2019 Brought More Risk and Inequity, 2020 is an Opportunity for Innovation

Sunrise over Capitol Hill
The U.S. Capitol at Dawn. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Things are heating up in the nation’s capital and worldwide—we just had the hottest November on record. The world got riskier in 2019, both in terms of politics and climate. But there is a lot of good news as well; there has never been a better time to make a difference. Following are four observations about 2019 and the year ahead.

Great Economy…if You’re Rich

The stock market hit record highs this fall, economic growth is pretty good, unemployment is low—what’s not to love? Unemployment is reported to be 3.7% in the U.S., but it’s twice that for people working part-time who are seeking work, and three times the average for young Black men.

The problem is that benefits (both income and wealth) are increasingly aggregated to a tiny percentage of wealthy Americans—and the suddenly ubiquitous use of code that learns is accelerating income inequality. And it gets worse from here.

Education takeaways:

  • Averages often hide the truth. Let’s teach kids to be skeptical, or even better empathetic, data consumers. Let’s teach empathy research (the first step in design thinking) to learn the stories behind the data.
  • In the workforce, the ride is going to get bumpy. There will be more churn and uncertainty in the job market and more gig and contingent work. Now that we’re all entrepreneurs (responsible for spotting opportunity and delivering value), young people need more guidance on learning and earning options.
  • It’s all going to come down to sharing. How we decide to distribute the wealth and benefits of AI and the innovation economy will be critical. Education will play an important role in informing stakeholders about the new economy and facilitating sharing agreements.

Ratcheting Risk

The world got riskier in 2019. One could point to Iran’s drone strike on a Saudi oil refinery, North Korean missile launches, or the Venezuelan implosion. But the big risk ratchets were homemade: the U.S. withdrawing from treaties, initiating trade wars, and failing to act on the climate crisis.

The 2020 election will be the first national cycle influenced by deep fake video. And now that the U.S. has reduced trust and added uncertainty to international relationships, perturbances like deep fake videos could trigger existential threats.

More broadly and under the radar, human-made systems are getting more complicated and interrelated. Even the designers of big computer systems, big supply chains, and big military operations, don’t fully understand the operations of these massive systems or their interactions with other systems—especially in ‘Black Swan’ events (historic occurrences that are unprecedented and unexpected).

As OpenAI’s Jack Clark said, “The 21st century will be defined by our attempts to come up with the right learning systems to intelligently and scalably constrain the machines we have created.”

Education takeaway:

  • High school and college deserve at least a broad overview of the Earth owner’s manual—the most important issues of our time, including both challenges and opportunities.
  • High school students need a few chances to dive into the complexity of human systems and the often unexpected ways they interface with each other and with natural systems. This requires bigger blocks of time and more community connections than traditional discipline-based structures allow.
  • Complex work is typically carried out by diverse transdisciplinary teams. All students need to be capable project managers with strong social and emotional skills.

Social Movements

Not since the Facebook-fueled Arab Spring nine years ago have we seen such promise in social movements leveraging network effects. This year, we saw big advances in:

  • Recognizing global warming and mobilizing organizations, cities, and regions (see @GretaThunberg);
  • Moving from a fixation on quarterly profits to a broader view of stakeholder value (in part because of #1, what the World Economic Forum called the Greta Thunberg effect);
  • Despite some whitewashing, there were big strides in #AIforGood and mitigating its negative—even existential—threats (see @technovation, @ai4allorg, @OpenAI, @FLIxrisk, #AI4k12).

Supporting these positive trends, it’s increasingly easier to raise money for a good cause. About $250 billion in venture capital flowed to startups in 2019—about half internationally. And twice that amount was invested philanthropically in the U.S. alone.

Education takeaway:

  • Secondary students should be equipped with change-making strategies and encouraged to make a difference in their community on local versions of global challenges.
  • Like Montour School District, all middle school students should get exposure to artificial intelligence and exponential technologies, and begin grappling with the ethical issues that will shape their lives;
  • Like young people in the AI Family Challenge and AI4ALL, all high school students should have the opportunity to apply smart tools to community challenges.

Ready & Waiting for Innovation

In education, there was a widespread reconsideration of goals and measures this year. Hundreds of U.S. school districts made progress on creating graduate portraits with outcomes more relevant to the innovation economy, which include design and success skills (like social and emotional learning). But despite the conclusion of a long-awaited commission focused on social, emotional and academic development, there was little progress on measuring what matters.

When it comes to moving the needle, the federal government is largely inconsequential as are most state accountability systems. While most state boards are desperate to say yes to innovation, state testing systems still monopolize life in schools, yielding a preoccupation with grade-level proficiency in basic skills.

All but a handful of secondary schools remain trapped in the two-centuries-old architecture of discipline-based courses, credits and grades. A few schools are attempting new architecture based on skill sprints and projects, getting smarter to do real work.

Despite a little new funding, the political support—at the national level and in many regions— for new innovative schools appears to be softening just when we could really use them.

Need a 2020 resolution?

For more, see:

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This post was originally published on Forbes.

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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