Five Trends Demand Smart States

1. What does the flash crash of 2010, the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, and plunging gas prices in 2014 have in common?

2. What do 8 billion devices, 5 billion things and 2 billion people have in common?

3. Declining civic cohesion and capacity; increasing diversity in background, views and work styles; project teams, crowdsourcing and collective intelligence signal what?

4. Everything that can be automated will be, what does that leave us?

5. Disruptive technology, outsourcing, bargaining power, and replacement services are signs of what?


  1. Complex human systems that produce unexpected (Black Swan) events
  2. Connected to the Internet
  3. Contested civic and corporate space
  4. Contribution and value add matter more than ever
  5. Competitive global market for products and talent

We live in a world that is increasingly complex. It’s connected but segmented into narrow channels. It’s hyper-competitive and values unique contributions and collaboration. This story of us and now suggest new priorities for what young people need to know and be able to do.  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills summarizes key skills as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

A fifth C for a competitive world, is the ability to crank. Business leaders say work ethic is the number one thing they look for. But it’s more than hard work, it’s being self-directed, taking initiative, persisting through difficulty, and focusing on learning.

Trend Knowledge, Skills & Dispositions
Complex Use critical thinking to analyze and evaluate evidence, arguments, claims; analyze the interaction of parts of complex systems
Connected Communicate clearly for multiple purposes in a variety of vehicles (including multi-lingual), develop a smart social brand
Contested Collaborate with others, work effectively and respectfully with diverse teams
Contribution Exhibit creativity, elaborate, analyze and evaluate ideas; use strategies including iterative development to innovate
Competitive Appreciate the need to crank, that effort and initiative matter; directing learning; a sense of agency and confidence

The Hewlett Foundation says every young person deserves deeper learning experiences that a motivate, challenge, and prepare them for college, careers, and citizenship.

Smart State. How would governors, education chiefs, and policy makers go about creating conditions that could help more young people develop the 5Cs?

Three years ago we began studying that question by cataloging innovations in learning in America’s great cities – great schools, leading universities, entrepreneurs, innovative companies, and impact investors. The series focused on urban regions as learning and talent ecosystems. The Smart Cities blog series became an ethnographic survey of innovation diffusion. More than 50 thought leaders contributed to the effort.

We concluded that every person, organization, and region needs to get smart—to skill up, learn more, and build new capacities faster and cheaper than ever. Innovative new tools and schools are making that possible everywhere. Innovation starts with a mindset that can be developed in every classroom and every city. Innovation is scaled by leaders who develop talent, and align partnerships and investments for collective impact. Our final conclusion is that innovation is sustained by advocacy and policy, and that makes the role of state leadership and policy essential.

Since being elected mayor of Sacramento in 2008, Kevin Johnson’s mission has been to make Sacramento “a city that works for everyone.” Borrowing from Johnson’s mission statement, Smart Cities That Work for Everyone, outlines seven keys to education and employment.

  1. Innovation Mindset: effort, initiative, and collaboration are key, classroom to city;
  2. Sustained Leadership: building political capital to create quality education options;
  3. Talent Development: preparing and developing great teachers, leaders, and edupreneurs;
    • Tennessee and Louisiana are often cited for improving evaluation and development (no state has solved the preparation problem that is addressed in a new paper);
  4. Collective Impact: partnerships and community engagements;
    • Educate Texas is the best state STEM network and collective impact example;
  5. Aligned Investments: public and private investment;
  6. New Tools & Schools: rationale for new schools, overview of new tools, connecting teachers and technology;
  7. Advocacy & Policy: pro-growth, pro-achievement, pro-readiness, pro-employability, and pro-innovation.

Smart Cities focuses on urban areas, but these keys apply to states as well. State leaders should aspire to creating an environment that works for everyone.

For more, see:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Kristin Garn

As a complexity theorist (now running an ed tech company), I'm thrilled that some of the important vernacular from the field is moving into public dialogue (black swan events). I whole-heartedly agree that complexity (as a theoretical framework) helps us find some meaningful connections among our data-centric models but I fear that we are still using so little of the framework that it renders complexly-derived conclusions meaningless (i.e. -- cause, effect, relationships, weighting). Speaking of waiting, I am waiting for the day that people start talking about theories of emergence as they are being realized today in increasingly connected, multi-level systems. Any chance you will be writing about emergence and ed tech in near future? It's got my vote!!


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks Kristen, how about a guest blog on emergence and EdTech??

Kristin Garn

I would be thrilled for the opportunity! I think you're able to extrapolate my email at form submission, yes? (threw some math vocab in there already)! If so, please feel free to contact me. I work with some wonderful math faculty here in Canada who can add ideas, as well. Many of us are thrilled that Applied Math is finally so publicly relevant after all these years!! Cheers!

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