Why learning to unlearn prepares us for transformative change – World Economic Forum

  • Technological and transformative change is accelerating rapidly since the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Learning to unlearn is one way to work with change effectively.
  • When we unlearn and relearn we can achieve transformative breakthroughs.

According to Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann, “for progress, there is no cure.” Yet, for progress to advance, diffuse, and become democratized, a culture of learning supported by rigorous analytic and critical thinking skills are imperative. Despite the irony, we must also develop an ability to unlearn what we have learned by letting go of foundational knowledge and cognitive habits that made us successful in the past but now stand in the way of embracing the future. The change includes incorporating transformative ways of seeing the world differently in response to the exponential growth of today’s increasingly complex technologies. Realizing that some of what we know is no longer so places us on a path toward discovering new knowledge. Embracing change is the essence of human evolution and crucial to future wealth creation, improved quality of life, and overall well-being.

Why we need to unlearn

Historically, we have remained passive and ill-prepared to accept the inevitability of socioeconomic change. The acquisition of knowledge is infinite yet can be held back by our propensity to allow old thinking to crowd out the new. This can lead to a perilous, desperate, and downward spiral to the bottom. Indeed, we are seeing this occurring today with Industry 4.0 being driven by software (vs. highly capitalized hardware), additive manufacturing/3D printing, and distributive production. Despite being coined by Germany in 2011 as a way forward to digital manufacturing, we tend to approach Industry 4.0 with an industrial-age mindset. It is also a function of behavioural economics among highly credentialed “experts” and their echo chambers who cling to only what they know, seek comfort in the status quo, and struggle with the sunk-cost fallacy—despite new empirical and scientific evidence to the contrary.

The economic shocks that resulted from the First, Second and Third Industrial Revolutions spanned approximately 250 years (1760-2010). Nevertheless, McKinsey & Company predicts that we will experience more progress this decade than in the preceding 100 years. The ten years of growth in e-commerce condensed in three months in early 2020 during COVID-19 underscores this trend. While hardly a gift, the pandemic’s silver linings are readily apparent. We can expect this pace to gather momentum with the continued roll-out of 5G, applied AI, blockchain, and, further down the road, quantum computing. Add to the mix Software 2.0, a fundamental shift in the development of software. It enables neural networks and machine learning to write code and create new software. In other words, software engineers of the future will be software itself rather than humans. Even today, sophisticated machines can churn out long sequences of code in various programming languages.

Preparing for transformative change in society

Peering over the horizon requires a holistic strategy that integrates technologies and conventional thinking from previously disparate industries. Unlike before, today’s interdisciplinary and cross-pollination approach to discovery is driven by brute computational power and its underlying software, thus creating novel technologies and processes unimaginable just a few years ago.

How do we absorb the lightning speed of today and the transformative change needed in society? Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu declared, “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To obtain wisdom, subtract things every day.” Implied here is that we need to question our assumptions and not mistake knowledge for wisdom. It requires that we become better listeners and open ourselves up to different points of view, however antithetical they may initially appear on the surface. A paradigm shift in mindset and the way we educate ourselves is necessary as we shift from a plodding analogue world to a digitally exponential one. Unlike before, we currently possess the combined power of artificial intelligence, big data, and pattern-recognizing algorithms to render previously disparate data into meaningful and actionable analysis. Opportunities include drawing from humankind’s accumulated scientific and philosophical knowledge to date. Equally, we must also draw from the collective, connected, and better-informed minds of 7.9 billion people worldwide.

Can unlearning become the norm?

Unlearning, like learning, is a trial-and-error process that enables us to fail upward. A failure is an option, even if it’s not the preferred one. Thomas Edison found 10,000 ways that incandescent lightbulbs would not work before finally hitting on one that did. James Dyson’s 5,127 prototype vacuums did not register a single sale over a four-year period yet became an essential item in millions of households today. Keep in mind that the common denominator of past major discoveries were risk-takers who questioned conventional wisdom and saw the world in a different way. Meeting the articulated needs of consumers is easy. On the other hand, meeting their unarticulated needs and providing solutions to problems that they did not realize they had is difficult. Try imagining your life today before Apple introduced its now indispensable iPhone.

So how do we go about unlearning to break the cycle of behaviours and habits that were effective in the past but no longer applicable in the current business climate? According to Barry O’Reilly, author of “Unlearn”, published in 2018, disruption is an ongoing, constant process that gathers inertia as time and our acquisition of knowledge matures. Disruption runs counter to our mental capacity to think about the future radically. The art of reskilling and unlearning long-standing and outdated concepts calls for humility by business and industry leaders with the foresight to remove barriers to progress. O’Reilly suggests that people and corporations need to intentionally and routinely apply a culture of unlearning that enables them to adopt and adapt an agile mindset reflecting the consistency of change around them. Think big but start with small, actionable steps and option-like bets to reach your goals. Changing the status quo with purpose requires leaders to model and exemplify the behaviour that they would like to see others emulate. Becoming uncomfortable with being comfortable is a crucial step in this direction.

Leveraging our brain’s capacity to reason away what no longer applies and open it up to exploring new ideas and concepts is just the start of the journey forward. Unlearning resonates once you realize that today’s problems come from yesterday’s “solutions.” Recognizing success and the failures that made progress possible will ensure a better future for all. If we learned anything from the past, the exponential pace of technology no longer allows us to ignore the first harbingers of disruption in any form. Invent the future or be reinvented by it. Either way, by unlearning and relearning, we achieve future breakthroughs and transformative change.

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