Anticipating the Future: Following the Lead of Community Colleges


The world of work is changing rapidly, creating new pressures and new opportunities for higher education. It’s critical that university leaders act as conveners, assembling representatives of local industry, nonprofits, and community to do the tough work of anticipating the future for their region—both the threats and the opportunities.

Some community colleges have been doing this extremely well, and other institutions can learn from their example.

The Challenge Before Us

The world now sits on the precipice of a fourth industrial revolution, defined by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital, and biological worlds. Technological breakthroughs in processing power, artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and more will fundamentally change the way in which we live, work, and interact. Such technologies are poised to destroy millions of current jobs while creating entirely new ones. The stakes are high: researchers at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute have predicted a 50% chance that machines will be capable of taking over all human jobs in 120 years.

The implications for higher education are staggering. Beyond the job losses, millions of new jobs will simultaneously be created. In fact, it’s estimated that 65% of today’s students in primary school will work in a job that doesn’t yet exist. How do institutions respond to these challenges and opportunities? Higher education, which has a long and successful history adapting to the past three industrial revolutions, is not accustomed to doing so quickly. Unfortunately, the speed of this economic change is happening at unprecedent rates. According to futurist Ray Kurzweil, “we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).”

These mega-trends are changing the current and future world of work but their impact will not be felt uniformly; while no city or region will be unaffected, 259 cities in the United States contribute to 85% of our GDP. Where you live matters a great deal. Over the last 30 years, cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit have seen tremendous declines in their economic output. Conversely, cities like Portland, Orlando, and Sacramento have seen their fortunes rise dramatically.

Some cities are better positioned than others. In fact, the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis looked at which cities are likely to lose the most jobs due to automation. Among their top 10? Riverside, CA, a city that McKinsey cites has in the last 30 years soared to become the 19th largest in terms of real GDP. In the 4th industrial revolution, it’s likely that fortunes can rise and fall very quickly.

This pending disruption will either create tremendous opportunities for institutions to reassert their value and role in educating the workforce of the future, or it risks making them irrelevant. It is up to all leaders to respond.

To meet this rapid change, higher education leaders must find ways to build their capacity for anticipatory thinking. Institutions must find ways to quickly scan their external environment to identify meaningful trends and convene diverse stakeholders to understand the strategic implications for their institution. Convening diverse stakeholder is key; the future is too complex and moving too quickly for any single leader to plan the way forward. We need more than a lone visionary; we need teams of people thinking about the future and moving quickly to adapt.

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