Education is the kindling of a flame: How to reinvent the 21st-century university

Posted: 2018-01-26
Written by: EU Network
Category: Battle of ideas
Tagged: vision university think tank students society future education changes


“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” This quote from Plutarch is as true today as it was two thousand years ago. Still, the misconception of education as a vessel-filling activity remains. In this column, I outline an idea that could reshape our universities while also prototyping new ways of addressing urgent societal challenges. The kindling of the flame that Plutarch talked about has never been more relevant than now.

by Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer, MIT; Co-founder u.lab and Presencing Institute


Let’s start with 2017


Last week my column focused on 2017:

● The year 2017 mirrored the epochal year 1917 by putting a new challenge in front of us: the challenge of vertical development.
● By “vertical development” I mean the capacity to deal with disruptive change, which requires us to let go of the past and to let come the future, to shift our awareness from one state to another. In the language of tech: vertical development is about suspending your habit of installing yet another app and instead upgrading your entire operating system.
● From that perspective we can interpret the current global surge of terrorism, fundamentalism, xenophobia, Trumpism, and autocracy as expressions of the same underlying phenomenon: the missing capacity as a society to respond to challenges in generative ways, by evolving ourselves “vertically,” by upgrading the way we listen and attend, the way we converse and think, and the way we organize and coordinate in the context of larger systems.

Last week I suggested that such an upgrade of our societal operating system (OS) should include advancing and transforming our economies, our democracies, and our education systems. It is the latter that I focus on in this column: how to how to reinvent our institutions of higher education through their transformation from an ivory-towered into a distributed eco-system for societal renewal.


Vertical Literacy: Addressing the Knowing-Doing Gap


The difficulties we have in meeting today’s global challenges, such as implementing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) worldwide, are not caused by a knowledge gap. We have all the knowledge we need. The problem is a knowing-doing gap: a disconnect between our collective consciousness and our collective actions. In most societal systems we collectively create results that (almost) nobody wants. Examples: the ecological divide (the self-nature disconnect), the social divide (the self-other disconnect), and the spiritual divide (the self-self disconnect—that is, the disconnect between my current and my emerging future self).

These gaps and divides are amplified by the silo structure of our key institutions and the mindset of the decision makers that operate inside them. To address these issues at their root requires two things: new platforms for cross-sector co-creation and an upgrade in the operating system that people use to collaborate—practices that facilitate a shift from ego-system to eco-system awareness.

Figure 1 maps the landscape of options for such an operating system. In our research we have identified four different operating systems—in other words, four fields of attention that social systems can operate from: habitual, ego-systemic, empathic, eco-systemic.


Figure 1: Matrix of Vertical Social Evolution (Source: O. Scharmer, The Essentials of Theory U)

Since I have presented the Matrix of Social Evolution in much more detail elsewhere, allow me here to stick to its essence: the matrix shows that we are stuck with our collective knowing-doing gap because we try to solve level 4 problems with an operating system that runs on OS 1.0, 2.0, or OS 3.0. But, as we learned from Einstein, you cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking and consciousness that created them.

The result of that mismatch is on display every single day: more problems lead to more felt pressure and frustrations, which lead to more destruction and “absencing” (to use the language of last week’s column), which in turn lead to more problems, felt pressure, frustrations, and so forth. That in a nutshell is our vertical development challenge: how to move from the vicious cycle of reacting to disruption powered by OS 1.0, 2.0, or 3.0 to a generative response that is powered by 4.0—that is, by a process of co-creating the future.

The lack of vertical literacy is the main problem in our universities and schools today. Talk to experienced CEOs and CPOs (chief people officers) of major companies and ask them what they need. They commonly say: people, teams, and leaders that can make our organization thrive in a world of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity). By that, I believe they mean people and capacities that can take their organization into the 4.0 world in which they respond to disruption by co-sensing and co-shaping the future. Then go to universities and talk to faculty and deans of management and engineering schools. Many, maybe most, are rather illiterate when it comes to vertical development. They think mostly in terms of horizontal development—for example, about adding another skill here or another app or course there. They do not think in terms of upgrading the entire educational OS—of our students, our learners, and our societal systems.

But if you think about it, if we follow Plutarch, I believe that the only reason universities exist in the first place is to provide vertical developmental literacy. Especially now. If you want the app, you just go to an online learning store like and get your free knowledge download. Done! You don’t need a physical university for that. The primary reason we have universities and other institutions of higher education today is to support the development of vertical literacy. That means creating a learning environment in which the learner can step into his or her highest future potential in the context of hands-on societal challenges. In our experience, this requires us, as learners, to upgrade the way we pay attention and listen, to upgrade the way we converse, dialogue, and think, to upgrade the way we organize and coordinate in the context of VUCA shaped environments. Everything else is secondary. Vertical literacy gives us the vocabulary and capacities to:

● become a blackbelt in listening with our minds and hearts wide open
● turn a conversation from debate to generative dialogue
● shift organizational fields from competing silos to generative eco-systems
● invent new coordination mechanisms that operate from shared awareness.


Ten Principles of the New University


How do we build vertical literacy at scale? Well, not by placing learners inside lecture halls. And also not by separating out humanities, social sciences, and STEM into separate universes. That much we know. What it will take is nothing less than a complete reinvention of schooling and higher ed based on a new set of principles. Here is a first cut at a list of core ideas:

(1) Co-initiate: Put the learner into the driver’s seat of profound societal change. The learner is not a consumer. She or he is a partner in making the world a better place.

(2) Co-sense: Move the outer place of learning from the lecture hall to the real world. This isn’t just about action learning but also includes immersion journeys to the global hotspots of societal renewal across cultures.

(3) Embodiment: Move the inner place of learning from the head to the heart, and from the heart to the hand. The essence of learning in this century revolves around activating the intelligence of the heart and then putting it to use in serving the needs of others and the whole.

(4) Science 2.0: Bend the beam of scientific observation back onto the observing self. At the intersection between the old, dying civilization and the one that is being born is the transformation of science. Science 2.0 must integrate first-, second-, and third-person data by bending the beam of observation back onto the observing self.

(5) Systems Thinking: Make the system see itself. Systems thinking is a core capacity of vertical literacy. Students must learn methods to make the system see itself.

(6) Systems Sensing: Make the system sense itself. This is the core capacity to unlock collective creativity. Learners must become literate in “aesthetics” in its original meaning (aistesis means to sense): the cultivation of all our senses.

(7) Systems Inversion: Transform the system through eco-system activation. All societal sectors go through similar institutional changes: from perpetuating systemic silos to cultivating generative social field in the context of their eco-systems. Learners need to be literate in facilitating this shift.

(8) Know Thyself: To create vertical developmental literacy, we need to integrate science, social change, and self. Deepening our self knowledge requires us to access not only the intelligence of the open mind (curiosity), but also the intelligences of the open heart (compassion), and open will (courage).

(9) Tend the Fire: To patiently elicit and draw out the unique qualities and expression of each person with perseverance and in support of his or her highest possible future.

(10) The Fourth Teacher: Use nature and social fields as gateways. The Reggio Emilia approach is known for seeing the environment as the third teacher. Building on that we see the cultivation of profound learning relationships to nature and to social fields as gateways to the deeper sources of knowing (”the fourth teacher”).


Five Building Blocks


How can we build a 21st-century university that embodies these principles of vertical literacy, i.e., of awareness-based systems change? The answer will vary across contexts, cultures, and geographies. But in our experiments we have found the following five building blocks to be critical (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The 21st-Century University: Five Building Blocks

(1) Cross-Sector Innovation Labs

Create cross-sector Innovation Labs that bring together key stakeholders and innovators who need each other in order to evolve the system they operate within. With our colleagues and partners, we have refined a lab process that generates remarkable results.

(2) Cross-Intelligence Capacity Building

Create massive online-to-offline mechanisms for complementing the labs and building the deeper capacities at scale (that means at marginal costs close to zero). With the u.lab MOOC we have prototyped a mechanism that combines the democratization of access to knowledge with the activation of the deep learning cycle. Some of the early key learnings from u.lab, which has attracted more than 100,000 registered participants from 185 countries since its launch in 2015, can be found here.

(3) Awareness-Based Action Research: Deep Data Imaging

Although “big data” has been useful in many parts of our daily lives, the algorithms that increasingly shape our reality have also became a liability that undermines some of society’s foundations (as discussed in last week’s column). We need to progress from big data to deep data. By deep data I mean data that advance vertical literacy by making us look at ourselves in a mirror, individually and collectively, by making us aware of our own patterns and blind spots, by making us see ourselves through the eyes of another or of the whole. An example of big data is your Facebook feed: Facebook filters out all news that it thinks does not match your world view (i.e., it keeps us stuck in our own echo chambers). Examples of deep data mirroring are the case clinics and global mindfulness practices described in the u.lab link above.

Another mechanism for generating deep data (i.e., data that help us to see ourselves and to deepen our awareness) that we have developed over the past decade is Social Presencing Theater (SPT). SPT practices help complex stakeholder groups to see themselves and their evolutionary patterns through the mirror of the whole, thereby shifting their individual consciousness from ego-system to eco-system awareness. We are now working to develop SPT as a research methodology that allows people to visualize and understand the deep (and mostly invisible) structures of social change. We see the potential for SPT “scans” to do for social field research over the next decade what MRI scans did for mindfulness and neuroscience over the past decade.

(4) A Community of Eco-System Catalysts

The fourth building block deals with people. The best concept is worth nothing if the faculty do not embody these new forms and the principles of student-centered learning. The requirements of today’s tenure-track system put faculty on pathways that keep them far from the experiences that are most relevant to reinventing the type of education described here. We need a new faculty track for reflective practitioners who are more deeply involved in major projects of societal transformation and who can share their knowledge-in-action with students while also helping learners deepen their own capacities for embodied knowing.

(5) Places, Platforms, and Practices for Making the System Sense Itself

The fifth building block concerns places, platforms, and core practices. The piece most needed here is places: high-quality spaces that are designed and structured to build vertical literacy.

Figure 2 summarizes these five building blocks that, if put into place, could prototype and accelerate the journey of higher ed institutions toward 4.0 worldwide—a journey that in many microcosms of higher ed has already begun to take shape.


Five Bold Initiatives to Actualize the New University


While I have been holding the vision of such a new university for some years, it is only now that I feel it is completely doable. To advance the journey toward realizing it, we—the core team of the u.lab and Presencing Institute community—will launch five major initiatives throughout 2018.

(1) 4.0 Labs: Co-shaping the Future by Activating Generative Fields

We will convene 4.0 Labs at both the country and the regional level. We are currently working with the government of the Netherlands and Scotland on prototyping a country-level lab. We intend to launch the European 4.0 Lab in June 2018. Each of these 4.0 Labs will co-define its own focus at the outset. With the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) we are discussing how to use 4.0 Labs to accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on a country level.

The key idea of all these labs is very simple: the next wave of innovation in food, farming, finance, health, learning, and leadership will be highly interrelated and sourced from a shared co-creative 4.0 territory (see Figure 3 below). Since no one can do this alone, we need to create cross-sectional infrastructures that support these initiatives on that journey.

Figure 3: Four Evolutionary Stages: From 1.0 to 4.0 (Source: O. Scharmer, The Essentials of Theory U)

(2) u.lab 2x: Transforming Our Economy

Our second initiative will be launched in March 2018. A joint eco-system of sites and platforms among HuffPost and PI will capture and share the new economic narrative that is shifting the economy from ego to eco. Starting in April, each month our online platform will present inspiring, interactive, 60-minute live-broadcasts. Between the monthly live sessions we will hold global community cafés where change makers from across sectors, systems, and cultures can join the conversation. These will incorporate video-based discussions in small breakout groups and help us to move from traditional media and social media to more interactive and engaging forms of conversation, and from there to globally distributed ways of co-generating future media that change the world for the better.

(3) Social Field Research Summer School

The third initiative focuses on launching a research project that blends SPT practices, , and data-driven third-person research to investigate the deep structures of social fields. The focus in 2018 will be on establishing the research group and integrating these methodologies. Starting in 2019 an annual Berlin Summer School for Social Field Research will invite 50 leading awareness-based action researchers from around the world to work with each other and with senior thought leaders and investigators in their fields. The intention is to run the Berlin Summer School for 10 years in order to do for awareness-based field research what the Mind and Life Institute did for mindfulness and neuroscience: establish a new domain of research and replicate it worldwide.

(4) Eco-system Catalyst Masterclass

The fourth initiative, the masterclass for eco-system catalysts, will target the most advanced practitioners and activators of social eco-systems of innovation in order to help them advance their skills, mirror and support each other on their journey of Self, and interweave their respective innovation ecologies across regions, sectors, and cultures. This masterclass will be a year-long journey limited to 50 participants. The first cohort will start its journey in Boston in October 2018. As a group they will activate and cultivate a globally distributed innovation ecology. From that group we expect a new breed of young faculty to emerge who are literate across all of the intelligences discussed above.


The fifth initiative focuses on upgrading our place- and web-based infrastructures to better serve the evolving needs of our rapidly growing global community. One key focus is on finding physical campus areas for all of the above (which together will constitute the “”). The first conversations for such a campus are happening in Berlin. The longer term intention is to establish campus areas in all major cultures and geographies. These campuses will partner with multiple universities to co-deliver a curriculum in vertical societal literacy across all system levels (Figure 1 matrix) and then create open source resources that allow for the replication of this curriculum in universities worldwide.

Figure 4: Actualizing the New University: Five Initiatives


Reinventing the Idea of the University

The classical university was based on the unity of research and teaching. The modern university has been based on the unity of research, teaching, and application. The emerging 21st-century university, I believe, will be based on the unity of research, teaching, and civilizational renewal. To transform higher education into its most advanced evolutionary state requires nothing less than a full inversion of its traditional discipline structure toward 4.0 ways of innovating and learning.

The purpose of education is not to fill vessels. It’s also not to spurn people who diligently rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. The purpose of the 21st-century education and university is to help us develop what matters most: vertical literacy—the capacity to sense and actualize our highest future possibility in the face of disruption.

All the elements for making this happen at scale already exist. By connecting them we can activate a vibrant global eco-system of 4.0 Labs, place-based hubs, change maker communities, research initiatives, distributed media producers, and eco-system catalysts—in short, a living ecology that can protect the flame that Plutarch was talking about and that we need to pass on from one generation to the next. For it is this flame—the flame of the creative human spirit—that at no point in the history of our planet has been so at risk, so attainable, and so necessary for addressing our ecological, social, and spiritual divides. We need intentional places to kindle, cultivate and evolve that flame.

At the entrance to the Academy of Athens there was an inscription that said: Let no one enter here who does not know math and geometry. What should the inscription be at the entrance to the new university that we aspire to create today, 2,400 years later? Maybe it could read: Let no one enter here who does not know that the issues outside are a mirror of the issues inside; i.e., let no one enter here who is vertically illiterate. The new university comes into being—the flame is kindling—wherever and whenever we bend the beam of collective attention back onto ourselves, whenever we shift our awareness from ego to eco in order to regenerate our economic, democratic, and educational systems from that awareness and source.

Thanks to Katie Stubley, Antoinette Klatzky, Katrin Kaufer, and Manish Srivastava for their helpful comments—and to Kelvy Bird for her drawings that embody the aesthetics of the New University so beautifully. Special thanks to Baljit Singh for suggesting the 9th principle listed above.

Original publication please find at Huffpost here. For more content and to be part of HuffPost’s new economy community join our Facebook Group.


There are no comments

Post a comment