Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Future, Education and Alberta

When a journalist asked former British Prime Minister (1957-1963) Harold McMillan what politicians fear most, McMillan replied “events, dear boy, events”.  Futurists look at events as the basis for patterns and trends and seek to find meaning in these patterns so as to better understand both what is happening and how we might appropriately respond.

Currently, there are six patterns which are impacting the world in general and Alberta in particular. In Rethinking the Future (Murgatroyd, 2012 available on Kindle and in paperback at lulu.com) I explored these in depth. Here I will do so briefly, but will provide new information and insights which have emerged since the book was written.

Pattern 1: Demographics. The big pattern that will have a substantial impact on the world is the fact that we are likely to reach a global population of 10 billion by 2100, up from 6 billion in 2000. This raises issues of sustainability, equity and community but also challenges us to be innovative. A new book focused on the implications of this development by Danny Dorling, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield, suggests that new values focused on sustainability, innovation and adaptability, equity and compassion will make it possible for 10 billion to occupy the planet. Others disagree and are seeking to constrain population growth by a variety of measures.

While this is the overarching challenge, there are other challenges. Canada’s birth rate is such that we are not replacing ourselves and will increasingly rely on immigration and innovation (especially improvements in productivity) if we are to sustain our quality of life, education, health care and social fabric. This is likely to lead to a doubling of immigration by 2030 and a tripling by 2050, changing the character of significant areas of Canada, especially those which are most attractive from an economic and quality of life point of view. This includes Alberta. Our schools will be even more multicultural and diverse than they are now. So too will our teaching profession.

People are living longer – with many more predicted to reach 90 and 100 than ever before. As communities support more and more seniors, the key issues for their support will be fragility and mental illness. They will place increasing burdens on health care systems in the developed world, but will also provide us with new sources of social support and resources. Grandparents will be a major source of family support and learning.

Pattern 2: Economics. Some have suggested that we are witnessing the “end of growth” (Heinberg, 2011; Rubin, 2012) – pointing to the low rates of GDP growth in most of the developed world, especially Europe. The rate of growth of the so-called BRICS economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) has also slowed. This view suggests that a return to “normal” economic conditions before the implosion of the US and UK banking systems and the global financial crisis is now unlikely and we need to rethinking our economies for a slower or zero growth.

This seems overly pessimistic as a global view, though may be appropriate for Mediterranean EU States (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain – the PIGS economies) which also have very high unemployment rates, especially for young people.

As the US recovery emerges – GDP growth is app. 1.7% and housing starts and prices are rising – then the Canadian economy will respond. We can already see some sectors – forestry, construction and some service sectors – back to pre recession levels of economic activity. But it is clear that economic optimism has been replaced by economic caution. Also clear for Canadian entrepreneurs is that access to capital – the vital ingredient in building any business- is getting more and more difficult, not that it was ever easy.

Alberta’s economy remains healthy, despite weak demand for bitumen (until recently). The concern is medium to long term – where will Alberta sell its oil and gas now that the US is becoming increasingly energy self-reliant and growingly environmentally determined? If China is to be the primary market but we cannot get to market with efficient pipelines, will we price ourselves out of the heavy oil market for a time and will this slow economic growth in Alberta? Will these developments significantly slow or halt new capital projects in the oil sands?

Given uncertainties with respect to patterns of energy demand, all economies are seeking to diversify. Key to this is access to talented labour and innovation and growing the skills of entrepreneurship. The global war for talent is real and has an impact on economic growth – we seem to attract talent from around the world, but we need to grow more of our own Alberta talent and to retain all the available talent within the Province. As a nation we are also not very good at innovation (Conference Board of Canada, 2013) – we need to get much better if we are to compete on the global stage.

Pattern 3: Environment and Sustainability. There is no doubt that most countries need to do more to support sustainable living, climate change mitigation, land and air stewardship and the management of the watershed and water supplies. As we move to a global population of 10 billion, we need to understand that water, forested lands, land itself are no longer abundant but are in fact scarce. There is strong global support for sustainability as a core value of the 21st century.

According to the Conference Board[i], Canada ranks 15th out of 17 peer countries on its environmental performance report card. Canada's record in several areas (climate change, energy intensity, smog, and waste production) drags down its comparative performance. Only Australia and the U.S. rank below Canada. The top three performers are France, Norway, and Sweden.

It is not all bad news. Canada has the world's largest area of forest certified to third-party sustainable forest certification. Canada is one of the best performers for the intensity of use of forest resources. Only Japan ranks ahead of Canada, with a lower percentage of timber cut relative to forest growth. We are also making progress in decoupling economic growth and CO2 emissions and are in fact reducing the rate of growth of emissions.

Increasingly, civil society is being evaluated not just in terms of the well-being and wealth of its citizens but also the health and sustainability of the environment. Alberta is challenged here – our oil sands are seen by many around the world as a blight on the planet. Despite the many efforts being made to strengthen our commitments and champion our achievements for environmental sustainability, we are losing the confidence of many that we take this work seriously. We are not the only jurisdiction facing this challenge, which is a defining challenge for the Government of Canada and Alberta.

Education is key to sustainability – and we need to do more in our schools to help students and communities understand the impact they have on nature and the impact nature can have on them, as the recent storms in southern Alberta demonstrate.

Pattern 4: Power and Politics. Globally there are struggles for a rethinking of power and authority within and between nations. In the Middle East this shows itself in struggles to both establish and sustain democracy. In Asia it is about finding balance between national authority and local autonomy. In Europe it is about finding the balance between technocracy, multinational control and nationhood. Globally there is a search for new models for citizenship, democracy, authority and new ways of securing public good.

It is clear that many hitherto effective systems are not performing well. The case of the United States congress, the European Union, the IMF and World Bank are all case studies of established systems in need of major change.

A part of the driver, at least in the developed world, for the challenge to existing political structures is the new global economy with global drivers for economic policy. Many of the major issues faced by governments – integrity of financial systems, climate change, labour mobility, immigration, terrorism – all require multinational responses. But most of our multinational agencies – the UN, for example – have performed poorly in the face of these challenges.

Another key driver for the rethinking of politics is the sense of disengagement or alienation many feel from the decisions that most affect them. Rebooting democracy is in part a response to alienation and lack of participation. One frontier is education, with Britain moving schools out of the control of local education authorities and into the hands of social enterprise. The recent focus in Alberta on Charter schools has worrying echoes of these developments.

Pattern 5: Technology. New substances, like graphene, or new approaches to the use of stem cells in the treatment of health conditions are beginning to have transformative impacts on many sectors of society. Britain, for example, is considering permitting the “three parent baby” -   replacing defective mitochondrial DNA of one woman with that of another in an embryo. Graphene – a microthin substance 200x stronger than steel – will soon replace silicon and other metals in cell phones, airplanes, cars and every day appliances. Disruptive technologies are emerging quickly.

In education, online learning and personalized learning are the “new black”, with substantial private sector investments now taking place K-PhD with the underlying assumption that technology alone will produce transformation in schools, as it is doing in health care.  Education systems are now targets for global corporations seeking sources of new revenue as traditional revenues decline – as can be seen in the educational strategy being pursued by Pearson, the world’s largest publisher.

Pattern 6: Identify and Self. A number of factors are leading young people around the world to feel vulnerable. This is shown in growing rates of depression and anxiety, suicide and obesity amongst young people. Indeed, challenges to children’s health are so serious that many public health experts see the current generation of parents as being the first who will live longer than many of their sons and daughters.

A strong self of self is weakened by prolonged unemployment, a growing feature of many developed economies. It is also weakened by a sense of environmental vulnerability, changes to our understanding of family and a social shift towards the always connected and yet always alone. As adolescence struggle to make sense of their world and themselves, their progress will be hampered by expectations that they will both look after their parents who will live longer, work harder and more productively in a shrinking workforce and contribute more to society through taxation and social enterprise. Growing up has always been a challenge for many young people – it seems to be getting tougher.

The Good News
Good news abounds. People are living longer, healthier lives. We seem to be getting closer to new treatments for chronic diseases and breakthroughs in stem cell research bode well for new approaches to health.

Fewer people live in poverty than was the case just a decade ago, though inequity is increasing. Despite continuing fears of global warming and evidence that it is, there has been no significant increase in global average surface temperatures since 1998. While some animal, fish and bird species are under threat, we discover new species at a faster rate than we document species loss. Storms continue to show the power of nature, but in North America, the frequency of hurricanes is lower than it has been since records began.

Though wars and civil strife continue, there are actually fewer so far in the twenty first century than at this stage in the twentieth. We also seem better able to find resolution to economic wars through enhanced global cooperation.

The In Between Time
But there is no doubt that we are living in an “in between time”. This is a time between one world order and way of understanding our place in the world and a new world order and the emergence of a different understanding of how we are connected to others and of our place in the world. Educators need to help students understand these six patterns and their interactions, since they will impact them all. We also need to enable active citizenship and citizen engagement as a key outcome of schooling. Given that “the future isn’t what it used to be” (Yogi Berra), we need students to create the Alberta the world needs to see.

Notes and References

Murgatroyd, S (2012) Rethinking the Future - Six Patterns Shaping The New Renaissance. Edmonton: futureTHINK Press.

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