A New Normal or A New Abnormal

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Publication date:

March 25, 2021

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In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the havoc it has created, there is a lot of discussion around what the future might be like. The exact shape or form that future will emerge in is debatable, but the consensus is that a new reality is upon us.

What the future will be like is important for education today. After all, education is a lead sector in that we need to equip the future generations who sit in our classrooms today for the future they will encounter tomorrow. What exactly will that future require from them and what does that imply for education today? Some careful thought is in order. The nature of the reality that is about to unfold will affect what we teach but might also require us to fundamentally re-engineer the educational process itself.

A question that has consequences for the educational process is this : will history repeat itself? The future that is at our doorstep has been referred to by some to as “the new normal”. “Normal” implies something familiar and something we look forward to because we know how to handle it. Hence, some believe that we are between equilibria; i.e., the shock we are experiencing now is a transition phase from the old equilibrium to a new one. This might be wishful thinking because it represents a perspective that is shaped more by hope than by reality. A hopeful future is what we see when we look at it through the rear-view mirror and let the comfort of the past mask the unnerving realities that are staring us in the face. This masking might shape a dangerous fallacy.

Will history repeat itself? I raise the question because we might be in for a new “abnormal” and not a new “normal”. In other words,  the future might not unfold around a new equilibrium but might be more dynamic and keep unfolding as time passes. I don’t have a crystal ball in which I can see the future but I am betting on a future of continuous disruption. Rapid innovation and the more frequent occurrence of  fragility events such as the pandemic that we are experiencing now are likely to continuously feed destabilizing forces for a long time to come.

We should not panic but we also should not hold on to dated mindsets that might blur our vision of the true reality in front of us.  Permanent disruption and change require a different mindset from the one that served us well in the past. Permanent disruption can be an opportunity if we are willing to disrupt our mindsets first. We need to find comfort in permanent  change and not feel threatened by it or search for equilibria where none are to be found.

Believing in equilibria implies that one believes in periods of stability; i.e., after a period of change, the environment re-calibrates  itself into a new normal. This new normal enables us to put systems and processes in place and then focus on making them operate efficiently within the parameters of the new normal. In other words, we focus on optimization within the parameters of the new equilibrium. This is something we know how to do because that is what we have been doing for decades.

When I look ahead, I believe that we cannot let ourselves fall prey to believing that history will repeat itself.  As changes accelerate, we will not have periods of equilibrium that we can adjust to and optimize within. We will need a different approach if we want to survive and thrive. That approach will demand that we see change as an opportunity and build systems and processes that intelligently adapt to the reality as it unfolds. In the future, the focus should not be on optimizing efficiency but on optimizing intelligence. Hence, a radically new mindset is needed.

In the business world, we talk a lot about digital transformation when discussing the future-proofing of systems, processes, and organizations. This essentially comes down to integrating smart technologies to make these intelligent; i.e., that they have memories, that they can learn, and that they become anticipatory. Let me illustrate the transition from an efficiency mindset to an intelligence mindset in the logistics industry.

Delivery companies such as Amazon are constantly challenged on the speed with which they can execute. Short of putting a warehouse right next door to every customer’s home, they constantly try to reconfigure networks to optimize delivery (i.e., the fastest delivery at the lowest cost). But there are limits to what can be done within any physical network configuration. At some point, the only way to improve delivery times further requires them to build intelligence into these physical delivery systems; i.e., intelligence that anticipates when an item will need to be shipped to a customer. This is achieved by making the system learn who the customers are, what these customers like and typically buy, etc. This knowledge enables the system to know what a customer will do before he/she actually does it. In fact, the intelligent system will ship an item to a customer in anticipation of that customer ordering it. Based on that customer’s continued shopping behavior, the system will perfect that anticipatory capability.

The point that I want to make is that the future in front of us is not one we are familiar with. In that sense, it is abnormal and we have to learn to act on it as it unfolds very much like Amazon’s anticipatory shipping intelligence. If we are hoping for comfort and familiarity, confirmatory evidence will mislead us. We need to approach the abnormal with intelligence and see the challenge it presents as an opportunity to harness it and learn from it.

In that sense, the new abnormal will require us to build intelligence into educational and learning processes as well. This essentially means that these processes should be driven by the future and not by the past. Hence, we in education should not straighten the domino pieces where they got knocked over in the aftermath of the pandemic. We should pick up all the pieces and put them in a pattern that fits the new abnormal and one that can learn and adjust as that new abnormal unfolds.

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