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
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
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.
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
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
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:
Read more from the COTF website, specifically follow links on the
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);
Find out about The Natural Step (from Sweden) and The Ecological
Footprint (Wackernagel and Rees);
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;
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
—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
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 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,
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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,
By the year 2004, it is expected that 70% of all houses will have
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Concepts of spirituality
Helping each other succeed
How to create openness
Needs of a family
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
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:
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