SINGAPORE (Aug 23): The late scientist and author Carl Sagan told this story in his bestseller Cosmos. At the height of the excitement over space exploration, a newspaper editor commissioned a famous astronomer to write a 500-word article on whether there is life on Mars. The astronomer replied, via telegram, NOBODY KNOWS, NOBODY KNOWS… 250 times.

That is a long-winded way of saying that, despite the preponderance of learned people and experts, nobody really knows how the economy will pan out. In fact, it is more accurate to say that nobody can know. Despite our best efforts to minimise them, we live in a world of increasing disruptions and irreducible uncertainty. So, given the changes wrought by Industry 4.0, artificial intelligence and the accelerations and non-linearities we see in different sectors, how do we educate for a world that not only does not stand still but is also at risk of fragmenting into many worlds?

At the recent SkillsFuture Festival 2019 hosted by my university, the National University of Singapore, what emerged during various discussions is a consensus that a cluster of traits and skills will be indispensable for this brave, new liquid world of continuous disruption: resilience, courage, curiosity, imagination, critical thinking, empathy and the ability to solve complex problems, just to mention a few.

All well and good. How do we teach these, not only at the level of higher education, but in education more generally? More importantly, have we ever done so?

It goes without saying, of course, that while such skills and traits are important, the requisite baseline knowledge never goes away. By baseline knowledge, I mean the various bodies of technical knowledge that will enable you to navigate a world of runaway technology. And the level of that baseline knowledge is rising all the time. As philosopher John Searle puts it, “[It] is not that the world has become unintelligible in some exciting and apocalyptic way, but that it is a lot harder to understand for the rather boring and unexciting reason that you have to be smarter and you have to know a lot more.”

But let’s take the last trait in my list, for example: the ability to solve complex problems. We are told that we need more innovators, rule-breakers, trailblazers and mavericks who can push the boundaries of the possible. We are also told that we need to regain that much-vaunted problem-solving ability that had apparently been lost over the last few years, which some ascribe to the complacency that comes with spectacular progress.

Here, though, it is important to distinguish between solving complicated problems and complex ones. I would say that the problems we had to solve in our early years of independence were complicated ones, in the sense that the solutions to those problems were known and knowable ahead of time. In other words, there was a “back of the book” answer. Think of the early years of economic development and the problems associated with them: housing, public safety, sanitation, education as an instrument to solve unemployment and so on. Not to belittle those problems, but we kind of knew what needed to be done to solve each problem.

Contrast that to the emerging problems of 21st century Singapore, which deal with abstract and amorphous issues such as social justice, identity and rootedness, self-actualisation, entrepreneurship and the contestation of values. And all of that overlaid on the material bread-and-butter issues that not only persist but do so with renewed emphasis. The fusion of material and abstract concerns transforms the complicated into the complex. And we have only ever been good at dealing with the complicated.

This competency in complicated problem-solving reflected the story of Singapore’s developmental narrative. There was a sense that the development of the city state in the early years followed a predictable trajectory: the so-called “flying geese” pattern, with Japan in the lead and the four “Asian Tigers” of Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan flying behind; and the latter countries moving to occupy the position in the value chain that the “lead goose” Japan vacated.

This calls to mind a story told to me by a former chairman of the Economic Development Board that describes the orderliness of our trajectory: In the beginning, we made biscuits, and we sold them to our neighbours. Then, they started making biscuits, so we couldn’t do that anymore. So, we made the equipment that made the biscuits and sold that instead, until our neighbours made those themselves. So then, we created biscuit recipes and sold those, until our neighbours created biscuit recipes. And thus, we exited the biscuit business and moved on to something else.

The challenge for Singapore is that, while in the past we had a good sense of what new sectors to move on to next, we are not sure what the next “something else” is. That makes our next bet, or bets, highly and irreducibly uncertain.

So, how do we teach the ability to deal with the complexity and uncertainty that lie at the heart of our social and economic evolution?

First, we must appreciate the limits and fallibility of knowledge. We must teach that there is no body of knowledge that is immune to error, or that might not be invalidated completely by later developments. In other words, knowledge is unstable in the world of Industry 4.0.

Clearly, critical thinking and rationality are the best ways to protect against hubris and error. But one’s critical thinking and rationality must themselves be ideas that challenge them. Hence, critical thinking and rationality must be humble and open to uncertainty. There are many examples throughout history of societies — for example, the Roman Empire and the various Chinese dynasties — that were successful at first because of their imagination and innovations, but because of hubris and the inability to deal with uncertainty, eventually collapsed. Hence, be prepared to jettison your entire anchoring worldview in the face of new developments.

Second, we must reconsider our relationship with uncertainty. We must embrace uncertainty, and understand that all progress is the fruit of uncertainty that changes the system from the inside. Mystery is a part of life that cannot be totally eliminated. Indeed, it is a welcome part of being human. Uncertainty itself is the spur for evolution in the natural world, provoking the adaptations and innovations that we see in all species of life. We need to recover, if not establish afresh, the spirit of openness and flexibility so that we can better respond to the signals in our fast-changing environment.

Finally, our ability to imagine and create must be protected from the false comfort of templates, dogmas, conventional thinking and contrived certitudes. All actions in complex and uncertain environments are essentially bets. And bets do not always go your way.

What I hope to see in education is the cultivation of what the poet John Keats termed “a negative capability”. It is the ability to contemplate the world without imposing a false order and coherence onto something inherently messy. Being able to critically question the “why” of things, and being resilient and comfortable amid uncertainty are the quintessential skills for thriving in this anxious world of disruption.


Adrian W J Kuah is director of the Futures Office, National University of Singapore. This is his personal comment.

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 896, week of Aug 26) which is on sale now. Subscribe here