Inworks: Human Potential at the Adjacent Possible

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. — Steven Johnson

I paid a recent visit to Inworks, a new initiative of the University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus that draws together faculty, staff and students from across two campuses, as well as entrepreneurs and leaders from industry, government, education and the community, to address problems of importance to human society (think of it like a startup incubator, progressive university classroom, corporate office, and wood shop lovechild), and what I discovered was yet another example of why I find the current landscape of education to be critically interesting.

After gaining perspective from a few key educational innovators I considered to be “in the know,” and doing my own surface-level internet excavation, I became absolutely energized by the potential, and renewed sense of personal motivation, this serendipitous space discovery represented. I was subsumed by an almost instinctual obligation to see it, understand it, and meet as many people involved with it as possible (still very much a work in progress).

During my initial exposure and meeting with Kate Goodman, assistant professor at Inworks , I felt like a literal manifestation of my current brain-state was materializing around me. Human-Centered Design, Entrepreneurship, Instructional Design, IoT, Innovation, Motivation, even Fluid Dynamics. Everything we discussed had a very meaningful connection to what I’d naively and selfishly assumed had only been part of my own lonely mental journey of the past half-decade. It was incredible, not only to have much of my thinking validated, but also to discover and begin the process of connecting with a support network willing to absorb those of a similar frame of mind.

So in what way might our mental frames align? Well, baristas and sous chefs aside, I think we agree that as a society we’re asking for a culture of innovation to emerge from a system (higher education) which is fundamentally flawed and contradictory to our expectations of it. Speaking from a broad cultural standpoint, we no longer need factory workers to endlessly churn out cookie cutter products, so why do we hesitate when initiatives that so obviously align with our cultural expectations (e.g. Inworks) surface? The grade/test/degree/etc. isn’t the point; what’s created is the point. The project is the point. Interesting is the point. Affecting humans is the point. And in my mind, few projects place this understanding at the core of their mission the way Inworks does, or at least aspires to.

Given what seems to be a clear need for these types of initiatives, spaces, and patterns of thought, you’d expect Inworks to be inundated with eager students and collaborative partners, but that’s just not yet the reality. There’s still hesitation. The insecurities that come with, “it might not work” are still powerful forces. The unease surrounding what these types of spaces represent, still palpable. The institution of higher education has erected a barrier to change so lasting that even the most obvious windows to the future seem clouded and impenetrable.

There is a proverbial higher education bubble, and it WILL burst, but it will be a slow burst (maybe more of an incremental deflation). I see individuals, ideas, and initiatives such as Inworks slowly nibbling away at the edges until what once was seen as the adjacent possible is seen as the way. A “student’s” cumulative body of creative/created work will slowly, though less conveniently, replace the degree, and I have little doubt that those who embrace this reality of educational arbitrage will be happier and more successful for having done so.

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