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The Future Requires Unlearning & Uplearning

Posted in Future, Unlearning

By Jack Uldrich & Rick Smyre

On August 5, 1949 Wag Dodge and a team of fire-fighters were air dropped into Mann Gulch in Montana to battle a raging fire. The conditions were hot and dry. As evening approached, the fire changed directions and hot embers flew over the heads of the crew and ignited a secondary fire behind them cutting off access to the Missouri River-their main escape route.

It soon became apparent to everyone that they could not contain the fire. Dodge and his fellow team members did the most logical thing and dashed toward the top of the closest ridge. The winds soon grew faster and the fire bounded up the hillside at a blistering rate of 600 feet a minute. The crew dropped their gear and 50-pound backpacks and sprinted for their lives.

Feeling the searing heat of the approaching fire pressing upon his back, it was evident to Dodge that he and his team weren’t going to make it to the ridge. He yelled at his men to stop. Either not hearing Dodge over the din of the roaring fire or thinking he had lost his mind, the men continued running. Dodge then did something even more incredible. He kneeled down and struck a gopher match and set fire to the dry brush.

The grass ignited and torched the land in front of Dodge. With the larger fire now almost on top of him, Dodge doused his handkerchief with water from his canteen, stepped into the smoldering embers of his self-ignited fire and laid down. Prostrate, he hugged the ground and sucked up what little oxygen escaped the larger fire’s ravenous appetite. Amazingly, the fire leapfrogged over the small patch of burnt land and spared Dodge. The other members of the crew were not so fortunate. Thirteen men-and 12 of Dodge’s “Smoke Jumpers”-died in the Mann Gulch fire.

Something Positive was Born

Out of this disaster was born something positive. On that fateful day, Dodge inadvertently invented the escape fire-a tactic that is today standard operating procedure among forest firefighters-but which was created, literally, “in the heat of the moment.” Dodge also did something else without realizing it. He had intuitively to “unlearn” what he had been taught was the way to survive approaching fire-to run away from that which was overtaking him-and create a new method on the spot in order to adapt to conditions he had never experienced.

The story is relevant to the future because, like a raging forest fire, globalization, crowd-sourcing; social networking and continued exponential advances in technology are-like a hot, dry wind-stoking the fires of change and threatening to cut off access to the familiar escape routes. To survive, individuals and organizations will, like Wag Dodge, need to deal with new realities; accept the limits of their existing knowledge; ask new questions; and especially embrace ambiguity and uncertainty.

In order to be able to adapt to an emerging world never before seen or experienced, we will need to “unlearn” traditional principles, concepts and methods and create new approaches instantaneously. An even greater challenge will be the need to think and act at a higher level of complexity as real time, multiple connections sprout spontaneously in self-organizing ways from technologies that would have been considered magic even a few years ago. As a result we have entered a new type of age that will require a conscious attempt to identify these new connections and search for underlying patterns never before found in human society. For the first time in history, individuals and organizations will need to learn how to “uplearn”-to think and act effectively at a higher level of complexity.

Amazon’s Kindle

Consider, for example, the following case. The first edition of Amazon’s Kindle held 250 electronic books. The second version, produced less than a year later, stored 1500 books. Next came Apple’s iPad which stored an equal number of books but also surfed the web, played videos and accessed the iPhone’s ever-growing library of “apps.” The changes, of course, won’t stop there. Soon, 3,000 and then 6,000 books will be able to be stored on these devices, while thousands of software engineers from around the globe are racing to design new and innovative applications for the iPad2 that has just been introduced. Still others are imagining how the device will take another giant leap forward when advances in flexible electronics become affordable enough to allow the e-device of the future to fold up and fit in your pocket. The implications for the education industry alone are staggering.

Throw on top of these advances continued progress in software, virtual reality and multi-player games and the potential for more immersive, interactive and engaging video games is inevitable. Some innovative teachers have now stopped trying to outrun the fire and are, instead, figuring out how to use these new tools to produce a more enjoyable, entertaining and personalized learning experiences for the player while also generating significantly better education outcomes. Why? Because they understand that their survival as well as the survival of their students depends on their ability to adapt to the very forces which threaten to consume them.

In a time of constant change, the ability to identify emerging “weak signals” and the ability to connect disparate ideas and factors are key to adapting to an increasingly complex future. As with Wag Dodge, these creative teachers are striking a match and putting it to the dry grass of tradition in an attempt to fight the roaring fire of historical transformation with the fire of new technologies and a new way of holistic interdependent thinking. In essence, teachers and students are having to unlearn conventional wisdom and common sense in the way one is educated, and uplearn to a level of complexity never previously required. It is as if the world is being turned upside down and transformed in scope and concept at the same time.

Social Networks

Consider, for example, the growing influence of social networks and how these networks now offer people the ability to connect with millions of other people in a proverbial blink of the eye. One effect is that years of goodwill and millions of dollars of advertising can be snuffed out as easily as an employee can upload an embarrassing YouTube video on the Internet-such as what happened when two Dominoes Pizza workers posted a video of them putting cheese up their nostrils to create a “booger sandwich.” It went viral overnight and almost brought the company to its knees.

To survive in a world of instant and ubiquitous communication, where it is possible to reach millions with the click of a button, it isn’t enough to run faster toward the old safe havens of employee training sessions and written procedures. It also requires a willingness and ability to ask new questions within a new context and see the world in a new light because, often, the old ways must first be unlearned before new concepts, approaches, procedures and policies can be successfully identified and uplearned.

In another area, continued advances in sensors networks, robotics and GPS have led some to speculate that self-driving cars will be a reality by 2020. However, before automotive executives and engineers can embrace the opportunity inherent in this new paradigm, they will need to unlearn their concepts about what a car is and how it will be used. If they do, they might see how younger consumers who have grown up in a world of social media and who place a premium on constant connectivity may be willing to relinquish control of the driving wheel in return for the freedom of texting; accessing Facebook; updating their status via Twitter; or using whatever social networking platform is sure to come next. On the opposite end of the age spectrum, advances in life expectancy might create a market for self-driving vehicles among aging seniors who no longer can drive but who still wish to maintain the convenience of going wherever they want, whenever they want.

Survive and Thrive

The world is not just changing, it is transforming and to survive and thrive, industries, businesses and entrepreneurs must not only rise beyond old assumptions, models and paradigms they need to embrace ambiguity and begin offering different products to a variety of customers depending upon those customers’ unique needs. The age of Toffler’s “prosumer” has finally arrived with the advent of “direct digital manufacturing” leading ultimately to individualized production.

Continuing with the automotive example, consider how the cars of the future might be radically transformed. Advances in battery technology, synthetic biology and fuel cell technology-among others-could become viable competitors to the internal combustion engine and would require first unlearning and then uplearning.

The impact of amazing technological advances won’t only necessitate unlearning and uplearning in the automotive industry, this new correlation of different parallel learning capacities will be required throughout society, whether in business, education or government. For instance, in the energy and utility sectors, businesses will need to allow their customers to become both competitors and partners in the sense that their future customers will be able to produce some of their own energy (via wind turbines, solar cells or fuel cells) and then sell excess energy back to the energy companies when they don’t need it. The idea may seem counter-intuitive but so, too, was the idea of laying down in smoldering embers to survive a larger fire.

In the retail and advertising industries, the wealth of data now being harvested from customers’ purchasing decisions, cellphone signals, cameras, and RFID tags and sensors threatens to upset much of the way retailers interact and think about their customers and competitors. For example, when Tesco, the giant British retailer, used data mining techniques to discern why men buying beer were also purchasing diapers, the retailer was able to unlearn conventional wisdom and use this insight to create an innovative coupon and marketing campaign that increased sales of both beer and diapers. Time will tell whether other retailers will embrace data analytics and data-mining but those that do may just find enough life-sustaining oxygen in these small opportunities to live to fight another day.

A Revolution in Manufacturing

Another process almost certain to change in the coming years is how physical products are manufactured. In the past few years, the price of rapid prototype manufacturing equipment (3-D printing) has dropped from $100,000 to $5,000. Already “do-it-yourself” labs are springing up around the world and giving creative artisans and builders the opportunity to physically design new products. Soon, the tools will be affordable enough for them to put one in their own garage. When this happens they will become micro-manufacturers and not only will they wreak havoc on the global supply chain, it is possible they will drive a larger revolution in manufacturing. And, as with all revolutions those who are willing to unlearn the old way of doing business and uplearn to a more complex, yet real time system of connections, will be the most likely to avoid being consumed by the fire of global competition.

A similar challenge awaits those in the construction, building and design industries as advances in nanotechnology, advanced computerization and genetic engineering transform those sectors by breathing new life into old materials as totally new materials are birthed. The result will be that the age old conundrum of form versus function will be obliterated. Building materials will double as solar collectors; concrete will become translucent; man-made diamonds will be produce quickly, easily and cheaply; and steel will become stronger, lighter and more malleable. In the hands of creative and innovative companies these advances will yield serious competitive advantage, while those that cling to the safety of the statement “because that’s how they’ve always been done” will be consumed in the raging fire of transformation.

Perhaps nowhere is unlearning and uplearning more necessary than the healthcare industry. It has been determined that from the time a new procedure has been identified as a “best practice” it takes 17 years for that practice to become commonplace. Adapting to change will need to be done in much quicker fashion in the future if health costs are to be contained and possibly reduced. Unless this occurs, people will receive sub-optimum care and, in the worst case scenarios, unnecessarily dying because healthcare providers are unwilling to unlearn their old, outdated and ineffective ideas, methods and practices, and instead uplearn how to connect “home based” sensors, wireless technologies and advanced computerization in a real time, more complex system of health care that is focused on preventing disease before it occurs. In a world where advances in stem cell research, regenerative medicine, genomics and biotechnology are commonplace and every day ushers forth new discoveries, improving traditional approaches simply won’t suffice. There is no greater area where unlearning and uplearning will be essential than in the area of health care.

Unlearning can be Scary

Unlearning, as Wag Dodge demonstrated, can be scary, counter-intuitive and even risky. Even more frightening is this time in history when unlearning will not be enough to adapt to real time, increasing connections of people, process, ideas and technologies. We must teach ourselves and each other how to unlearn and uplearn at the same time. Traditional learning concepts and methods must be transformed for this to occur. Our ability to learn how to do so will be the difference between life and death-literally. Thirty years ago, Alvin Toffler, the noted futurist and author of “Future Shock,” wrote, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who can’t read and write, but those who can’t learn, unlearn and relearn.” We believe that the literate of the 21st century must also be given the skill to uplearn.

Survival in a time of transformation is possible but only if you and your organization are unwilling to unlearn and uplearn. If we are willing to take the time to sacrifice together to learn how to do so and collaborate in enough numbers that a tipping point of transformative thinking and action is reached, we will be able to thrive in a time of historical transformation. Future historians will look back and either applaud the audacity of people who had the courage to jump beyond emotions of fear of change, or wonder in sadness what caused intelligent beings to cower in their notions of traditional truth which eventually lead to the implosion of their civilization.

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