Creativity and learning for the Conceptual Age

What is the role of education in in the age of disruptive innovation? According to a new report by researchers at the University of Oxford, 57 percent of jobs in OECD countries are now susceptible to significant automation (with this number rising to 69 percent in India and 77 percent in China). Together artificial intelligence, robotics, synthetic biology, and digital manufacturing are poised to transform the economic landscape. Indeed, artificial intelligence alone is forecast to match and even exceed human capabilities across a range of skilled and unskilled labor.

At the same time, these disruptive technologies are part of a creative transformation that holds the potential to regenerate a waning industrial society. It is obvious, for example, that new opportunities in 3D printing, machine learning, and augmented manufacturing will mean extensive opportunities for creative entrepreneurs in the United States and elsewhere. As the cost of robotics and artificial intelligence recede, economic barriers to the expansion of automation across sectors will fall.

Thinkers like Peter Drucker and Alvin Toffler have described our current era as an “information age” or “knowledge economy,” but as Daniel Bell suggests, these descriptions often miss its deeper spiritual and artistic features. A more accurate characterization of this postindustrial era would be to describe it as the Conceptual Age. In this Conceptual Age, work is shifting to design, meaning making, and the development of novel ideas and artifacts. Indeed, technology-driven innovation represents a shift not merely from mass manufacturing to something else, but a qualitative transformation in the very nature of work.

Automation and education

Given the inherent capacity of technology to automate labor, it stands to reason that developing the right set of educational policies is now fundamental to the future prosperity of the United States. To be sure, intrinsic passion is becoming pivotal to skilled professions so that economic needs (in the traditional sense) are becoming increasingly dependent on creativity and problem solving. Following this line of reasoning, Richard Florida argues that creativity is the defining principle of our age. Indeed, waves of “creative destruction” now threaten to unravel basic assumptions about the management of our society and its institutions.

As Ernst and Young observes, the combination of high rates of youth unemployment across G20 countries and a broad shift in lifestyle choice are together driving the development of a rising class of young entrepreneurs. In fact, there are 27 million entrepreneurs in the United States today, making up 14 percent of the working-age population– the highest rate recorded since 1999. Women now own 30 percent of all businesses (some 9.4 million firms), while African American women represent 14 percent of all businesses. Moreover, the number of women-owned businesses in the United States has grown 74 percent since 1997.

Educating for the Conceptual Age

U.S. education policy now finds itself at a crossroad. A key challenge going forward is the need to ensure that students have the entrepreneurial skills required for the Conceptual Age. Proponents of this approach argue that a creativity-driven economy requires greater investment in liberal arts education. Fareed Zakaria, for example, suggests that a liberal education affords the skills now needed for the 21st century: aesthetic design, communication, critical thinking, interdisciplinary analysis, and storytelling. As he observes, the advantage of liberal education in conjunction with technology is a basic capacity to critically understand systems of human meaning in order to improve those systems over time.

To be sure, Steve Jobs was fond of saying that the key to Apple’s success was the marriage of technology with the humanities and the liberal arts. What he meant by this is that disruptive innovation emerges at the intersection of art and technology– rather than either alone. This makes a lot of sense. Creativity and innovation require consilience or creative collaboration across disciplines. In the United States, however, liberal education is under pressure. In the wake of the Great Recession and a decline in U.S. manufacturing, policymakers have called for greater vocational training in conjunction with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

While STEM education is obviously critical to economic growth, it may not be sufficient. Indeed, the U.S. manufacturing sector has seen sales increasing by 8 percent between 2007 and 2012, but the industry as a whole has shed 2.1 million jobs and $20 billion in payroll. Despite increasing numbers of educated students, many skilled professionals now find themselves forced into lower-skilled jobs because of the mismatch between education and market demand. As Harvard’s Tony Wagner observes, the real challenge for U.S. education is to view STEM as a means to augmenting human creativity rather than as an end in itself.

Creativity and consilience

To be sure, what you know today matters far less than what you can do with what you know. Assuming Steve Jobs is right then the really important factor in the work of the future will not be technical proficiency alone, but a capacity to bridge skilled expertise and machine intelligence through entrepreneurial invention and design. What is needed, in other words, is a greater investment in problem solving and consilience. Beyond assembly line schools designed for the Industrial Age, what we now need are interdisciplinary programs that foster creativity for the Conceptual Age.

While disruptive technologies will eliminate a wide range of occupations, I believe that education can adapt to the needs of the Conceptual Age by emphasizing innovation through creative design and interdisciplinary collaboration. This is a concern that I am especially focused on as a Research Fellow at the Hult Global Center for Disruptive Innovation in San Francisco. Rather than imparting a specific set of technical or vocational skills in isolation, it would be wise for U.S. education policy to focus on bridging skilled specialists around entrepreneurial problem solving. Rather than a narrow focus on skilled experts, what is needed is systems and policies to support interdisciplinary creativity across specializations.