People riding bicycles, near a row of buses in a city.

How Can We Envision New Systems?

In responding to challenges of climate change, there is a drive to make existing energy-using systems more efficient at what they do. While this makes good intuitive sense, it is focusing on “the right way to do the wrong thing” (to lift a lyric from singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler). It focuses upon teaching what we know how to do rather than upon doing what needs to be done. We focus on making specific existing processes, strategies, and technologies better. We should do that, of course, but often it is more important to make fundamentally (revolutionarily) new processes, strategies, and technologies (see figure below). For example, part of the strategy to reduce carbon emissions is making better cars and trucks. There may, however, be a limit to improved efficiency from vehicles that look too much like cars. Ultimately, we may need to make a transportation system that is better than cars and trucks.

Picture showing a wall between where you can get with incremental improvements and where you need to be.
Often a barrier (“Big Frickin’ Wall”) to improvement of a system requires revolutionary improvement, rethinking the system, rather than incremental improvements within the existing system. Figure by Kathy Sierra, used with permission.

By analogy, on the route to improving educational outcomes, we need to make better schools, but there’s a ceiling effect if we’re locked into the systems of traditional schools. Eventually it is likely more important to make an educational system that is better than schooling. This, of course, is a heavy lift. We hope that the approaches and ideas discussed here serve both the existing educational system and whatever educational systems might lie in the future.

Images of ancient Sumerian classrooms from an archaelogical excavation, and classrooms from the early 20th and 21st century.
Contemporary classrooms look strikingly like those of centuries and millennia ago. Figure by Don Haas for PRI's Earth@Home project (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license) with images left—A Sumerian classroom from ca. 2000 B.C.E. (from Cole, 2005,used with permission) and right—Images of classrooms from 1916 and 2016 mesh seamlessly (from Murray, 2016, used with permission)

For adoption to occur of new system innovations—transportation, energy, education, or otherwise—the new things need to look enough like the old things to be understandable. Successful (broadly adopted) innovations are likely to be “optimally distinct,” that is, different enough from current practice to make a difference in outcomes, but not so different as to be outside of cultural or professional norms or too weird to be understood. (Berger, 2016) In a study of journal articles with the highest impact, for example, it was found that found that combining conventional science in unconventional ways is twice as likely to yield higher impact studies than either novelty or conventional science alone. (Uzzi et al., 2013) For reforms of systems that make a difference to mitigating climate change, we need to consider how to combine conventional ideas in unconventional and productive ways.