By Haitao Yu, PhD candidate at Ivey Business School in Canada and North America TFF Ambassador // Illustrations by Rafaela Spangenthal

We live in a world with unprecedented disruption. Today, learning is not about getting fish or learning how to fish, it is about asking why there is no fish and understanding how to create a system where we can fish.

Complex problems need new methods of execution.

How to feed 10 billion people by 2050? This is such a complex problem that requires solutions to consider the broader system in lieu of technology. The food and agriculture sector consists of networks of individuals, companies, jurisdictions, institutions and related norms that govern them. Not to mention, natural processes such as the climate which is usually out of human control. Thus, the food transition requires consideration of all these elements.

In this case, It is not viable to rely on a single “best solution” from traditionally powerful institutions. There are no objective criteria to judge solutions as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Solutions must have a context to fit the unique local ecological, social and economic aspects of the whole system in order to identify potential issues that could emerge from any given action.

What is the implication for Education?

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, made it clear to the world that the young generation will play a critical role in solving the complex problems in today’s world. I have 10 years of experience working with and encouraging the younger generation to think in systems. While this thinking may develop as people mature, I can offer a few suggestions that may help to expedite the process.

Holistic perspective

During my observation in the workplace and fieldwork on the Tibetan Plateau, I have noticed that people who are heavily influenced by traditional contemporary classroom education (the focus here is on linear reasoning, predictability, reducing uncertainty) tend to be short-term oriented, seek efficiency and tend to be less tolerant towards ambiguity. They often get caught up in details rather than the big picture.

In the modern classroom experience, the student is geared more towards correct answers and good exam grades rather than solving real problems. Since contemporary knowledge tends to separate culture from nature and rationality from aesthetics, students are discouraged from thinking holistically because it does not help with test-taking abilities.

The fractured manner in which the world has been serving humanity since the industrialization era has equated education to standardized job training that needs mechanical skills.

Fortunately, this way of learning is being challenged by the complex social and ecological crises we are facing. In our time, we need a more holistic approach. In their Future Jobs Report, the World Economic Forum has recently published the 10 future skills for 2020

Opening up

As a trained ethnographer, I find that opening up the mind helps to see and hear what is happening, rather than just what I want to see or hear. I used to need a structured schedule to avoid feeling panic. I was convinced that structure was a good thing from my life because it brings with it efficiency. Working in two indigenous communities on the Tibetan Plateau and in Canada, it dawned on me that too much structure could limit my ability to explore the possibilities that emerge from a new environment. Take this for instance; once I was so attached to an action plan in an interview, it turned out to be a disaster because it prevented me from hearing what was really happening. I learned to open up after reading a quote by Jeff Wilson from the Buddhism of the Heart:

“There is one advantage to realizing that you’re never going to get it right: you begin to stop expecting everyone else to get it right too, which makes for less frustration when other people turn out to be just as human as you are.”

I realized that by letting go of a structured plan, I could discover something new that I have never seen or thought of. It opens a new world where I can see things beyond my narrowed view.

Reflecting from a different angle

One must assess a situation from various perspectives to solve complex social and ecological challenges. For instance, a local community may value a lake as a sacred site for traditional rituals, while the government has deemed it a conservation site, and yet corporations may see it as an asset for development. Whether ignorance or competing perceptions lead to conflict, the fundamental disagreement may lead to innovative solutions as a means to resolve a dispute.

At Ivey Business School in Canada – where I do my PhD – we have explored new approaches to advocate for such methods of research and education. As a TFF Ambassador, I am excited to now see the new TFF Digital Labs spearhead new ways of learning showing that education can be done in a next-gen way. TFF’s approach to startup acceleration and collaborative ideas development truly embodies what I have learned is key to solving complex challenges: a holistic perspective, an open mindset, and diverse perspectives. With the Digital Labs, TFF helps create a wave of sustainable and impactful entrepreneurial ideas which tackle our world’s biggest challenges from a systems approach.

More about Haitao:
Haitao Yu is a Ph.D. candidate who is passionate about sustainability, art, and innovation. He is an animator for the Ivey Innovation Learning Lab, an exciting new approach that builds unique insights by assembling leading organizations from the private and public sectors in Canada to ‘innovate the innovation process’. His case study “Syngenta and Thought for Food: A Food-Security Innovation Platform” can be found on Ivey Publishing. Haitao’s doctorate thesis focuses on the place-based organization of indigenous communities in building sustainable development. He has conducted ethnographic work in Indigenous communities on the Tibetan Plateau and in Canada.

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