What happens when 50,000 kids are given the tools to change the world?

Anyone under the age of 20 today is part of a very special generation: the first generation in human history to grow up with mobile phones in hand, computers and tablets in tow, and robots and 3D printers and self-driving cars in the news. This is a generation that has experienced nothing less than an exponential rate of change in the world around them, with fierce expectations for the betterment and advancement of society.

This is also the first generation to grow up seeing every day the well-shared and well-dissected dysfunction in the world, many of whom are educated on principles of compromise, empathy, and problem-solving that have instilled a drive to fix those challenges.

Alas, the majority of this generation is also part of education systems that are teaching to out-of-date standards and ideas about what the future holds, systems that espouse skills and preparation for careers — once imagined immutable — that might not exist in five years, systems with slow regulatory processes that will render new curriculum attempts virtually irrelevant by the time they are implemented.

So, we thought, let’s fix that.

How might we give this generation the tools to prepare for the future and harness their potential to tackle global challenges?

For the past two years, Singularity University has teamed up with GEMS Education, a global education powerhouse based in Dubai, in an experimental partnership to build new learning experiences designed to empower students to be masters of their future and to harness the change that’s driving our world. More than just building, we’re asking how we might create an experience that can be shared with every student, everywhere.

At the launch of the Singularity University / GEMS Education partnership. Dubai, UAE. (Photo credit: Rohan Roberts)

The programming is built on a few premises:

Technology is just one part of the toolkit.

The lion’s share of change and disruption in the world today is being driven by the rapid advancement of technology. Rather than teaching technology as a job skill — a skill set only some students will choose to develop — it is positioned as a tenet of the future that every person needs to understand comprehensively in order to conceptualize how their own purpose, profession, and values will be shaped by and around it. Combined with other skills like design thinking, prototyping, debate, and forecasting, technology rounds out the future-proof toolkit.

Social and ethical implications are central to the future.

The advancement of technology raises critical questions, ranging from future of jobs and careers to whether AI will be evil. Examining privilege gaps, disruption of economies and governments, and deepening divides in our societies, one understands that it will take more than just technological engineering to truly find a path to an abundant future, where everyone has what they need to both survive and thrive.

How might we guide the future of our societies, together?

What if instead of shying away from daunting questions, we bring them into the light to be dissected and debated, to develop informed perspectives about how to incorporate and interact with technology?

Success comes from aligning your strengths and interests with the needs and opportunities of the world.

Forecasting is a critical skill for imagining possible and probable futures for the world around us, but it’s also a skill that can help explore the future of yourself. To imagine not your future profession, but your future purpose, and to consider the possible and probable ways that purpose may be disrupted. Some of today’s professions may not exist in the future, but the purpose behind them will find a new expression.

Shift your vision, for example, from a career like physician and imagine instead your future as a healer, and you can begin to ask questions about how technology will shape what it means to heal. What new ailments will need to be healed? What ones won’t? What new tools for healing may be at your disposal, and what are the skills you will need to master? These questions lead to preparation for the disruption your own path may be exposed to.

By mapping these futures with open eyes and minds, we are better able to achieve what I call inventive resilience — an ability to respond to change, iterate on your own path, and achieve a secure future — a quality that will serve us well throughout our lives.

The Wheel Need Not Be Reinvented

It has been said that true innovation is creating a new way of doing something that renders the old way obsolete. And while there is value in experiments that reimagine, redesign, and reinvent education models, the fundamental flaw in these learning innovations is their inaccessibility.

Today’s reality is that millions of kids around the world are locked into education systems that are not likely to change in the next decade, that are ruled by structure, standards, certifications, and schedules that often hamper innovation.

If our aim is to help our next generation of leaders be prepared for the future, what if we worked with those systems, to help them be their best, rather than insisting they be replaced?

The pilot launch of the Global Futures Curriculum seeks to do just that, to bring students into careful discussion and consideration of the future in a way that is complementary to the education systems they find themselves in.

Our testing ground today is 19 schools in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and India, where several experimental implementations are designed to exist alongside and integrate with existing global curricula, like International Baccalaureate and national standards from the United Kingdom, United States, and India. We are finding the synergies and opportunities to amplify the best parts of those curricula with future-focused lessons and content.

Innovation is very different from invention. We’re making a conscious choice to innovate, to build on and improve processes and systems, to leverage existing structures in a way that allows us to make a difference for students around the world today. To build solutions that, rather than dismissing existing structures, work within them and encourage them to be the best they can be. While some day our world may be ready for wildly inventive models for learning, we want to mobilize and activate millions of young people today.

Avinash Pulugurtha, a student from GEMS Our Own English School in Dubai, presents his company, Pentagon, on stage at the Singularity University Global Summit in 2017. Pentagon uses mobile rapid manufacturing facilities and reinforced cardboard construction to create durable, weather-resistant housing for refugee communities.

By the Numbers

Our first project, the Global Futures Curriculum, is a 20-week experience for students age 16–18, designed to be tested for integration in schools teaching to four global standard curricula. Students learn about exponential technologies and Global Grand Challenges. They practice forecasting trends for the future, debate ethical questions, and plot their own courses to enable the futures they imagine.

The curriculum will reach about 1500 students in four countries in 2018.

At the same time, we’ve launched the second year of a collaborative Global Impact Challenge with GEMS Education, which sources ideas for impact-focused innovation from students in all of GEMS’ schools around the world. This challenge attracted roughly 50,000 students in the second year of the pilot, and thousands of them will converge in Dubai in February 2018 to learn about more than 200 solutions that have advanced to the finalist stage. Three teams will be invited to present their concepts at the Singularity University Global Summit in San Francisco in August, 2018.

The project is currently in a closed pilot within the GEMS Education network of schools, but is just a first step toward creating a curriculum and framework that can be shared around the world to transform learning experiences for young people everywhere.

So why stop at 50,000? What happens when an entire generation is given the tools to change the world?

Anything they imagine.

At Singularity University, we encourage our community to “Be Exponential,” to take moonshots and big chances that push us toward an abundant future.

But technology isn’t the only thing advancing at an exponential rate; people are too.

We believe there’s incredible potential in a world where every young person understands how technology is transforming their future, and understands how to leverage that technology to tackle important problems. A world where the esoteric debates and big questions at the intersection of technology and humanity are brought into our everyday conversations in the classroom and at the dinner table. A world where the future is driven not by profession, but by purpose. By a generation unlike any we’ve seen before, a generation equipped with tools that have never previously existed, with unprecedented power and access; a generation that lives together, poised to make impact far beyond themselves…

An exponential generation.

Share your thoughts in the comments below. 
How can you help our next generation of leaders reach their full potential? 
How can we empower young people to make a rapidly-changing future work for people around the globe?

This post is part of a series taking a look at what’s happening in Impact at Singularity University as we kick off a new year and set goals for 2018. Take a look at some quick stats and keep an eye out for more stories.