NOTE: The following is an excerpt from the small contribution I was proud to have made to the “Learning Perspectives 2010” collection put out by The Masie Center in memory and commemoration of Jonathan Kays. (see previous posting for details). This topic and my perspectives on us entering a third Industrial Revolution is one I have been having a great deal of fun presenting and discussing for quite some time now and it seems to be generating some of the most excitement and resonating more profoundly with more people as I’ve done so recently. My intent with this posting is to provide you with a quick synopsis (consider the source!) of my perspectives on the Snowflake Effect and the resulting Third Industrial Revolution, and then follow with more details and directions I believe this is taking us. The potential of these changes continue to be a source of great excitement and inspiration for me and I hope it has a similar effect and value for you.
Enjoy and please add your comments or create your own postings with your reactions!
The Snowflake Effect & the Third Industrial Revolution
The overarching theme that will shape the future of not only learning but most all of our societies, organizations and communities is the escalating transformation of our society from one that is shaped by mass production to one that is shaped by mass personalization. For several years now I have synthesized a large number of major trends and patterns into this massive global and societal shift - which I refer to as the Snowflake Effect - that is driving a complete reset of the world as we know it.
Within this context of transformation to mass personalization, a new revolution is coming into focus: a third Industrial Revolution. As with the previous two Industrial Revolutions, this third version is both sculpting and itself being shaped by an emerging society resulting from the mass exodus from a world governed for over a century by mass production to one made up of societies, communities and organizations characterized by pro-active individual members. These people take on increasingly direct roles in the design, creation and use of the new forms of learning. They feed a constant stream of real time data about their reactions, thoughts and ideas, which provide feedback loops for evolutionary self-improvement cycles.
The Snowflake Effect
The Snowflake Effect started with the simple observation that we are all unique individuals: no two are alike, just like snowflakes. What’s more, so too is each moment in time, each situation we are in and each group of people we are with unique. They are distinctive combinations, just like the crystals of a snowflake. This is certainly not a new observation or condition and has arguably been true for as long as we have existed; yet, this poses the intriguing question:
If our uniqueness as individuals is so obvious and has been so true for so long, then why do we live in a world designed on the assumption that we are all the same?
This question has haunted me for many years now, like the small irritant of a grain of sand that causes a pearl to form in an oyster. In this case, my articulation of the Snowflake Effect is the resultant pearl.
One of the results of technology improvements over the past 50 years is that our world is getting smaller as distance and physical separation become lesser issues. We are more connected with more people in more ways than ever before. While we need to continue to work on distributing access to these advances to all of the world’s populations, it is increasingly true that we can communicate, socialize and work with anyone anywhere. We can access food and other products no matter where they come from or what season it is. We live in a world of increasing abundance and the rate of change is exponential. It has hit a tipping point, triggering immense and often seemingly impossible transformation all around us.
From Mass Production to Mass Personalization
In many ways, we can trace this focus on sameness back to the first two Industrial Revolutions and our transformation from an agrarian to an industrial society. Initially, mass production only applied to manufacturing, but over the course of a century or more, mass production has expanded and extended to the point where it now permeates and, in many ways, defines the world in which we live. Our thinking and assumptions are largely based on the principles of mass production. Consider for example how we design almost everything. We typically start with a problem or a need that is shared by a large group of people. Given the usual time, energy and cost that creating something new requires, the larger the group, the better. Once we have the design for a product, it is mass produced. If the design is for a service, we put together a process and supporting resources so that same service can be delivered to as many people as possible. This is how most governments, businesses and schools work. Consider how most education models work: with standard objectives, text books, curriculum and schedules. It’s no coincidence that our education models were largely created at the beginning of the first industrial revolution to meet the demands of a new factory work force.
Prior to the first Industrial Revolution, only a privileged few were able to get just what they wanted, whenever they wanted it. With the advent of mass production, it became possible for many people to buy a car, a home and become educated; however, this highly scaled model was made possible by mass producing and delivering the same solution for everyone.
Mass production worked very well and we have spent over 100 years improving and refining it to become a very efficient model. In many ways, we have mass production to thank for the transformation of our world into one of abundance for more and more people. But, in spite of - or perhaps because of - this abundance, the predominance of a mass production mentality is no longer sufficiently meeting our needs. It is at odds with our uniqueness when we only have mass produced choices which must be, by definition, compromises for the solutions we really want. This gap is now being closed as we shift from mass production to mass personalization.
The Snowflake Effect is largely about context-based design and the notion of personalized fit. It is about getting things just right. Products and services have the greatest value when just the right people have just the right things at just the right time in just the right way in just the right place. Just as the answer to most questions usually begins with “it depends”, so too does all design need to be dependent upon our unique personal contexts: the unique sets of conditions and characteristics of any situations that determine how well a solution of any kind fits each of us as unique snowflakes.
In the past, we have accepted any mismatch as perfectly reasonable and the best we can expect within typical constraints like budgets, time, community, family, etc. After all, to think otherwise, to imagine a future where most things are just right for you would mean that we’d need to have a different solution for every person, every day - in fact, most likely many times every day! At the time I am writing this, almost seven BILLION people inhabit the planet, and there are 24 hours in a day. That equates to at least 168 billion unique solutions per day and at least 61.32 trillion unique solutions per year! We all know that is impossible.
Or is it? Such outrageous and exponential scaling certainly will be impossible if we continue to rely on our existing mass production mentality and models, but we are increasingly surrounded by more and more examples and evidence of new models where extreme mass customization is not only possible, but already happening on a previously impossible scale. There exists proof that, both as unique individuals and as groups, we can have just what we need, when, where and how we need it. We are increasingly surrounded by examples of what Kevin Kelly succinctly called “impossible in theory, but possible in practice”. Look at some examples in our everyday life: we are increasingly able to get just the right fit for the music we listen to, the news and information we consume, the clothes we wear, the products we buy and the way we can often find just the right information when we need it. This doesn’t happen often enough, but it is occurring more frequently. Check out the developments in areas like personalized manufacturing with 3D printers and 3D scanners, real time information, recommender systems and others you have probably recently experienced. While it is still very early in this transition and we are still surrounded by more mass production than mass customization, the new models and our new behaviors are evolving with accelerating velocity.
Two key enablers of the Snowflake Effect are mashups and modularity. Mashups, a relatively new term but not a new idea, are a unique assembly of pre-existing items to form a new integrated whole. Modularity refers to having things in very small and interchangeable modules. This can be compared to simple LegoTM blocks, which can be used to create almost anything imaginable by snapping together new combinations of these pre-made plastic blocks. Think about, for example, how you find and listen to music today: you find individual songs rather than whole albums and you put together your own unique playlists based on personal recommendation systems (that are built upon your unique preferences and recommendations from others). This stands in stark contrast to the previous “mass production” models of buying albums and listening to top 40 radio stations. Similar transitions toward mass customization are happening with what we read, what we watch, who we converse with and how we organize ourselves. Mashups and modularity enable the infinite scalability required by the Snowflake Effect for every person, every day.
Note that mass customization and getting things just right does not eliminate and, in fact, includes some products and services that will still be mass produced and remain the same. There will still be “hits” and fads. We will still have some songs, movies, books, presentations and keynotes that millions, even billions, of us are universally drawn to and find valuable; however, these will no longer be the most common or the most used resources. Instead, we will have a very full spectrum of the “Long Tail”, a concept from retail that describes a strategy of selling a large number of unique items in relatively small quantities, usually in addition to selling fewer popular items in large quantities: http://www.longtail.com/. These range from huge hits on one end to completely unique, extremely personalized items on the other end. The big change will be an inversion of where the greatest volume of solutions, products and services are found along the curve of the Long Tail, with the vast majority of what we each choose to use coming more and more from the unique end of the tail. The total volume of low popularity items already dramatically exceeds the volume of high popularity items in areas like books, music and video. This trend will dramatically increase; we will continuously find individual items and mash them together in the marvelously messy mix of choices we make.
The 3rd Wave: Industrial Revolution 3.0 = Learning Revolution 3.0?
The third Industrial Revolution is driving this change. I make this observation in part based on a book published in 1980 by Alvin Toffler called The Third Wave. I have long believed that Toffler was an extremely prescient author, seeing the changes looming ahead. I also believe that even he underestimated the time it would take for these changes to visibly emerge along with the effects they would produce. I’ve most often referred to Toffler’s earlier book Future Shock, published in 1970, where he created the portmanteau word “prosummer” by combining producer with the word consumer. Toffler coined this term to describe the future society he saw where we would not be neatly dived into categories of active producers and passive consumers; instead, these would blur and merge as we all became inextricably and intimately intertwined with the processes of creating. While this has taken much longer than Toffler anticipated, everyone reading this article is a living example of a prosumer. We are all becoming much more active and passionate participants in designing and building our respective futures. I can’t imagine a more positive pattern that bodes well for all of our futures to be bold and bright.
It is Toffler’s book Third Wave, however, which contains the most significant and relevant observation affecting the future of learning and our world. Toffler did not directly refer to a third Industrial Revolution and simply referred to a Third Wave, however he did outline just such a revolution. The Wikipedia entry defines the three waves as:
· Toffler’s First Wave as the settled agricultural society which prevailed in much of the world after the Neolithic Revolution which replaced hunter-gatherer cultures.
· The Second Wave was the Industrial Age society, which began in Western Europe with the Industrial Revolution and subsequently spread across the world. Key aspects of Second Wave society are the nuclear family, a factory-type education system and the corporation.
“The Second Wave society is industrial and based on mass production, mass distribution, mass consumption, mass education, mass media, mass recreation, mass entertainment, and weapons of mass destruction. You combine these things with standardization, centralization, concentration and synchronization and you wind up with a style of organization we call bureaucracy.”
· The Third Wave is the post-industrial society. Toffler says that since the late 1950s most countries have been in transition from a Second Wave society into a Third Wave society.
Thirty years later, this Third Wave is in fact a Third Industrial Revolution. It started back in the 1950s and has been slowly but exponentially increasing. We are now at its tipping point and seeing the more startling and dramatic changes being produced. Contemporary examples include such things as 3D scanning and 3D “printing”, which enable us to copy, modify and print any physical object, including those that are complete working assemblies, like motors, pumps, watches and anything else that strikes our fancy.
More recently (April 2010) urban theorist Richard Florida has put forward many similar views of a third revolution in his book “The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Posterity”. Florida provides some good historical background on the previous two Industrial Revolutions and an analysis of how current world economic situations are contributing to the third one. Florida does a good job of debunking many common myths and The Great Reset details his observations on the changing social characteristics and geographical concentration of creative knowledge workers in mega-regions around the world and the need for a very different and highly mobile work force. Overall Florida adds to those pointing to the need for an equally great reset of our education and training systems and the way we learn in general.
The third Industrial Revolution will require an equal or greater revolution in education, training and learning to fulfill and drive the new forms of creation and our new societies. What does this really mean in terms of learning and performance? One good outline of some skills and competencies required by this Third Industrial Revolution can be found in Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind. Dan describes the shift from skills and competencies required by the former Industrial Revolution - which are mostly associated with the left side of the brain (i.e. analysis, sequential reasoning and text) - to a focus on right brain skills and competencies (i.e. synthesis, holistic reasoning, context, images, design and pattern recognition).
The question for learning professionals and organizations - the question the rest of Learning Perspectives 2010 explores - is what will YOUR role be in this process? Will you lead or follow? Will you shape or be shaped? Will you be part of the solution or part of the problem?
§  See also Elliott Masie’s Interview of Daniel Pink at http://www.learning2007.com/university/2005/8/10/dan-pink-interview-a-whole-mind-audio-podcast-text-transcript-new.html