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TD Magazine Article

Five Opportunity Spaces for the Future of Learning

Leverage perceived societal disruptions as a competitive advantage to developing innovative learning solutions.


Fri Sep 01 2023

Five Opportunity Spaces for the Future of Learning

Leverage perceived societal disruptions as a competitive advantage to developing innovative learning solutions.

Have you ever taken the time to think about the definition of the future? Is the future something on which people can have an impact, or does it only have an impact on people?


Many individuals consider the future to be a distant state that has little influence on their present-day activities. As such, people treat the future much like a distraction and believe those who spend time thinking about it are wasting precious time and energy. Others think of the future as being like today—a world in which their successful ideas and models will exist in perpetuity. Thus, present actions become predictable and focused on traditional models.

As it turns out, the future is about what happens in the here and now. Allow me to explain.

In a world of constantly emerging ideas and accelerated cycles of change, the future must—out of necessity—be about the here and now. If that statement seems somewhat contradictory, consider this: The way you think about the future directly affects the actions you take today. In other words, framing your environment around the lens of the future doesn't mean that your thoughts or actions will only have an impact on a time yet to come; at its core, futures thinking is about consciously considering the actions that you take today.

Flipping the script on disruption

When people intentionally connect the future to today, they can also reframe their view on disruption to one of being proactive and seeking opportunity rather than constantly finding themselves in the act of chasing after the next big thing or putting out fires. To develop leaders, processes, and organizations that thrive in that proactive mindset, we as talent development professionals need to change our paradigm of chasing, avoiding, and fixating on the fear and risk of disruption to one of embracing their own transformational pathways.

Put another way, transcending disruption in an age of complexity means we must pull ourselves and our organizations toward the locus of disruption, and thereby turn those perceived constraints into spaces of unseen opportunity. In a 2023 World Economic Forum survey, almost every responding CEO cited the imperative to change their business model in the next three years. Given that the world will only get more—not less—disruptive, embracing this new story of change is imperative to organizational, governmental, and societal success. If running toward complexity rather than away from it sounds absurd, then you can see why flipping the script on disruption is going to require some major mental rewiring.


Exploring the future of learning from the outside in

American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler wrote that "The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." Adopting that mindset is critical in the current environment of constant change, but how do we let go of our previously held knowledge that may be standing in the way of recognizing that change? The secret is embracing an outside-in approach.

Rather than evaluating the world from the inside out or from the myopic perspectives of our day-to-day operations, view the world from the outside in—examine the forces in the larger environment that redefine, redirect, and reframe your immediate areas of influence. Leveraging an outside-in approach to the changing and emerging needs in the learning space recognizes that future disruptors, competitors, and opportunities will most likely come from outside the L&D industry rather than from within. Such a macroenvironment-led approach ensures you don't miss emerging opportunities.

To assist outside-in thinking, futurists leverage the STEEP (social, technological, economic, environmental, political) framework, which represents the large-scale drivers from which trends are born.

The rapidly changing environment as well as increasing systemic risk driven by global disruptions (such as global warming, income inequality, and social unrest) have huge ramifications on societal values, the way people will learn, and the skills individuals need to succeed and survive throughout their lives. It may be tempting to simply google your way to discovering the future of learning, but resist that urge.

Instead, scan broadly, identifying trends and value shifts across the entire STEEP framework. The following trends across the STEEP domains are poised to significantly disrupt the landscape of learning.


Social: The adoption of digital identities

Social trends offer an assessment of who people are, how they live, and other aspects of daily life such as health or communication. Those emerging issues could include demographic shifts, reframing of gender roles, impacts to leisure, and the introduction of new ways to network. As individuals spend a larger percentage of their lives online, the adoption of digital identities has the potential to significantly affect how people interact across all societal dimensions, ultimately leading to the expression of a collective digital consciousness.

Acting as data-rich doppelgangers, digital identities consist of all online activity from a person or group. Product purchases on Amazon, likes on Instagram posts, and internet searches on Google make up a collection of information that describes an individual's curiosity and values—and those personas are redefining the human experience in terms of productivity, potential, partnership, and privacy.

Nations such as Estonia, which began its digital identification experiment 20 years ago and now boasts a digital roll call of 99 percent of its 1.3 million citizens, have charted a course to a digitized personal future. While privacy concerns abound, the upside economic value has nations across Europe and Asia considering a similar shift.

The 2019 McKinsey Global Institute report Digital Identification: A Key to Inclusive Growth estimates that countries that adopt digital identification systems can improve gross domestic product by between 3 percent and 13 percent by 2030.

What will it mean for the future of learning if an entity can capture an individual's lifetime of experiences and attach them to the person's digital identity? Paired with trust facilitation software such as blockchain, digital identities could potentially eliminate the need for institution-backed credentials. In fact, a robust marketplace making use of the personal data of each individual would transform the labor market and organizations altogether, reducing the need for intermediaries and enabling candidates to work for multiple enterprises simultaneously.

Technological: The rise of robotics

Trends in technology are often the easiest to identify because they tend to provide the most physical and immediate manifestation of people's future visions. Robots are a prominent feature. As robotic technologies continue to expand, their proliferation is fostering the emergence of a mechanical species that may aid humans in changing their own activities and capabilities.

Society is familiar with what robots look like on assembly lines, but what about the ones purposefully designed to interact with humans? Exemplifying the world of social robotics are the domesticated mechanical friends that have been vacuuming homes or entertaining children for years. But robots are now loose in public spaces as well, from policing communities to teaching children social-emotional skills. In fact, the PLOS ONE research article "The Future(s) of Unpaid Work" suggests that robots will handle 40 percent of domestic tasks in the next 10 years.

Of course, the rapid developments taking place in generative artificial intelligence, such as OpenAI's ChatGPT and Google's Bard, are arguably bringing society closer to a world in which humans and machines are inextricably linked. That could usher in a robotic renaissance, where humans are free to pursue lives of passion and purpose or manifest a future in which humanity flirts with extinction.

Whether robots continue to manifest as commonplace devices that blend into people's routines or become so life-like that no one can tell the difference between humans and humanoids, there is little doubt that they will radically change how people learn, work, create, relate, and ultimately perceive what it means to be human.

Economic: Universal basic services

Economic trends, those related to value generation and exchange, can often ripple across the world faster than trends from other drivers. One economic trend with potential implications to the future of learning is the concept and practices surrounding universal basic services (UBS), a form of social safety nets in which all citizens or residents of a community, region, or country receive unconditional access to a range of free, basic, and public services funded by taxes and provided by public institutions.

The Scientific American article "The U.S. Could Help Solve Its Poverty Problem with a Universal Basic Income" reveals that cities across the world have trialed the idea of a universal basic income (to great success). However, debates rage regarding whether healthcare, education, and housing are fundamental rights and whether governments should guarantee them to citizens. Regardless, the idea of UBS is already changing the world's economic, governmental, and economic ideation.

Across the world, governments have differing perspectives on what constitutes "universal rights." As society progresses, nations are assuring and supporting more rights through new policy developments. For example, the US views healthcare as a commoditized product, but other countries with similar levels of development (for example, Canada and the UK) have deemed healthcare a fundamental right. While nations could consider clean water, housing, and quality education as basic rights, similar arguments exist regarding access to the internet and communication devices. UBS is in the eye of the policymaker, which makes the fight for fundamental human rights even more challenging.

Access to education is the norm across much of the world, but what if a lifetime of free learning was ubiquitous? The Brookings article "Free College for All Will Power Our 21st-Century Economy and Empower Our Democracy" demonstrates that "college for all" is a boon to the economy (with an increase in education linked to a nation's economic development), but the widespread introduction of UBS in education would also have significant implications for the definition of work, the much-needed rise of expertise across all domains, and the social well-being of the entire population.

Access to lifelong, free education would enable individuals to pursue multiple careers in one lifetime and create a workforce of generalists. The echoes of such a trend will reverberate well beyond the political arguments that have defined UBS in the media.

Environmental: Curing aging through radical life extension

Environmental trends include issues affecting the natural, built, and virtual landscapes. Whether on a local or global level, ecological and placemaking trends are critical to everyone's collective futures. As humans continue to push the limits on aging, their impact on the environment will only grow. Although Harvard University reports that geneticists believe there are already individuals alive today who will reach the age of 150, that may seem like a brief period of time if some researchers have their way.

With radical life extension, some scientists believe that aging is a preventable condition, and interventions aimed at defeating death will become increasingly commonplace. Futurisim.com reports that in a few short decades, robust cellular rejuvenation therapies will lengthen the human lifespan, perhaps even to 1,000 years.

The race to find the cure for death seems to be one between the crypto-rich and the do-it-yourself biohackers, with the former pursuing solely the goal of immortality and the latter seeking to equitably distribute life extension. With the potential to halt aging but a lack of policies to ensure those methods are accessible, there will likely be a drastic divide between the haves and have-nots. And if everyone were able to augment themselves, there could be societal pressure for individuals to undergo treatment even if they don't want it.

What does the extension of human biological existence mean for a society built for 80-year-old human lifespans? How will extending life expectancy beyond 150 years affect the careers of the future, and how will a population that lives well beyond the traditional retirement age affect the definition and modalities of learning?

With lifespans routinely extending beyond the centurion marker, pressure will increase to adopt lifelong learning practices, deeming the idea of a singular career archaic. Those implications, however, are likely among the least significant, because radical life extension will force society to reconsider traditional family structures (would marriage licenses expire?) as well as current economic models.

Political: Privacy perceptions

Advances in technology and social networks are creating an information- or knowledge-based economy where an exchange of ideas also means more access to surveillance, data mining, and social influence. Ideological memes, political polarization, and extremist misinformation can radically manipulate the consciousness of individuals, communities, and entire nations seemingly overnight through the power of a digitally interconnected ecosystem. Further, in a world where government agencies, corporations, and web-based companies are capturing and analyzing every moment of people's lives, the result is a complete redefinition of privacy, security, and personal autonomy.

As data increasingly becomes the most valuable currency, managing one's privacy is like walking a thin tightrope. On one hand, everyone is aware of the negative consequences of data breaches leading to hacking at a personal and macro level. Cyber warfare is a real threat when it comes to identity theft or the violation of sensitive information.

On the other hand, the more data individuals supply to technological platforms and devices that now fuel everyone's lives, the more potential those technologies have to make people's lives more fluid and seamless. Advances in generative AI such as ChatGPT appear to be the most significant boost to productivity and creativity in human history, but the technology has already opened the door to massive IP lawsuits and company-wide security breaches. Governmental regulations cannot keep pace with technological change, which is the perfect storm for traditional organizational and social systems designed for an entirely different world.

The increasing influence of data and growing privacy concerns will likely affect the workplace in numerous ways. Workers will increasingly face the prospect of organizations wanting to probe their digital footprint to monitor personal activities or glean insights about lifestyle habits, choices and traits for hiring or retainment purposes. In addition, many employers are pushing for workers to abandon any work-from-home structures due to increased cyber risks to both parties, and the increase of gig workers opens a whole new world surrounding protocols around access to communication channels, financial accounts, and other forms of sensitive data.

The future is now

The above drivers and trends demonstrate the power of an outside-in approach when thinking about the future as well as highlight the importance of applying futures thinking to present-day thoughts and actions. Society's vista of exponential complexity requires today's leaders to embrace that critical skill set if they not only hope to ride the waves of change but also become the ones who create the waves that transform the world.

Environments of Foresight

Outside-in thinking works across the three environments of foresight.

The microenvironment can represent your organization or a specific focal issue you are exploring.

Scanning across the broad macroenvironment can feel overwhelming, and the identification of a focal issue can help curtail such potential data overload. A focal issue is a decision or question that is critical to the future of your organization right now. For example, a company may wish to explore the future of flexible work, which would include not only today's definition of work but also how it may shift in the next 10-plus years.

The metaenvironment includes competitors, customers, employees, and other key stakeholders.

Foresight efforts begin in the macroenvironment, where drivers of change first emerge. Exploring trends and weak signals in this broad environment ensures that you do not become insulated in your subject-matter expertise. That also prevents you from being blindsided by changes originating from outside your industry and organization.

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