Introducing the School of the Possible

Episode one: Our new digital ecosystems need new kinds of learning institutions.

Dave Gray
School of the Possible


It is the best of times and the worst of times. If you’re a digital innovator, it’s a gold rush. If you’re an incumbent, it just might be the end of the line. It’s time to invent your digital future.

Data from 2012.

Our society is in a liminal period (in-between state) between a primarily industrial economy and a primarily digital economy. As a society, we are undergoing a phase shift that will issue in a new world that we can’t yet imagine.

This is a unique moment in time that offers great challenges and great opportunities. What will you do with it?

A moment in time.

We can see some of the broad outlines of this new world, and those dimly-sensed forms and formulas are both frightening and exciting. It is a true evolution in society, and it is during phase-shifts like this that entrenched incumbents become vulnerable and visionaries can swoop in and disrupt old models with new ones that are more effective at creating and capturing value.

That early 20th-century shift created a lot of wealth for the perceptive entrepreneurs that had the vision and perception to imagine and invent the world we have lived in for the past 100 years. Visionaries like Éleuthère Irénée du Pont (DuPont) Henry Ford (Ford), Alfred Sloan (GM), Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck (Sears & Roebuck), and many more.

John Hagel, Co-Chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge.

The shift we are currently experiencing has been dubbed The Big Shift by my friend and colleague John Hagel, Co-Chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge. This transition, characterized by new, more ecosystem-driven business models and digital ecosystems, has already created a new and volatile business landscape, and although many of the outcomes are not yet known, the broad outlines of the phase shift are becoming clear and some of the winners and losers are already apparent.

Giants like Kodak, Nokia, Motorola, and Blockbuster have been tagged out and are down for the count. Industries under imminent or near-term threat include the taxi industry, hospitality, automotive, health care, retail, and manufacturing. National governments, and alliances and coalitions are in flux. Big winners are creating a new generation of wealthy visionaries, like the minds behind the dramatic rise of the so-called FANG stocks: Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Reed Hastings (Netflix), and Larry Page and Sergei Brin (Google).

The winners and losers above seem clear, but many organizations and industries still hang in the balance. Tech giants like Apple, Oracle, and Microsoft were born at the tail end of the industrial revolution, are structured according to the industrial model, and are racing to transform into organizations capable of adopting the new digital models.

GE’s Digital initiative is foundering. IBM and Cisco somehow missed the cloud and are struggling to catch up. The automotive industry is scrambling to prepare for a world in which cars are not products to be purchased but services to be accessed on demand, as well as self-driving cars and apps that allow customers to access new and innovative services. We know enough about the new digital landscape to know that the big winners in the new digital ecosystems will be the platforms through which customers access these new services.

The difference between most incumbents and the tech companies is that the tech companies really understand what’s going on. They are awake, aware, and pulling out all the stops. The reason they are doing this is that they know platforms are a winner-take-all loser-gets-none game, because the primary value of a platform is that everybody’s there.

Success in platform-building is a 180-degree reversal of most traditional management thinking. It inverts many truisms. It’s counterintuitive. Plus it’s hard to do.

The same things that cause all this trauma, disruption, and anxiety for incumbents is also a massive business opportunity for those companies that are “born digital” as well as those yet-unknown industrial-age giants who are able to successfully complete the transition. It is also a wonderful opportunity for startups who want to draft in the slipstream of these new digital power players, by joining their ecosystem and leveraging the platforms to create new value propositions and services.

In all the volatility and churn there are many learning opportunities. There are new insights to be gleaned, new business models to understand and adopt, new tools and methods that can accelerate learning and the generate new insights.

Our industrial-age research and learning institutions are constrained by their 20th-century success. Many of them were conceived and designed during the last big shift, and they are not designed for the shift we are in right now. New learning institutions are emerging. Notable among them are Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, The Hasso Plattner Institute in Berlin, The Stanford, General Assembly, Hyper Island, and Kaos Pilot.

Connected Company overview.

These 21st-century learning institutions look, feel, and operate differently than their industrial-age forbears. Like their predecessors, their purpose is to explore areas of opportunity and discover insights that can help society get unstuck and move more quickly and smoothly through the shift. The insights and methods they teach are the skills that individuals and organizations will need to survive and thrive in the 21st century.

But unlike their industrial-age ancestors, these “new schools” are rethought, restructured, and redesigned for the digital age, which means they are optimized to discover and teach the theories, methods, skills, tools and practices of the digital age.

I’m happy and proud to announce that the ranks of the new digital schools will soon increase their number by one. Several colleagues and I are launching the School of the Possible, to formalize and pursue a research and development agenda that has been emerging since the early 1960s, and that I have been focusing on since I started my design consultancy, XPLANE, in 1993.

The School of the Possible is a self-funded, fully independent research and development lab.

The name is an homage to a major player in history, Otto von Bismarck, a politician, military man, and master strategist who, between 1862 and 1890, in the midst of the industrial revolution, a liminal period much like today, applied new industrial principles and techniques in the areas of government, politics, warfare, and military strategy. Although politically he was an arch-conservative, Bismarck saw in the Industrial Revolution an opportunity to topple entrenched incumbents and issue in a new order of things, “and he was successful.

In a masterful series of diplomatic and military interventions, Bismarck transformed the sociopolitical landscape by uniting 39 separate, independent states under one common banner.

Why was he successful?

Bismarck was not focused on building an idealist utopia. He was a pragmatic realist and a true nation-builder who saw an opportunity and seized it. Although he was an arch-conservative, he knew that the new technologies would usher in new ideas, new forms of organization, new tools, and new methods that would create an opportunity to transform a motley collection of states into a modern, culturally unified world power. He introduced a series of industrial reforms, including what is considered by many the first modern army, introduced state-sponsored education, worker’s compensation, a pension program. And yes, he was successful. He essentially created the nation we now know as Germany.

“Politics is the art of the possible.” Otto von Bismarck

How is our name a homage to this historical figure? His motto through the transformation was “Politics is the art of the possible.” Not an ivory-tower ideal of what could be in 50 or 100 years. He didn’t have time to wait. The ideas that were most useful for him were the ones that were possible now or in a short time from now, not in the distant future.

Phase shifts like this also create opportunities for new entrants.

Madam C. J. Walker

The internet that connected everything in the last big shift were the new transportation systems and postal service innovations that opened new doors of possibility.

Madam C. J. Walker was a self-made millionaire who started a cosmetics business near the tail of the agricultural-industrial shift. Born the youngest child of an enslaved family (she was the only child in her family not born a slave). One aspect of that shift was postal reforms that made it much easier to deliver mail to rural residents. She saw the possibility to take advantage of the shift by starting a mail-order business selling beauty and hair products for black women.

Richard W. Sears was an enterprising railway agent who bought a shipment of watches that a jeweler refused to sign for and started selling watches to other agents. He sold out quickly, so he teamed up with a local watchmaker to start a watch business.Sears could see that railroads and improved postal services were creating new options to connect with rural residents. At the time, most rural people bought everything from the general store. Sears and Roebuck saw that the railroads and mail could be linked. Postal innovations made mail-order catalogs viable, and the railroads simplified shipping. Sears & Roebuck started with watches, which were small, lightweight, and easy to mail, and soon expanded into other categories. Before long they had a catalog that contained just about anything anyone could want that could be shipped, and they became a dominant force in retail. The general store became mostly a thing of the past. Sound familiar?

Modern-day visionaries are emulating historical figures like Bismarck, Walker, Sears and Roebuck. They are developing new business models to quickly take advantage of the inherent possibilities of new technologies. Both the incumbents and the new world visionaries are in the midst of a pitched battle to ensure a place for themselves in the future which is emerging all around us, over our heads, on our screens, in our homes and workplaces, and under our feet. More winners and losers will emerge.

First launch of the research program that became the toolkit now available at

Our research has been conducted over about 25 years, beginning with the founding of XPLANE. As the founder, I am a researcher and teacher as well as a practical business entrepreneur, manager and leader. I have been observing, documenting, and reverse-engineering the theories, principles, methods, practices and tools that drive the Digital Revolution, and I believe the art of the possible needs a School of the Possible.

I will be reaching out to potential peers, colleagues, partners and customers who have been involved in or connected to this research and development stream, which is a relatively small and digitally connected global community. I want you to join me in creating a new kind of learning institution that’s virtual, connected, and culturally digital: A 21st-century connected ecosystem of practical-minded organizations, researchers, master practitioners, apprentices, customers, tools and methods.

The future is always uncertain. This is a liminal, in-between moment. It is the best of times and the worst of times. And in it are the seeds for the best of futures as well as the worst of futures. Big Shifts like this are moments when anything is possible.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Alan Kay

Alan Kay

Alan Kay, a pioneer in object-oriented programming, inventor of the notebook/tablet, and XEROX PARC researcher once said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” We agree. This phase shift will not continue in this liminal, in-between state indefinitely. The time for action is now.

What is your best possible future? If you want to seize this opportunity to slipstream in the draft of the Big Shift, control your destiny, and invent your future, please contact us for a chat about how we might work together.

We are just getting started and you can expect many new announcements in the coming weeks and months. If you’d like to get involved please join the mailing list and follow our progress. One of these upcoming announcements will probably help you see how best to connect.

I’m excited about where we go from here. With your help this can be a global and world-changing phenomenon.

Update: A few people have asked how the School of the Possible is different from Singularity University. That question is answered here.

Continue to episode two.

Dave Gray, is the founder of XPLANE, co-founder of Boardthing, and the founder and CEO of the School of the Possible.