CHANGE AND STILLNESS:
VISIONING THE FUTURES OF MALAYSIA AND ISKL[i]
ISKL IN THE 70S
I went to ISKL at Jalan Maxwell from 1973-1975, then graduated and moved to Honolulu in August 1975. I had two wonderful years there. The teachers were supportive, creative, and truly loved their jobs. Two teachers stood out for me. First, was Rodney Kling. What I remember most was his ability to make English literature fun. I still remember during one session when a few of us really enjoyed his treatment of Shakespeare, he commented: "there appears to be different levels of levity" in this room. Bill Wright was equally memorable. Not for laughter, but for discipline. He was the basketball coach. He really stressed that taking care of the body was important as taking care of the mind. I still remember saying to me: "practice, practice, practice." And if you missed basketball practice? He suggested to not show up again.
The school created a community, where teachers, students, staff all liked each other, most appreciating that we were guests of Malaysian culture.
From there I went to the University of Hawaii, where I did a BA in Liberal Studies. They allowed me to design my own major. I linked political science, philosophy, and religion and created a major called, "Spirituality and Social Change."
I then did a Masters in Political Science, focused on Alternative Futures. I was fortunate to gain an internship at the Hawaii Judiciary, where I worked for ten years as their strategy analyst/futurist. In 1987, I returned to the University of Hawaii and I did my PhD, focusing on the Indian philosopher, P.R. Sarkar. The PhD focused on Indian epistemology and macrohistory, the grand patterns of time from different civilizational perspectives.
I began taking classes in Futures Studies in 1976, when, while discussing strands of philosophy and technological change, my dorm roommate Bob Homer, said, " You have to take a course from Professor Dator." I did. It was life-changing. I took every class he had to offer and did my Masters and PhD with him. His focus was on how we create technology and then technologies creates "we". We also did research papers on topics such as climate change, robotics, and global governance. At the Hawaii Judiciary, along with traditional quantitative forecasting, we pursued disruptions such as the rise of robots, mediation as an alternative to litigation, and the rise of the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement. We did this both to create futures literacy in the courts and other branches of government and to enhance the ability to anticipate the future and influence the trajectory of emergent futures.
The Hawaii Judiciary had gained interest in the future from the Hawaii 2000 project. This was intended to create anticipatory governance, to not be a slave to trends, but to create desired futures.
While university study extended my fascination with change, I had actually heard about futures thinking earlier, at ISKL. In the 11th grade, Dr. Frank Shephard introduced us to the thought of Alvin Toffler, inspiring us to think about novelty and change. Indeed, as a student at ISKL, I remember reading in the Malay Mail about a conference on Malaysia 2000, which explored how Malaysia could become a developed nation. Luminaries such as Herman Kahn and James Dator presented, said the article. It would be twenty years later that Malaysia began the ambitious task of imagining itself in 2020, as a developed nation. Having a vision is critical in that it organizes strategy, allows one to focus on the use of resources and ensures expenditures are linked to direction. Other nations, Singapore, Cambodia, and many others, have followed the Malaysian example, and are better for it.
Futures Studies, as we define it today, is the study of preferred, possible, and probable futures and the worldviews and myths that underlie them. It is both quantitative, qualitative, critical, and transformative. We study what may happen, what is likely to happen, what we wish to happen, and how our mindsets and the stories we tell each other are complicit in how we see and shape the world.
By necessity, it is trans-disciplinarian. A good futurist must first be critically reflective, aware of how he or she languages the world, uses discourse to understand what is and can be. A good futurist needs to be both an expert in one area and be a generalist, being able to understand many domains of knowledge. But the most important skill of a futurist is the help to listen to the views of others and help them create the futures they wish to see.
Anticipation is essentially about emancipation.
While in the 1980s and 90s, Futures thinking was a hard sell, and only a few countries such as Malaysia were imagining where they wished to go, now it is commonplace. I work with nations around the world and help them focus on their national vision and strategy. We attempt to ensure that they are not drowned by the waves of change, that they learn to surf, and eventually become wavemakers. They frame the terms of engagement of desired futures.
Recently through the sponsorship of the Asian Development Bank, I have worked with leaders in Armenia, Kazakhstan, the People's Republic of China, Cambodia, the Philippines on their national strategies - what should they focus on, and how can they advance futures literacy. Among the common themes has been:
- The need for gender partnership in every facet of society. The Cambodian executives suggested they need to change the story from the woman as the garment maker to the woman as the Prime Minister.
- Deep flexibility in education. The Government of Norway leaders suggested that the current metaphor of education as the factory needs to become more like a jazz orchestra, wherein every student is valued, they learn to hear and create music together, they respond to knowledge and they create new knowledge.
- Climate change and adaptation - that the challenge to climate change must be met globally, as a civilizational project. This could create institutions of foresight throughout the region and the world. While there are short term political interests still focused on the previous era, it is clear, we are entering the era of renewables, As Sheikh Yamani said decades ago, it is not due to the lack of oil that the oil age will end and it was not due to lack of stones that the stone age ended, as Sohail Hasnie of the ADB recently stated. In the long term, we need to create the Uber of energy, peer to peer platforms where citizens can share - buy and sell - from each other.
- The need to bring AI into everything we do. In Bangladesh, they suggested, we should move the data not the patient. Hospitals are great, but we need every citizen to be engaged in preventive medicine.
- The need for an evolutionary jump in governance. The debate now and in the foreseeable future is not about types of political systems, but the need for transparency in every system. As well as the need to shift from nation-states as defining to individuals, regions, and true global governance. Our problems are post-national (finance flows, climate, refugees, taxation, crime) and our solutions must be regional and global.
- The end of work as we know it. We need to move from teaching and training for jobs that do not exist to teaching and training for the emerging jobs. Many of these jobs have been created, many will be created in the decades to come. Skill sets that focus on the peer-to-peer revolution, spiritual intelligence, caring for the aged, 3D printing, big and deep Data will become far more important. The core skill will be the ability to adapt to changing conditions.
- The inner revolution. While this was confined to counter-culture decades ago, today is part of optimization strategy and part of finding deep purpose and bliss. Meditation remains one of the most important technologies to help young and old create the stillness in life when everything changes.
In my latest book, with the Futurist Lu Na, we imagined a new Asia by 2040. Our chapters headlines demonstrate this change, we see occurring:
- A Bird Cannot Fly On One Wing Alone: The Rise of Asian Women
- Will You Be Able To Marry Your Robot or Same-Sex Partner? The New Extended Asian Family
- The End of the God King and the Big Man: Workplace Flexibility
- Education Factory in Tatters: New Models of Learning and Teaching
- Gross National Cool: The Wandering Societies of Asia
- Drown or Swim Together? Social Consequence of Climate Change
- Living the Asian Dream: The Great Migration to Asia
- Open Skies and Shared Umbrellas: Towards an Asian Confederation
- Asian Dynamic Balance: Leading in the Transition to a Spiritual Post-Capitalist Society
- The Great Leap Frog Forward: An Asia That Can Say Yes to Herself
These chapter headlines are there to help readers become comfortable with dramatic change. While my generation will not marry their robots, by 2050, well...
Of course, other futures are also possible. There could be "a fortress Asia" by then too, or far worse, "a warring Asia”, and, of course, current climate change trends suggest "an Asia underwater". We are hopeful that as governments, individuals, businesses and non-governmental organizations gain futures literacy, they will work together to create a transformed Asia.
And what will happen to ISKL in the long run? What might the futures of education look like? First, we should expect a far greater use of AI in teaching. The repetitive tasks will be done at home via new technologies. Holograms will be the norm. I assume a robot of sorts will be on the Board. Will there still be a need for physical places to meet? While e-games will be the norm, physical places will be necessary to enhance sports learning, emotional intelligence, community connectivity, and spiritual intelligence. But while more technology is likely, there are many uncertainties.
ISKL may be far more distributed, part of a broader global education brand. "International" will likely change as well, especially if by 2050 an Asian confederation has taken shape. Will schools still call themselves international? Will there be a need to?
A second key challenge will likely emerge from the large digital companies of today - Google and Facebook, for example. What if by 2050, they become education providers? Traditional schools and universities will likely then disappear as we move toward global education?
And if these new providers interconnect, will we have finally created the "Global Brain" as imagined by HG Well over eighty years ago.
While many imagine education beyond this planet, I doubt that ISKL will have students and teachers on Mars or the Moon though certainly space science will be a foundational subject.
In my preferred future, teaching and learning will have an extraordinary convergence of nature (breathing, living, growing), technology (breathing, living, growing), and humans (breathing, living, growing) in a distributed environment all focused on using knowledge to solve the planetary problems we face today and in the future.
I am grateful for having spent two wonderful years at ISKl. They shaped my thinking and activities for decades.
[i] I am grateful to Lynette Macdonald for curating this short piece. He questions led to its development. Inayatullah is the UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies, held at USIM, Malaysia. His recent book is Asia 2038, available from www.metafuture.org.