of fitness, able to deep dive into a given topic, I now find myself stretched in exactly the opposite manner; if the PhD was a single discipline endurance run, now this modus operandi has morphed into a multi-disciplinary sprint event; skimming with speed over vast and eclectic quantities of information and data, arriving at my eyes from all angles and sources; social media, blogs, newsletters, updates, periodicals, journals and so on. From this varied landscape emerge topics of interest which are then explored at a (slightly) more leisurely pace; such is the life of the twittersphere, mirrored in the daily consumption of short reports and email analysis of this or that. So when a topic of interest takes hold and I’m afforded the opportunity to dig, to explore, or pull at a thread, or, more meaningfully and excitedly, when the thread pulls back at me, it’s highly enjoyable. It’s addictive, this reading stuff.

Recently I’ve been digging into (what I think is) a fascinating area of thought; namely the evolving discourse on disruptive technologies: the evolution of intelligences of human making that are swiftly moving to the place where they form a matrix around us (yes that is deliberate inclusion of that word – its really difficult not to comparatively imagine the filmic trilogy) which fundamentally reshapes our societal norms. I’m really interested in the societal impacts that technology is really starting to play and looks set to play in our lives. After the opening chapter of the smart phone some time ago now, what is just around the corner (and beginning to emerge in earnest as we speak) has the potential to be a perfect collision of a number of interweaving developments: Augmented reality, wearable technologies, immersive technology, big data and, sitting underneath everything, IoT, or the internet of things – offering an evolving connectivity which (eventually) will see the material world around us adopt its own non-biological social networks and do much of our thinking for us.

graphIt’s already begun to happen on a small scale with apps like Wayz –  a navigational app which relies on real time data from other users to inform the route – choice on the part of the driver is then relegated a little – the app is changing its own mind about the best route based on traffic conditions and we follow, for the most part unquestioningly, because the crowd sourced algorithmic wisdom of many brains as presented by Wayz outstrips our singular biological knowledge of the conditions which might lie ahead. Combine this with the driverless cars which are now in beta and we quickly arrive at a state where we don’t need the skill of driving any more. And when my driverless car is fully connected to my computer…and so on…. If you’re interested in this landscape of thinking, I’d recommend Who Owns The Future? by Jaron Lanier and also Yuval Noah Harari’s sequel to Homo Sapiens, Homo Deus. As tomes go, I found this last one brilliant; certainly in my top 3 at present.

Relatedly, and slightly more soberingly, Ryan Avent’s The Wealth of Humans focuses on the world of work within this technological landscape. Avent paints a somewhat troubling description of the world ahead as increased non-biological algorithmic intelligences and automation causes the current landscape of work to shift in shape dramatically – simply put there’s the potential for swathes of the population to be unemployable due to a skillet which can be better performed by non conscious intelligence. As the Telegraph said some time ago, many professions we currently know and love are at risk of automation in the coming decades.


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So, (Cheer up everyone) harking back to the day job, and thinking about the teaching and learning experience at Salford and more specifically, the preparation of our students to meet this landscape, the thang which puts the twist in my pasta, so to speak, is thinking about, and designing a learning environment which will help them and not just cope, but thrive in this future.

More and more the skillset for success, due to increased automation, growth in globalisation through networking and networked knowledges, and the rising productivity of what I see potentially being highly skilled few, fundamentally alters its emphasis from being knowledge-driven to a far softer skillset acquired through a disciplinary (or interdisciplinary) lens. Attitudes, aptitudes and behaviours will increasingly become the currency of value to a business. A company’s capital will be increasingly social, not technical or material.

Given this, We (educationalists writ large) should be working to develop polymaths: individuals with a varied set of skills and interests. Using their cross-disciplinary backgrounds, such individuals are better placed to search out and find novel solutions to problematic issues, or real world conundrums; they are a cheaper and value-added hire for companies- they require less training and their skill set, or competencies can be applied to a variety of business needs; and they are more resilient to volatility in the labour market, since this will increasingly be an economy in which transferable knowledge is the currency, and their varied skills can be applied in and across multiple fields and industrial sectors.

disruptive skillset

With this thinking in mind, the future therefore belongs to the (possibly augmented) super professionals – the cross-disciplinary digitally fluent breed of worker, innovator and creative disrupter who possesses a variety of skills and can adapt and identify new possibilities quickly. Perhaps more than anything, I think the ability to continually learn, unlearn and relearn will mark out the successes of the future. This is the singularly most prominent skill we need to embed in our graduates…

See you next week.

Ongoing Ambiguity

It feels like an increasingly well-worn (and possibly down right weary) statement: we’re living in times of change and instability. On almost every front – no, scrub that – on every front that I can bring immediately to mind, significant change is the norm. More than this, the rate and pace of change is accelerating. Swiftly shapeshifting and complex fluidity of position is now seen as the paradoxical constant of our times; we see it everywhere – from the unprecedented and unpredictable  #cofefe and random bursts of spectacularly illiterate and emotive semi-incoherence sputtered out in 140 characters by the Tangerine Womble in his  unhinged and fluid position as POTUS, to, in almost another context entirely, the prolific acceleration of the Internet of Things, with all the ethical complexities, dangers and possibilities that are needing to be debated and considered as this new world permeates our lives, decisions and daily routines. 

Closer to home in the UKHE sector, change and fluidity seems just as seismic; the new Higher Education and Research Act of 2017 has lines within it which promise a reshaping of the UK landscape; similarly each of the party manifestos take an approach to the HE sector which have far reaching consequences of varying natures (this entry was written on the morning train at stupid-o-clock on election day 2017). Add to this the hugely negative impact of Brexit, the insistence of the current government to keep international students within immigration number targets and then, just for giggles and the sheer delirious fun of it, add a decline in UK university applicant population through to 2022, alongside an increasing marketisation of UKHE and one is inevitably faced with a destabilising, complex conundrum of competing factors impacting upon the wellbeing of our sector.

(As an aside, I’m reminded of a one-liner from Dean Martin during one of the infamous Rat Pack Summit sessions in the early 1960’s, when the braggadocio and male drinking schtick; a dizzying tower of swooning and crooning, triumphantly placed amidst tuxedos and chevvy tailfins, was at the nexus of pop culture for old and young alike – something about holding onto the floor the next time it came round to stop himself falling off it….)

Given the landscape painted above, one might expect a pervasive feeling of doom, gloom and something approaching helplessness as we sit in the passenger seat reluctantly witnessing the speedometer spin clockwise as the proverbial cliff edge draws nearer. However, from both an institutional standpoint at the University of Salford, and (given this blog is a personal and tangential reflection on the day-to-day) as an individual, I genuinely don’t feel gloomy at all. If anything, I see huge potential and possibility here.

On an institutional level our Industry Collaboration Zones are an ideally placed answer to this continued ambiguity and shifting uncertainty. Facing off to the industries and communities with which the university partners, they are, by their nature, reflexive centres of disruptive innovation – their very constitution relies on change being not only necessary, but desirable. More than this, they position us perfectly in the region to capitalise on devolution and to answer the call from the government for universities to be the growth anchors for the industrial strategy. Is it comfortable and easy? No, definitely not – nothing worth doing is, and a desire for comfort and a slow moving stability speaks to a vision of a sector which I’m not sure really exists anymore – however much one might long for a stasis of position. One necessarily needs to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

So how to do this and, moreover, do it well? How to avoid slipping into a reactive mode of being/doing, as we have to necessarily adapt and flex with this uncertainty – an uncertainty certainly due to be faced by our students as they step into this fast-paced graduate landscape of change and probably adopt portfolio, or patchwork career patterns (I’m resisting calling them career paths – I don’t think they have the luxury of being that linear…)

I think, on organisational and personal levels, its about fostering a real world resilience based on a position which is actually a meeting place for seeming contradictions – and more than this – necessarily and joyfully celebrating and inviting in this seeming contradiction – I say ‘seeming’ because I don’t actually see it as contradictory in practice.

One (an institution or a person, or an operating structure or #pickyourentityofchoice) must have certainty of purpose; a sense of grounded Heideggerian being-in-the-world, whilst having the agility and tenacity to embrace change (internal and external) as a creative working dynamic, bending with the wind so to speak. I’m again reminded of the absorption I find in surfing – it’s a similar position of tension – one has the certainty of needing to ride the wave, but where one goes on the wave and what happens in the 150 yards between the wave and the shoreline is, for me, an ambiguous mixture of response and desire – a fluctuating conversation between me, my board and the water. I can’t be fixed there – that would destroy the ride. Similarly, to give oneself over completely is an exercise in futility – at that point one becomes a passive passenger – no fun at all.

So I think resilience and a means of meeting this world and its challenges comes, in part, from resolutely adopting an uncomfortable, shifting celebration of necessary, responsible, accountable agility and a certain amount of ambiguity, perhaps drawing a soft parallel to Emilyn Claid’s idea of ambiguity seen in Yes, No, Maybe. More than a threshold resilience – a coping and surviving- I think dogged consistency in this modus operandi offers the possibility of thriving. And for those of you who are up for more – here’s a really interesting little article on excelling in this vein, taken from a psychological standpoint.

See you next week.