Learning in a Society of Constant Change
Rewiring the Community
The Principles of Transformational Learning
A Community's Webs of Learning
The New Concomitance
A Starting Point
Rethinking Structure
Rethinking Content

A Futures Context
Rethinking Process
Framing a Learning Community
Rethinking Capacity
Suggested Community Action
Rethinking Meaning
Taking the First Step
About the Author

Rewiring a Community’s Brain for the 21st Century:

Aligning the Cosmic Dance

by Rick Smyre

* * * * *

There are unseen connections growing in our local communities as a result of constant change. The fast pace of these connections creates complex cultural and historical processes that call into question traditional underlying assumptions of how we learn, educate, govern, economically develop, lead, and especially how we think. Look around. Tectonic plates of cultural change are in evidence everywhere. In all sectors of society, there are apparent contradictions at work. Business gurus tell us to “think globally, act locally.” Concepts of education differ, emphasizing both updated, traditional public-school approaches and new market approaches. “Small is beautiful” coexists with the age of the huge. And everywhere there are increased connections in an increasingly fast-paced, interdependent, and complex world.

But just as soon as new connections are made, others are broken. Knowledge is quickly obsolete. Management students in the ‘60s were taught to build models that represented the future. Today, students are taught to develop probable scenarios in order to respond to different situations as they occur. In the ‘60s the concept of accurate prediction was a central principle of strategic planning. Now computer models look for patterns instead of specific outcomes.

It is as if new organizational and community brains are emerging, connecting diverse people and ideas without prediction, offering innovations that build on the backs of past thinkers, yet shifting in basic concept as we move to a totally different type of society—one increasingly mobile, interconnected, and constantly integrating the old with the new.

As society becomes more fluid and changing, underlying concepts of how society works also change. There is transformation, moving beyond the type of change that improves what has existed for years, i.e., reform.

Traditions break apart as larger and more complex systems emerge from the integrations of existing values and structures. Many of the assumptions that have undergirded our industrial society for two hundred years are crumbling. This chapter will attempt to establish a framework for understanding how new concepts of learning will be needed to help identify, develop, and apply a few of these new assumptions.

As a result of our present societal stresses, a twenty-first century futures context seems to be evolving—as if a new community brain were developing, connecting diverse people, new ideas, and fundamentally different concepts, methods, and techniques.

Few local leaders have recognized that communities are in the early stages of a dramatic transformation. Most leaders who have begun to see change as important, have continued to use a traditional filter to understand it. First identified by Alvin Toffler in the book Future Shock in 1972, the idea of an increased pace of change as a cultural phenomenon seeped into the consciousness of communities over the next thirty years, as if a new neurotransmitter suddenly increased the connections of an expanding brain.

By the early 1990s, the idea of a “learning community” was introduced by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline. Over the last decade, it has become apparent that the dynamic of constant change and the transformation of society require a different approach to learning in several ways. Without the structure of the learning experience adapting to the evolution of a futures context, communities will continue to utilize obsolete ideas within the context of inappropriate structures.

Traditional learning focuses on content. An underlying assumption has been that appropriate knowledge is already known and must be transferred from one generation to another. As new knowledge is gained, it is added to the old. Accountability and testing reinforce the idea of standard knowledge. Tradition focuses on the one best answer. True/false and multiple-choice testing have been the mainstay of evaluating whether learning has occurred.

Learning in a Society of Constant Change

But as the pace of change increases in society, knowledge explodes, more people are born, telecommunications expand, and connections increase exponentially. A society of interdependence replaces a society of independence. New patterns emerge from new connections. There is a richness of outcomes as the cosmic dance of reality unfolds.

In a society that is changing and evolving, standard answers are not appropriate. For example, someone who studies civil engineering in college will need to understand that 25-30% of the knowledge learned by the time of graduation will be obsolete. Thus, the concept of content must change from absolute information to core competence. The learner must become a dynamist, comfortable with new information and challenging old knowledge. Learning in the future will be generative, not static. For this to occur, any learner will need two additional skills—the ability to ask appropriate questions and the ability to connect apparently disparate ideas within a futures context. The connection of these skills will lead to continuous innovation.

Recently I was asked to design a new approach to learning that would allow students in various parts of the world to take advantage of our Community-of-the-Future concept of transformational learning. I attempted to create a research and development project that would test my ability to frame a new type of experience leading to real, individual “transformation” of thinking on the part of those with whom I would be working over the Internet. Realizing that time was limited and that my initial two test students were motivated, I designed a radically different approach of interaction. I titled the project “reciprocal learning” to reflect the fact that I would be learning to facilitate a new approach to systemic thinking within a futures context (transformational learning), and at the same time the students were hopefully benefiting from my guidance.

Here’s how it worked. I identified a list of books, web sites, and articles appropriate in various ways for an “overview of community transformation.” Ordinarily, I would have suggested specific readings. This time, however, I reversed the process. Instead of asking questions to find out if the students had understood the readings, I asked different types of questions that would help guide the students in their own self-organized learning processes. For example, “What will need to occur for communities to rethink and restructure their local institutions if one assumes that the very assumptions of how we lead, how governance occurs, how we do economic development, and how learning occurs, will be transformed due to an increasingly fast-paced, interconnected, and complex society?”

I wanted each of the students to struggle to think about what factors, issues, concepts, and actions would need to be considered. I wanted each of them consciously and subconsciously to take control of their own learning—and did they ever! Each student achieved more than I expected with the most optimistic scenario. The most interesting outcome, and the center of my learning experience, was that each student developed a different path to understanding the concept of COTF’s Community Transformation.

As a result of my experience, I quickly conceived the first principle of reciprocal “transformational” learning: The role of a teacher is transformed to that of a coach. The second principle of reciprocal learning flows from the first: There are many paths to success and the coach cannot predict the outcomes of learning. From this experience I found that motivated students can quickly increase their learning through self-organization as they integrate new information, form questions, and make innovative, disparate connections. I also found that this type of learning does not occur unless all three factors are involved simultaneously. I now have a better understanding of the great potential of reciprocal learning, and I now know that chaos/complexity theory can be applied to education and be successful.

Diana lives in California, and has a strong advanced educational background with a broad range of knowledge. She is not a typical student. However, I have often found that the more content knowledge one has, the less open to new ideas one may be. I wanted to see if Diana would be open to new ideas, and to see if I could take advantage of her background of knowledge in a positive way. When I framed the learning experience for Diana and for Michael, a student in Japan, my objective was to help them come to an understanding of the new COTF concepts of community transformation. Would it be possible to shift the thinking of well-educated students from old ways of looking at things? Would it be possible to add totally new knowledge in such a way that the students would understand COTF’s twenty-first century approach to community transformation?

After I gave the list of resources and questions to Diana and Michael, I told them to get back to me when necessary—but that I didn’t want them to do so until they needed my guidance. Within twelve days, I heard from Michael and began an intermittent dialogue. However, it was two months before I heard from Diana. When I heard from her, it took me by complete surprise. Not only had she begun to understand our concepts, she had mastered the underlying assumptions. As far as I was concerned, she had met the objective of the course.
Sorry to keep you waiting so long. I have read most of the Creating Learning Communities book which has been a great introduction to alternative education philosophies and projects (I will deal with these articles in another message).

However, to address the issues you raised [regarding concepts that help construct a framework for reorganizing the learning experience, ideas on learning, and examples of reforming vs. transforming concepts, and underlying assumptions from Creating Learning Communities contrasted with Hunter¹s article (in Pathways to Sustainability), and comparison of Hunter and Ellis on their perspective of “context”], I found it was helpful to get a better grounding in the COTF/futures terminology and concepts, so I have been reading your articles.

These readings have helped me address some of the areas in a general way. I hope this initial venture into the field combined with a more long-term focus, i.e., the issues you raised which I will keep in mind as I proceed, will be my own parallel processes, and that after additional reading, I will see things a little more clearly. In the meantime, I propose to:

  1. Read more from the COTF website, specifically follow links on the “Principles” page;

  2. Go back and read more in Pathways to Sustainability (I have read several chapters already, but reading the last chapter stimulated me to want to read more);

  3. Find out about The Natural Step (from Sweden) and The Ecological Footprint (Wackernagel and Rees);

  4. Attend a community planning and development public hearing at which community residents will express their opinions on the General Plan and an Environmental Impact Report;

  5. Read the booklet about the Blackburg Electronic Village (which I sent away for).

Thanks for any comments you might have on how I am proceeding and my seven points below. At this stage, I am still finding my way around the terms and concepts and will be adding to my understanding of them as I read more, but I feel like I now have a better grasp of them, thanks to your articles. I will keep plowing ahead with the proposed next steps listed above and any others you might suggest.

Sincerely, Diana
  1. Futures Context. “The Gretsky Factor and Community Transformation” article [Cook, Kerley, and Smyre, 1997] gave me a good sense of what thinking in a “futures context” means. The concept of a futures orientation is illustrated well in the descriptive metaphor of the hockey puck, which symbolizes the increasingly fast-paced changes of life today. The ability to anticipate where the hockey puck will go and respond quickly is a great way to depict the capacity to anticipate future trends and find innovative approaches to deal with them. Two important issues raised in “Lament of a Local Leader”[Smyre, 1999] which illuminate the idea of leadership as well as the necessity for a “futures context” are that experience is not an adequate basis for making decisions because the future contexts of problems do not exist in the realm of past experiences, and in addition to anticipating future trends, understanding the “interactive impact” of those trends on issues is also essential.

  2. Models of Education. “Beyond the Deck Chairs” [Smyre, 1998] and “Altering the Cosmic Dance” [Smyre, 1999] also clearly lay out the differences between the current model of education (standardized content, one best answer, the teacher as expert, passive student) and a transformational learning model (generative, fostering questions, context based, learning style tailored to the individual, welcoming diversity of ideas, processes, and people, encouraging feedback and making connections between complex ideas, seeing issues in the context of a futures orientation, use of technology, cooperative learning groups). The role of process leaders (facilitators of transformation) is to help people examine underlying assumptions related to learning, governing, economic development, etc., and help them develop a shared vision of a desirable future for their community.

  3. Transformational Learning and Community Transformation. “The Gretsky Factor and Community Transformation” article also helped me understand more clearly the common theme in many of the articles, which is the relationship between concepts of learning and community transformation, that a new approach to learning is necessary for communities to prepare for the impact of future trends and an environment of continuous change.

  4. Strategic Planning/Strategic Framing. A point that intrigued me in “Beyond the Deck Chairs” and “Webs of Intricacy” [Smyre, 1998] is the contrast between “strategic planning,” and “strategic framing.” The difference seems to be that strategic planning is a slow process that assumes a degree of control and predictability and is unsuitable for dealing with the fast-paced changes occurring in society today and in the future. It is useful, however, to tackle issues that require short-term solutions. On the other hand, the idea of strategic framing allows for a rapid and flexible response to issues as they arise by building capacities for dealing with complex issues (“Transformation in Action” [Kruth and Smyre, 1999, the last chapter in the book Pathways to Sustainability]). This approach is made possible by “webs of intricacy,” small groups of people throughout the community who develop familiarity with certain issues and come up with innovative solutions that can be tested out. This illustrates “parallel processes,” which help bring about transformation.

  5. The Concept of Individualism and the Common Good. “Webs of Intricacy” explores the origins of the idea of individualism and recommends a reexamination of its underlying assumptions. “Transformation in Action” points out that one of these assumptions is the idea of “enlightened self interest,” which claims that society benefits by the motivation of individuals desire for economic gain. In a time of increasing population density, instant communications, and a deteriorating environment, the isolationist view of the independent individual, who stands on his own and takes whatever he can get from the natural environment or from other people, can no longer be supported. A call is made for a shift to a more “mature” individualism that values interdependence. The idea of the “common good” grows out of this perspective of the individual (a central concept in social psychology is that man is a social animal who develops in the context of interaction with others). This kind of person will welcome collaboration with others to solve community problems (“Beyond the Deck Chairs”). A community made up of these kinds of individuals will be more concerned about the shared community environment and will work with others to raise the quality of life in the community.

  6. Concept of Leadership. “The Lament of a Local Leader” emphasizes the goal of developing a new concept of leadership and understandings to enable leaders to facilitate consensus on shared visions of their community’s future. An important aspect of leadership is the ability to develop capacities in others, as opposed to the common idea of a strong leader who takes over and directs the activity of followers.

  7. Reforming vs. Transforming. “The Lament of a Local Leader” defined the difference between “reforming” and “transforming.” Reforming old ideas and structures is appropriate in times of slow-paced change, but when change becomes fast-paced, transformation is necessary. Transformation is brought about through experimentation and development of totally new approaches based on totally new assumptions. It also occurs at different rates in different areas of activity. “Transformation in Action” adds that “reforming” is trying to facilitate change by being more efficient, while “transforming” involves reevaluating the underlying assumptions “in all relationships and larger systems.”

I decided to restructure the concept of evaluation. Since Diana and Michael had used different approaches and read different resources to come to a basic understanding of community transformation, I decided to determine their ability to change roles and become facilitators. I asked them to become community coaches and think about three questions they would ask and two concepts they would consider the most important if they were helping to nurture (coach) local citizens in community transformation.

I didn’t hear from Michael for ten days. When I did, the first key concept he had identified was “the importance of creating an environment where people themselves see a need to change.” Once I saw this, I knew that Michael, too, had more than good content, he had come to understanding. The experiment was a great success, and I will begin to evolve the concept with others with less motivation and with different educational backgrounds.

As a result of this experience, I have come to the conclusion that the ability to evaluate a new system of learning in a dynamic society will require the ability to rethink how testing occurs. Core competencies will continue to require traditional testing methods, but new concepts of evaluating how to connect knowledge holistically will be required. Learning to evaluate the idea of asking the right questions will become a new field of study. Finally, the field of “generative connections” will evolve as a way to evaluate creativity within a futures context.

Rewiring the Community
It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the brain becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern, though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.
—Sir Charles Sherrington, Experimental Physiologist
As the pace of change in society continues to escalate, the patterns of community transformation will begin to resemble the patterns of brain behavior with many new connections made as others disconnect forming a shifting harmony of subpatterns.

For local leadership to create new institutions of dynamic structure capable of vitality and coherence in a constantly changing society, it will be important for them to go beyond the linear thinking of traditional education. They will need to develop the ability to make connections among diverse and apparently non-related factors in order to insure continuous innovation.

One of the ways this can be done is to introduce leaders to the study of the brain and how it works in simple ways. Such an approach, when combined with other techniques, will insure that local leaders begin to understand the importance of forming new connections—connections of people, connections of ideas, connections of small and large networks, etc. This will lead to the creation of an environment for generative learning based on brain-like, adaptive concepts. The focus on traditional need for certainty gives way to an understanding and comfort with the apparent chaos of ambiguity. The ability to discern new underlying assumptions and patterns will become a prized skill in the future.
Rather than allow learning and evolution, rigid technocratic standards freeze the status quo, preventing experiments that might produce new and improved ways. A dynamic system, whether a single organization or an entire civilization, requires rules. But those rules must be compatible with knowledge, with learning and with surprise. Finding those rules is the greatest challenge a dynamic civilization confronts.
—The Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel
The Principles of Transformational Learning

Those who still search for certainty have little tolerance for society’s complexity. In a society of increasing connections and complexity, the old concept of specific and standardized rules to be used for all occasions will need to be replaced with the idea of general principles, capable of adaptation and tailored to any specific environment.

The following principles will be key elements of transformational learning and undergird any local community approach to adapting its citizens and institutions to the challenges of the twenty-first century:

  • Emphasize individualized learning, yet employ mechanisms appropriate to all learning styles. As the society becomes more complex, interconnected and moving at a faster pace, it will be a challenge to devise methods to ensure that learning offers a balance of core competency content and individualized knowledge that allows any individual to evolve in his or her own appropriate way. The very mindset of educators will need to be released from today’s stifling standardized curricula.

  • Shift the idea of teacher to learning leader. Leadership in general will move from top-down direction, prediction, and control of outcomes, to the natural idea of facilitating and motivating diverse people in methods of adapting to changing circumstances. This will impact the professional teacher and educator in several ways: 1) The concept of teacher helping to fill the glass of knowledge with predetermined information will shift to the guide or coach concept, 2) The methodology of lecture will be minimized as the key approach to learning for only those 8% who are auditory learners. More and more the use of questions and indirect concepts of facilitative learning will be used.

  • Establish a futures framework within which issues are considered. The idea of a shifting context of information will become the new environment of learning. All people will need to become adept at adaptation. Life-long learning has come to the forefront of interest. A futures context requires that the idea of a “mindset” be discarded and replaced with the concept of “mindflex.” All learners will need to become comfortable with rethinking, reorganizing, and redesigning. Understanding the impact of trends of the future on all issues will be a necessity to develop appropriate plans. Those who are able to understand the changes in context brought about by the transformation of change will be capable of vitality in a dynamic society. As Bill Gates tells his teams of software writers, “Cannibalize your products within eighteen months...if you don’t do it, someone else will.”

  • Be open to new ideas of any kind. Filter those that do not resonate with an understanding of a new reality. One of the greatest obstacles to learning within a constantly changing society is the need for certainty. The idea of certainty of outcomes will be replaced with the idea of continuity of principles. Multiple outcomes will be appropriate for the diversity of life that continues to evolve in a web of innovative connections. Certainty of values will be the glue that holds communities together. It will be important for all education and learning to search for, emphasize, and bring to consensus a family of values that will ensure the vitality of a dynamic society. Many of those values we hold dear today, such as leader/follower, will shift to new ideas. The value of and/both will replace the idea of either/or as we learn there are many ways to do things and many answers to the same question. Einstein, when told by a student at Princeton that he was giving the same exam that had been given the last semester, offered the reply, “Yes, but the answers have changed.”

  • Establish experiments and receive feedback. The biological concept of feedback will become a cornerstone idea for learning as we continuously are faced with new challenges and an evolving context of circumstance. The traditional focus of strategic planning assumes the ability to predict outcomes and control processes. Neither is possible in a constantly changing world. What is expected to evolve is a concept of parallel processes, where strategic planning is used for short-term needs where all factors and outcomes are defined and seen as appropriate (think about any manufacturing process), and a process of planning that gives emphasis to the building of capacities for longer-term transformation and adaptation. In the former process, those involved will need to sees things commonly—thus, one large group can focus on standardized answers. In the latter process, there will need to be experiments of different approaches to see what works and what doesn’t—thus requiring small groups of interested people who want to take the risks of creating the new.

  • Protect the competition and integration of ideas. In an interdependent world, competition does not have to be arbitrarily created. The old saying, “Throw the ideas on the wall and let’s see what sticks,” has an element of truth in an evolving age of interdependency. The idea of multiple connections in a system of factors will become a cornerstone idea of learning as we develop new and appropriate ways of thinking and acting. The scientific method focused on the competition of ideas, and the competition of those who debated truth. This will still be an important idea for those involved in the arena of natural sciences where objectivity of concept and design is assured by the independence of input. However, the age of quantum mechanics reflects parts of reality where the concepts of independence and linear thinking do not apply. No longer is total predictability possible.

  • Focus on collaboration among diverse people and ideas and allow them to combine in different ways. Look for the value in what is said or written in order to connect it to one’s own experience. In so doing, the quantum nature of one’s own reality continuously emerges, and constantly redefines the learning experience. The result of one phase of learning is the mechanism of the next—but always at a higher level of consciousness. One’s assumptions are tested by the sense of meaning that ensues. Recently I was asked to go to Scotland to work with the Scottish Council Foundation, the nation’s leading think-tank. We attended the introduction of what is called the “Scottish scenarios,” looking ahead to a vision for Scotland. One of the excellent concepts that was introduced as a key part of developing an appropriate vision for Scotland was the idea of collaboration. As the presentations ensued, it became obvious that the idea of what collaboration would require was not seen in an interdependent way. For example, the point was never made that for connections of diverse people to occur, all people involved in a societal process of collaboration on issues of community importance would have to change their traditional approach of debate, to one of finding value in what any other person says. For this to happen, one has to change one’s approach to listening. No longer will one listen to find fault—this leads to debate. In the future for true collaboration to occur, one will listen to affirm the other person and find some value in what is being said, without accepting all comments as truth. Thus, when adding this idea of dialogue within a futures context, a concept of “generative dialogue” will emerge.

  • Focus on the use of the Internet, multimedia and telecommunications. New tools of communication open up totally new vistas of learning. Not only does the Internet give any individual the ability to find any information in the world instantaneously (greatly minimizing the value of the concept of teacher as content provider), it also allows the ability to introduce new concepts and methods of learning (such as computer simulations). As we move to a society of continuous innovation, electronic means of learning will be integrated with face-to-face dialogue of generative discussion. In addition, telecommunications will allow individualized information gathering at the same time that it provides a platform for real-time group discussion.

  • Develop a new system of evaluation to judge the systemic integration of core competencies, the ability to ask appropriate questions, and the ability to connect disparate ideas in continuous innovation. As knowledge explodes, the ability to know will lessen in importance and the ability to connect knowledge with innovation and creativity within a futures context will increase in importance.

  • Utilize the technologies of the day to ensure real-time curriculum. Textbooks are often obsolete as soon as they are published. The risk of including new theories and ideas can be met with resistance from many sources, including educators, who are supposed to be open to new ideas. The future will open new ways to provide information. Modules of knowledge will come in many forms—articles, web sites, teleconferences, and, yes, sections of books (but usually not textbooks). The role of the learning coach will adapt to the use of new curriculum as part of a continuous, evolving, dynamic system of learning concepts.

  • Build webs of learners throughout an organization and community. Understand that the subpatterns of change will demand a new concept of individual learner—one who relishes the interplay of learning for oneself and learning for others simultaneously. The ideas of “learning webs” will be added to Peter Senge’s popularization of the idea of “learning communities.” Although many people have accepted the idea of learning communities, few have realized that the traditional concept of standardized learning will prevent a true “learning community” to evolve in effective ways. As organisms and organizations become larger and more complex, their existence and integrity can only be maintained if small units continuously form and are held together with new mechanisms that emerge as a result of a new environment. This is true of the development of DNA and cells, physical ecological systems, and even communities. Until educational and community citizens and leaders begin to understand the concepts of complexity, parallel processes, and non-linear systemic change, it will be difficult for any community to become a learning community.

A Community's Webs of Learning

Web themes (under many names) are already bubbling in society at large. Similar rules apply up and down the line. Three big insights—learning, collaboration, and intricacy—give more substance to the kinds of changes we need.
The way to create a sustainable civilization is…to figure out how to cultivate intricacy. We already have some clues. Intricacy is encouraged by education, empowerment, infrastructure, mutual support, liberation, and love. It grows best when fertilized and organized in circles with human faces and common-cause. It grows best when spurred by binding ideals like liberty, equality, justice, compassion, and when serving a higher design. It requires lots of lessons about how to encourage collaboration, creativity, and distributed concern.
—Sally Goerner, After the Clockwork Universe
My friend Sally combines authentic humility, a towering intellect, and a sense of historical meaning. Within the wisdom of her insights is one mechanism of twenty-first century learning— the need for intricacy. Intricacy refers to the order that arises from interweaving. I will add another fundamental parameter for tomorrow’s learning framework—a need for intimacy.

One of the most important attributes of understanding how to evolve a twenty-first century learning environment in any community is to connect structure, content, process, capacity building, and emergent meaning in a simultaneous dance of movement. In a society of dynamic change, the structure of learning found in the creation, distribution, and testing of knowledge is transformed into small and dynamic webs (networks of diverse people, organizations, and ideas), object-oriented curricula (smaller modules of information), interdependent questions (the interplay of learners and learning coaches), multiple learning styles and media, and learning leaders (coaches and facilitators instead of providers of information only).

The very nature of the learning experience changes as the needs of society expand. With more choices come more connections. More connections bring tension to standard answers. The explosion of knowledge exposes the inability of a teacher to “know.” Quickness of needs demands quickness of response; complexity of issues requires interaction of talents in intimacy and intricacy. The need to tell others is superseded by the need to ask. If knowing is asking and knowledge is generative, what is the role of learning? It is transformed from knowledge acquisition (competencies of knowing) only to a system of creative thinking within a futures context. The very nature of learning becomes the creative interaction of diverse people, ideas, and technology to ensure that innovations of thinking are applied to test the assumptions and values that undergird our constantly changing society. The present emphasis of education to build skills for employability will soon be balanced with the art of thinking about why, as the issue of meaning for life again takes center stage.

My silent generation was taught to gain knowledge by listening so that others would listen when my experience earned me the right to tell them what to. The baby boomers carried the idea of individualism to levels never intended by those who were our libertarian forefathers. The early leaders of individual independence understood the importance of the concept of community. We now watch as cutthroat competition and narrowed truths (confusing the idea of “what I interpret to be truth” with truth itself) cause increasing social dysfunction. In his book The Crisis of Capitalism, George Soros warns of the disconnection of our economic, social, and political sectors, reminding us of Adam Smith’s admonition in Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) that any economic pursuit separated from a context of ethics and community morality would ultimately slide the society into a wasteland of greed and corruption.
In societies where individuals enjoy more freedom of choice than at any other time in history, people resent all the more the few remaining ligatures that bind them. The danger for such societies is that people suddenly find themselves socially isolated, free to associate with everyone but unable to make the moral commitments that will connect them to other people in true communities.
—The Great Disruption, Francis Fukuyama
The X’ers and the Net Generation yearn for a sense of real intimacy lost in their parents search for individualism. When Toffler (1972) identified acceleration in the pace of society, he warned of the strain in community where learning is defined only in individualistic terms. Fukuyama and Putnam have now brought forth the principle of social connectedness and laid it in our laps. Is it knowledge we have been given, or a call for learning—or both?

Learning can be a process where people help each other to be successful, not just economically, but as moral and ethical people as well. Interactive learning can help us lose the insecurity of finding our place in the world, and give us the potential to be a part of networks of many people who are creating a new and vital culture for the future of our children and grandchildren.

Alexis de Toqueville was greatly intrigued by the internal contradiction of America’s sense of community and yet strong demand for individuality. One of his most important observations is as valid today as it was in 1832: “Don’t think that Americans’ emphasis on accumulating wealth is for it’s own sake...it is a search for identity.”

An emphasis on a new concept of interactive and transformational learning to build a new 21st century culture could bring diverse people into a new environment where meaning comes from using new methods, concepts, ideas, and techniques to build a society capable of integrating the needs of individuals and the needs of community. What better way to provide individual and community meaning than by creating a new concept of intimacy brought about by the connections of learning.

The New Concomitance

The world of either/or is being left behind. As connections increase, increased concomitance occurs. Things that appeared once separate are now seen as linked in association. And so learning is transformed by increased interactions. A traditional, linear learning framework assumes that there is one reason for the dysfunction. As leaders, we ask the question (usually a policy question), what is the cause of social dysfunction in our communities? The very nature of how we frame the question—based on how traditional education has taught us to think—often precludes our ability to resolve issues. There are many factors interacting simultaneously to impact the issue of social dysfunction—poverty, lack of personal initiative, learning disabilities, governmental policies, breakup of the family unit, etc.

In other words, there is no standard answer to any changing situation. Each situation, though fundamentally the same at first glance, always has different factors at work that make it unique. It gets even more complex when there is constant interaction. The very nature of our growing interdependency influences content and context at the same time. Consider social and learning situations, where many interactions occur all the time.

For example, many of us were taught that individual meaning came from individual achievement and recognition. Yet some young people seem to be saying there is no meaning without family, and others look to spiritual reasons for meaning. In the past, we would have asked the question, “Who is right?” That is the right question if the underlying theories of learning are supported by the assumption that all things (to include reasons for meaning) exist independently of each other, and that one factor is in control.

However, in an interdependent world, questions need to be phrased differently, i.e., “What value can be found in what you say, or in the interplay of all factors that interact to create meaning for this particular situation?” This is not to say that all statements are true, all opinions are valid, all values appropriate, or that there is truth in all aspects of what we do. But what this approach does reflect is the need for new questions that look for ways to “connect” appropriate ideas and actions, whether designing a new product, analyzing a complex situation, or building a new foundation for a set of ideas to explain meaning in a constantly changing world.

And so we come to the idea of concomitance. Concomitance is “connection and interaction without being separate.” Why is there a need for citizens to have an understanding of concomitance in the 21st century? Because we live in an interdependent world, and interaction with each other in daily life changes not only who we are, but the situation in which we find ourselves. Thus, as we create the content of life through out actions, we are also changing the context—and a never-ending dance of new realities emerges, usually with increased complexity (consider the impact of the Internet on all of our lives).

Apply this idea to the concept of learning. When I was a school-board chairman for a county in North Carolina in 1980, I remember talking to a speaker from Chicago who had come to our community to work with teachers and administrators on the idea of learning styles. It was a new concept for most of us. She proposed (backed up with several years of research) that there were four learning styles, not just an auditory (lecturing) one. In fact, she suggested that only 8% of all people learning through the mechanism of lecturing. I learn content best if I write down what I want to remember, like 4% of the population. However, I connect disparate facts, factors, ideas and situations for innovation easily. I began to understand that as we discover more content of information, and begin to apply it in order to change our actions, we are impacting the context of the situation.

As a result of the new input about learning styles, those teachers interested changed some of the context (that over which they had control) in their teaching and in their own learning experiences. Later, some of them discovered new methods that they tested and that were concomitant (connected and not separate) with past experience, changing the context of the learning experience for themselves and some of their students.

We are moving to a new age involving many players in an interaction of learning experiences, where the content and context are constantly changing and ultimately seen as inseparable, yet always moving in a new cosmic dance of concomitance. The emphasis on “content only” will shift to one of an interplay of content and context. Outcomes will loop in a feedback mechanism to actually change the original context.

As we change our filters of learning, we will see a new world of changing hues, patterns, constant interactions, and parallel processes. We will be forced to ask different questions. We will look for new connections. Old facts will crumble as we change the context, and the new facts that emerge will interact to change the context of the original situation and how we see the world. We are now in a quantum society where multiple questions lead to multiple answers.

A Starting Point

If transformational learning evokes a new vocabulary—webs of intricacy and intimacy, content as context, integrated and parallel processes, capacities for transformation, concomitant meaning—how does a community begin the journey, and where will it end? What actions can be taken so that any local community is able to prepare itself for the challenges of an interdependent society, whose underlying assumptions will emerge only as we learn to think differently?

I have a friend who is president of a chamber of commerce in a medium-sized community in Texas. He finds himself in the middle of a transition of power in the community from a benevolent dictator who got things done to a time of broadened involvement but slower action. And, as usual, the cry, “Where is our community leadership?” has erupted. His dilemma is how to build simultaneous bridges among people, ideas, cultural gaps, and differing historical perceptions—all at the same time.

As we talked, I led by asking questions, and giving opinions when asked directly—but mainly I listened. Eventually the chamber president offered his opinion: “I guess we need to build relationships and have people learn to think differently if we are going to get anything done.” From there, we evolved to the idea of thinking about the need for a futures context to allow diverse people to get past their preconceived notions. And we talked about the need to have only those interested and open to new ideas as a starting group for dialogue. He thought, and then ventured that he probably could find six or seven people in his community leadership who would fit those criteria. And that’s where we will start—a dialogue among six or seven people who are willing to listen, be open to new ideas, and see the importance of thinking about the future in new ways.

Rethinking Structure

Peter Senge points out the need to change mindsets when establishing a learning community. I believe we have to develop “mindflex,” using my wife’s good term. If there is continuous change in our future, moving from one mindset to another will not be enough. When Tom Peters used the phase “thriving on chaos,” he focused on a quality (capacity) that would be important to the future of learning.

To be open to new ideas, one must thrive on the idea of transformation. One must continuously search for patterns where none seem to exist. One must be able to see the whole at the same time that small “webs of intricacy” form in connection, to allow new complex patterns to emerge. Just as one is taught to see the “big picture” and “what’s in front of you” at the same time when learning to drive, we must be able to step back to see how to form dynamic structures as we link small networks of people and institutions.

When moving from a world of large hierarchies and standard answers to one of complex webs and multiple answers, our ideas of structure must be rethought. We must relearn how to learn, and rethink how dynamic yet stable structures can occur—and biology becomes our guide.
“The new biology contains a tremendous heresy. The main way life has become more complex is through cooperation! Organisms band together for mutual benefit. Cooperative groups survive better than individuals. Over time some cooperatives become so tightly coupled that they become an inseparable whole, a new “unity” as biologists call it. This incredible integration turns out to be the basis of the stepladder of life. Thus, specialists working together have an evolutionary edge over an organism which tries to do life all alone. The way to create dynamic strength, therefore, is to follow a new theme—specialize and integrate.”
—Sally Goerner, Beyond the Clockwork World
For a community to learn to think about itself in new ways and integrate “new specialties into an integrated whole,” it must first find a way to build the capacity to learn about new ideas. A community also must have leadership who can appreciate the need to talk about new ideas as well as “doing something.” It must begin to utilize the idea of parallel processes. While many people work on issues, some people will need to think about new ideas. Any community must relearn how to learn.

And so the concept of “webs of intricacy” arises. When any large system reaches a point of instability, it breaks apart. When any educational system gets too big, it loses it ability to learn. New business studies show that about 200 people are optimum for interaction in manufacturing units. Facilitation has shown that ten to twelve people is optimum. When eighty people need to talk, what occurs? Four groups of twenty people are formed and then reconnected at the end of any process.

If a chamber executive has only six or seven people who are open and interested in talking about new ideas, if 200 people is an optimum size for a manufacturing plant, if ten to twelve people is optimum for a dialogue group, maybe nature is telling us something. For true transformation to occur, we need to build webs of small groups who are interested in generative dialogue to understand what is happening and why. When initially forming new learning experiences for people to think about the future, build small networks of interested people—“webs of intricacy.” Let any action to be taken come from the dialogue of those involved. Don’t preset the outcome and control the process. Why start small? Because only those interested will take the time and listen to each other and to new ideas. In addition, any major effort to transform ideas and actions at the front end of any process will cause traditionalists to feel threatened because their filter of understanding will be different from ideas that are transformative. What is needed is a system of multiple processes that allows all people to join in appropriate ways to think about the future. While many structures and concepts need transforming, there are traditional ideas that can be updated and become a part of any overall transformative system. The search for spiritual meaning by individuals from throughout the world in an age of constant change is one example of how basic traditional concepts can be updated and integrated into appropriate new learning experiences (for example, John Polkinhorne, a particle physicist and Anglican Bishop in England, is working to bridge the gap between science and religion).

Over time, as communities build small networks of learning in different places, for different reasons, with different people, under different conditions, new ideas slowly will begin to filter into the thinking and activities of many organizations. New approaches will begin to occur. New ideas will begin to be accepted.

With the use of parallel processes, small groups of interested people will be able to work on new ideas within the frameworks of pilot efforts, while traditionalists will still be able to continue business as usual—but begin to have dialogue from time to time about new approaches. Those interested in relearning for a different future will learn directly. Those that initially don’t see the need to rethink their traditional assumptions will be able indirectly to learn over time, often without even realizing it.

Rethinking Content

Traditional learning has always been focused on providing content, or so it seemed. Students answered true/false tests and gave the one best answer—and then those same students entered business and found out the meaning of the term “art of the possible.” Any worker in an organization of any size understands the difference between providing the best answer and providing one that those in authority will accept. Only the very brave and very comfortable challenge this age-old “reality.”

When one idea predominates any part of the society, content is constant. We learned that scarcity of land, labor, and capital were the basic principles of economics (now the idea of increasing returns is a new rule of the new economy); we learned that lecturing was the way to teach (and now we have four learning styles and many more methods); and we learned that elected officials had all the power (now look at the use of referenda, or the way the Internet brought 60,000 people to protest the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle).

In a relatively static world standards were easy to develop and apply. But standard answers no longer work in a changing world. So how do we look at the future? How can we prepare a community to think differently, if traditionally all of the citizens have been trained in one way of thinking? Remember, in a constantly changing world, there will always be an interplay between context and content.

Several years ago, one of my Pennsylvania associates, Lewis Jaffe, coined the phrase, “They don’t know that they don’t know.” I think back twenty years and remember when I didn’t know about learning styles, or non-linear thinking, or the use of the Internet. They all existed in primitive forms (compared to today), but I didn’t know they existed—and I didn’t know that I didn’t know. Today each of these things is a basic tool of our Communities of the Future work. In fact, we have established a concept called “local twenty-first century thinks-tanks” to help interested local citizens learn about future trends. On purpose, we don’t jump to action; we spend time dialoguing about trends and how a futures context can be developed.

A Futures Context

Those of us involved in the nationally evolving Communities of the Future network have begun to focus on the need to evolve a futures context in local communities. We have concluded that a key obstacle to preparing local communities for the twenty-first century is the need to have citizen leaders comfortable with the transformational changes occurring in the society.

There are two key issues. One, to become familiar with future trends and their interactive impact. Two, to rethink underlying assumptions that support the cherished beliefs of how we educate and learn, how we lead, how we do economic development, how we govern, even how we think. Without removing these obstacles to transformational change, few people will be able to develop a twenty-first century filter based on the way society is organizing itself.

All communities can take two important actions to begin the process of evolving a twenty-first century learning environment, leading to the creation of a futures context for each local area:

Establish networks of local twenty-first century think-tanks for fifteen to twenty-five people at the time.

Focus on the introduction of trends that will impact local communities, to include:

  • By the year 2004, it is expected that 70% of all houses will have computers.

  • By the year 2008, speech recognition will be available for all computers.

  • By the year 2013, 30-35% of all diseases will be treated using genetic therapy in combination with telemedicine.

  • By the year 2015, only 4-8% of all jobs will be provided by direct manufacturing.

  • By the year 2018, it is expected that over 50% of all goods and services will be bought over the Internet.

These and other trends can be introduced into the dialogue to help citizens understand that their ways of doing things need to change. As an example, if business trends evolve as expected, local economic developers need to begin to build “capacities for the digital economy” right away.

A second action that local community colleges can take is to establish “futures institutes” to help develop a base of interest in the future within the faculty and student body, as well as in the community. It is interesting that in a time of immense change, few administrators have recognized that their graduates will not be effectively prepared unless the concept of identifying trends of the future is integrated into the curricula. Although it is often difficult to distinguish between fads, trends, and outright foolishness, unless local communities begin to learn to think within the framework the future, there is little chance that actions taken will be connected to a context of what is coming, instead of what has already occurred. The trick for communities will be to learn how to integrate appropriate values that give people real meaning, develop effective processes of decision-making, and build capacities for transformation— all at the same time.

Rethinking Process

Traditional community processes have been predominately exclusive. The opportunity to lead was earned over time and the knowledge of the past was passed on to the “up-and-coming” leadership as the years passed. All that was necessary was to combine traditional knowledge with experience, and one could lead. The processes of decision-making were relatively simple and usually top-down. In most small communities, a few made decisions for the many.

In the future, the emerging complexity of society and the real-time information available due to improved technologies ensures that more and more people will have the opportunity to be involved with decisions that affect their lives. A great challenge is to evolve a civic environment that encourages people to participate. Leaders will be faced with the contradiction that as many people drop out, others will want to have more control over issues that impact their lives.
As we approach the twenty-first century, America is turning into an electronic republic, a democratic system that is vastly increasing the people’s day to day influence on the decisions of state.
—Larry Grossman, Electronic Republic
As the electronic infrastructure increases in use, more and more people will expect to give their opinions, not as input, but as a part of the decision. One of the learning experiences that will be needed will be to evolve methods of direct electronic involvement. A second will be the need to have a family of processes integrated in parallel to allow different sizes and types of groups the opportunity to impact their community for the common good.

Framing a Learning Community

The idea of integrated and parallel processes is based on the new theories of chaos and complexity. Over the last twenty years, the idea of community-based strategic planning processes, called visioning or futuring processes, were developed to involve more people in setting the agenda and making decisions for any local community. The strength of this process is that it quickly develops specific ideas, and task forces are established to implement any concept developed by the overall group. It is appropriate to have action taken within a reasonable period of time.

The limitation of this approach is that it requires everyone to agree on an action and does not allow transformational ideas to evolve. Another limitation is that such a process is usually presented as representing the entire community, when usually less that 1% of the citizens have been involved. With lessening levels of trust in local communities, it is increasingly difficult to “sell” an idea to citizens, as often expressed by local elected officials. In the future, local elected officials will be faced with the challenge of building a shared vision within a constantly changing society. “Selling an idea” will soon lose much of its appeal as a concept, as more leaders understand the need to integrate many citizen ideas in newly structured processes of decision-making.

It is suggested that any “learning community” will need to establish parallel processes, where strategic planning is done in parallel to community research and development process projects. Usually small groups of interested people will work together to develop an innovative idea based on the trends of the future. Any idea is designed to be tested in the community. No matter whether immediately successful or not, learning occurs. The results are fed back to the group and others in the community, and the next adaptation will include new ideas based on the experience of the first or second implementation of the new concept.

Any community will need to rethink its learning process. The old idea of failure will need to be recast as a part of learning. Some of the situations in my life that would have been considered failures using traditional methods of assessment became the greatest learning. Therefore, leaders will need to help develop environments where people are not afraid to fail, but encouraged to risk and try in new ways and in new contexts.

Rethinking Capacity

Experience has always been the capacity builder for any community. Apprenticeship programs have been used for years to prepare the next generation. It was their personalized learning experience, because what had worked in the past would work in the future. Such a concept by itself is not appropriate for an increasingly complex, always changing society. In a world of constant innovation, new knowledge will always have to be linked and applied in new ways to that which exists.

The idea of traditional capacity-building will shift in a “learning community” to one of “building capacities for transformation.” Any community will need to rethink how to introduce new concepts and test them, always providing feedback for what works and what doesn’t.

Suggested Community Actions

There are many ways to build capacities for transformation. Let’s define what is meant by the concept of “capacities for transformation.” The Center for Communities of the Future defines five such capacities:

  • Evolving a futures context.

  • Developing process leaders who are able to help network and integrate innovative ideas, people, and organizations within a futures context.

  • Creating and expanding an electronic infrastructure.

  • Developing an environment of the common good for the 21st century where the old idea of “self-interest, rightly understood” is transformed in an interdependent society to that of “helping each other succeed.”

  • Helping citizens develop twenty-first century skills such as the ability to access the Internet, facilitating small groups, and understanding how to network diverse people.

A “learning community” will begin to realize the importance of establishing full-time master capacity builders who can work with people and organizations to help them build capacities for transformation. As an example, a “community capacity builder” could be on the staff of any city and responsible for such needs as preparing citizens for electronic town meetings or working with the chamber of commerce to develop process leaders.

Rethinking Meaning

Several recent studies are telling. One reflects the fact that many aging baby boomers wish they had spent more time with relationship building and not professional achievement. Another recent poll found that 43% of those polled thought values was the most important issue for the 2000 election.

More and more, the idea of meaning for life slips into the dialogue of people in local communities. Seldom has this idea had more power than when cast against the tragedy of Columbine. What does it say for a society whose traditional economic indicators are out the roof, yet many of its youth are in poverty and groups of children see suicide as a reasonable act? Ecclesiastes notes, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” A 2000 update would add “where there is no vision and meaning…”

Several commentators have recently observed that the lack of balance of values disconnects the society. The fact that optimization of any factor in a system destroys the system is appropriate for today’s society. If meaning cannot be found in individual materialism by itself, there is a need for any learning society and community to evolve a concept of “concomitant meaning” that integrates a balance of values into a dynamic context providing vitality and a sense of purpose as we enter the 21st century.

Taking the First Step

Start slowly. Develop small, yet diverse “generative dialogue” groups to begin a discussion of what they think will give meaning in the twenty-first century. Call each a “twenty-first century values conversation.” Include many young adults. Coach facilitators in the art of generative dialogue. Introduce articles and excerpts from periodicals and books to help evolve the conversation within a futures context. Utilize many of the following ideas in the context of the dialogue:

  • Relationship building
  • Concepts of spirituality
  • Helping each other succeed
  • How to create openness
  • Needs of a family
  • Thinking systemically
  • Building a futures context
  • Networking for capacity building
  • The twenty-first century individual in an interdependent society

The idea of values is an important one. For too long we have taken for granted what is of value for us as individuals and families and communities, and have come up wanting. “I gave you everything…” “But not yourself, Daddy.”


We are at a historical divide without the ability to use tools from the past to guide us. Seldom in history have men and women had a chance to impact the future of civilization in such potentially positive or disastrous ways.

At the heart of our challenge is the need to change who we are at the same time that we change our institutions and communities. An even greater challenge is the need to recognize that we must transform our society, not reform it by making old ways more efficient.

The future of learning is at stake. It is both a goal and a mechanism. If we don’t work to change how we see the learning experience, we will just rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. If we don’t build capacities of transformational learning in our communities, we will not be able to make the new learning experiences extensive enough to build a critical mass for our society. Of most importance, we must forget the concept of failure. Without a new concept of learning, there will be no success. Radical individualism must be viewed as insecurity and cast away. We must learn a form of collaboration that will require both the strength of a more mature individuality and the capacity for deepened and authentic relationships within an interdependent world. It is our destiny to be given the opportunity to develop a concept of learning that brings people together all over the world in a cosmic dance of meaning.

Fukuyama, Francis. The Great Disruption. The Free Press. 1999
Goerner, Sally. Beyond the Clockwork World. 1999
Grossman, Lawrence. The Electronic Republic. NY: Penguin Books. USA 1995
Postrel, Virginia. The Future and Its Enemies. The Free Press. 1999
Restak, Richard, MD. The Brain. Bantam Books. 1985
Sherrington, Charles Sir. Quoted in Restak, The Brain.
Andrew Cohill, Ph.D. and Joseph Kruth, editors. Pathways to Sustainability:

About the Author

Rick Smyre is the President of the Center for Communities of the Future and a nationally recognized futurist whose focus is in the area of “building capacities for transformation” for local communities. He has published several articles, including “Beyond the Deck Chairs” in the summer ‘98 Futures Quarterly Journal of the World Future Society. Contact Rick Smyre at RLSmyre@aol.com

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