Vertical literacy: reimagining the 21st-century university – Otto Scharmer

MIT Sloan Sr. Lecturer Otto Scharmer

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Otto Scharmer

From Medium

The Fridays For Future (FFF) climate strike by high school students may well be one of the most important, yet hardly covered stories by the US media today. During the week of March 15th alone, 1.6 million strikers were counted across 125 countries. This environmental movement to reduce carbon emissions was started by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg in late 2018. In the meantime, a discussion has ensued among politicians in Germany about whether it is the right thing for students to take to the streets instead of the classroom on Fridays.

The principles below weigh in on this conversation from a bigger picture view: how to “update” the world’s educational system, particularly the university, to tackle the technological, environmental, and social disruptions of the 21st century. See figure 1.

The classical university was based on the unity of research and teaching; the modern university has been based on the unity of research, teaching, and practical application. I believe that the current historical moment, with one civilization ending and dying, and another being born, invites us to reconceive the 21st-century university as a unity of research, teaching, and the praxis of transforming society and self.

Yet, the current contribution of universities to societal transformation remains unclear. This is because the traditional output of universities — knowledge — is not the missing piece to catalyzing social change. Let’s consider the example of the Paris Agreement and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the current global framework outlining the transformation objectives of the next decade.

The difficulties in implementing the Paris Agreement and the SDGs worldwide are not caused by a knowledge gap. The problem is lack of political will and a knowing-doing gap: a disconnect between our collective consciousness and our collective action. This gap leads us to collectively create results that nobody wants: massive environmental destruction, societies breaking apart, and social media-induced mass separation from our deeper sources of self.

To address these profound challenges, we need new platforms and new capacities that upgrade our mental and social operating system from ego-system awareness to eco-system awareness.

Figure 2 maps the evolution of key societal systems in terms of their OS (operating system):

· from 1.0 (input and authority-centric) and 2.0 (output and efficiency centric)
· to 3.0 (user-centric) and 4.0 (ecosystem-centric).

Figure 2: Four Types of OS, Four Stages of Systems Evolution (Source: O. Scharmer, The Essentials of Theory U)

Since I have presented this matrix in other places, here I will focus on its essence: the vertical dimension of the matrix maps the evolution of various societal systems in terms of their operating system (OS), including the evolution of the economy to post-capitalistic ways of operating. Each later stage includes the modes of the earlier stages, but in a new meta context. It also highlights how the collective knowing-doing gap persists because we try to solve level 4 problems with OS 1.0, 2.0, or 3.0. But, as we learned from Einstein, you cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking that created them.

The main problems in our universities and schools today is the lack ofvertical literacy. Vertical literacy is the capacity to lead transformative change, i.e., to shift the level of operating from 1.0 and 2.0 to 3.0 and 4.0 as needed by:

· seeing yourself — i.e. self-awareness — both individually and collectively
· accessing your curiosity, compassion, and courage
· deepening the space for listening and conversation
· reshaping the type of organizing from centralized to ecosystem
· cultivating governance mechanisms that operate from seeing the whole
· holding the space for profound transformation: letting go and letting come

This shift of focus is mirrored by the principal challenges we face across societal sectors, where we are often stuck in levels 1, 2, and 3 ways of operating, unable to progress to level 4. When you ask experienced CEOs and CPOs (chief people officers) of major companies, or public sector leaders, what they are trying to do and what they need, they typically say they need people who are agile and co-creative and who can make their organizations thrive in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. To restate that in terms of the matrix: they need capacities that can take their organizations to 4.0 ways of operating. When you talk to NGOs and civil society activists that try to change the economic system towards well-being for all, they basically say the same thing: we need to increase our capacity to collaborate and co-create across institutional and sector boundaries.

Then ask university leaders and deans of management and engineering schools the same question. There are some exceptions, but most are rather illiterate or uninformed when it comes to building the capacity for vertical development. They, like most of their faculty, live and operate most of their time in the straightforward 2.0 world of education (figure 2). Their thinking is framed in terms of horizontal development — for example, adding another skill here or another course there — not in terms of vertical development, which essentially deals with the evolution of consciousness. To use the analogy of the smartphone: they think in terms of adding another app, not in terms of upgrading the entire operating system.

In short, vertical literacy is about leading transformation by shifting consciousness from ego-system awareness to eco-system awareness. I believe that in this century the primary reason for universities to exist increasingly lies in helping individuals, organizations, and societal systems to build such vertical transformation literacy.

The following 12 principles summarize what a 21st-century university could look like if we upgraded the entire OS towards vertical literacy. The principles are not just a compilation of ideas. They are derived from two decades of hands-on experimentation and from participating in a global movement of learners and educators that is taking shape as we speak. It’s a movement focused on reinventing universities and schools as platforms for helping people and their organizations transform themselves and make the world a better place — by pioneering solutions that bridge the three major divides of our age: the ecological, the social, and the spiritual divide.

Read the full post at Medium.

Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer in the MIT Management Sloan School and founder of the Presencing Institute.

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