Learning for the Future

Being prepared for a volatile and uncertain world may involve not just learning about what faces us ahead, but also relearning—or unlearning—lessons of old.

Learning for Future_banner-teaser

Date Posted

4 Nov 2021


Issue 23, 29 Oct 2021

At the turn of the century, physicist Stephen Hawking said in an interview that the 21st century would be the “century of complexity”.1 Thus far, the shifting global balance of power, climate change and energy transitions, firms in flux and labour interrupted, and an increasingly tribal world, are but some of the significant trends identified by the Centre for Strategic Futures (CSF) as part of our research on forces shaping Singapore’s future. We not only have to contend with understanding these forces, but must also grapple with how they could interact with one another to shape our reality.

The CSF has identified five themes emerging from the intersection of these forces which will be relevant to Singapore: the changing nature of power and influence, the pervasive impact of interdependence and interconnectedness, a (sometimes violent) renegotiation of values and belief systems, the importance of climate change and its effects, and the blurring of boundaries between the physical world and its digital counterpart. To top things off, all of these changes are happening at an accelerating pace. Increasingly, the world faces problems that are constantly evolving and thus difficult to understand or define, are highly interrelated, and have potential solutions or approaches that appear to be incomplete, or internally inconsistent.

The challenge of managing complexity will only continue to plague us in the future. Naturally, this will leave many of us with a deep sense of uncertainty and anxiety. Our instinct is to collect more data, acquire new skills, form new connections: essentially learning more to fear less. But apart from rushing ahead to learn more about cutting-edge developments, we should also stop to consider what has not changed and what we can learn from these.

A look back at past editions of the National Scenarios produced by the CSF reveals that despite evolving contexts and new trends, some issues such as identity and resilience remain evergreen. Our familiarity with these issues does not diminish their significance; on the contrary, the sheer fact that concerns persist throws into question how well we understand these ‘familiar’ issues. We might also be overlooking the value of forgotten skills, sometimes misapplying past lessons, and building on false assumptions. There is great value in learning, but also in relearning, not overlearning, and unlearning for an increasingly complex and uncertain future.

All that is gold does not glitter.” — J. R. R. Tolkien

Pausing to examine the things that have not changed (at least not in the last millennia) can reveal useful, enduring frameworks for understanding our world. For instance, evolutionary psychology— the study of human behaviour and internal psychological mechanisms from a modern evolutionary perspective—sheds some light on consistent ways in which human beings think and feel, and why we behave the way we do. Evolutionary psychologists argue that although the world has changed dramatically, the traits that helped modern Homo sapiens survive some 200,000 years ago continue to govern most human behaviour today. Hardwired into human beings are traits, such as putting emotions before reason or an aversion to loss, that have kept Homo sapiens alive when faced with harsh environments or wild beasts. Recognising that these traits are hardwired can help organisations understand why supervisors find giving feedback very difficult, or why encouraging a risk-taking culture is incredibly tough. Instead of going against the grain of our hardwiring, organisations could design better systems that work with these ingrained tendencies.2

Valuable lessons can also be learnt from the mundane and unchanging, not just from what is glittering and new.

In the face of climate change and emerging resource constraints, nature could also offer innovative solutions that have emerged from 3.8 billion years of evolution and adaptation to changes in the environment. In her book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, biologist and author Janine Benyus explores how scientists, engineers, and designers are adapting nature’s best ideas to solve 21st century problems.3 One of the best-known examples of biomimicry is the sharp-nosed design of the Japanese Shinkansen train, inspired by the beak of a kingfisher. This design not only reduces tunnel sonic booms, but also makes the bullet trains faster while consuming less electricity. What is not as well known is that the Shinkansen’s design was also inspired by the owl and the Adélie Penguin—to minimise vibrations and noise, and to lower wind resistance respectively.4 Another example is the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, which features a self-regulating ventilation system inspired by termite mounds in deserts. By incorporating numerous openings throughout the building to promote airflow, the US$35 million building saved 10% on costs upfront by not purchasing an air-conditioning system.5 What these examples demonstrate is that valuable lessons can also be learnt from the mundane and unchanging, not just from what is glittering and new.

It’s like learning to ride a bicycle, again

When we learn something, nerve cells in our brains make new connections with each other. Interestingly, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology have shown that these connections remain intact even when they are no longer needed.6 The reactivation of these connections is what makes relearning—the regaining of a skill or an ability that has been partially or entirely ‘lost’—faster and easier. In a complex environment where we have to probe for patterns to make sense of our surroundings, relearning in response to familiar patterns speeds up our response time, since we do not have to start from scratch and can draw on past knowledge and experience.

One area that could use some relearning is education. Unlike in previous decades, it is quite unclear what content or skills schools today have to teach in order to prepare learners for the future.

First, shifts in technology, society and geopolitics are driving changes in the infrastructure of knowledge—in how knowledge is generated and used, what knowledge is generated and used, and who generates and uses knowledge. Where do educators even begin if the frameworks for understanding and engaging the world are in dispute?

Second, the job landscape is increasingly volatile thanks to technological developments. According to UK-based research firm Oxford Economics, some 1.7 million manufacturing jobs have already been lost to robots since 2000. A study by the firm also showed that robots have been replacing humans at a steadily increasing rate, and estimated that up to 20 million manufacturing jobs will be lost globally to robots by 2030.7 As automation outperforms humans at routine tasks, employees are left to handle the non-routine and unanticipated. This trend towards more complex, multi-skilled jobs is speeding up. Analytics software company Burning Glass Technologies reports that hybrid jobs are projected to grow by 21% over the next decade.8

Amid such uncertainty, some countries have begun to invest heavily in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects to better prepare students for the digital economy, while others try to spot the ‘right’ skills needed for future jobs. Yet, as IBM’s Vice President of Talent Joanna Daly puts it, “the half-life of skills is getting shorter”.9 Trying to identify the ‘right’ subjects or ‘future-ready’ skills may be futile when the job landscape keeps changing, and the paths to success are increasingly unclear. In this environment, relearning how to learn might prove more prudent because it means having an ability to keep picking up new skills, and to adapt. But how does one relearn how to learn? Are there certain traits and mindsets that facilitate relearning or that stand in the way of doing so?

When the US Navy pushed ahead with the concept of minimal manning—the replacement of specialised workers with problem-solving generalists—for its high-tech warships, it commissioned a series of studies on how to select a suitable crew. Zachary Hambrick, a psychology professor at Michigan State University, was brought in to identify characteristics of people who could multitask in a complex and fast-changing environment. One of the tests was designed to simulate a fluid-task environment where sailors had to perform four different tasks, all of which contributed equally to their total score. Midway through the test, the scoring rules changed so that one task now accounted for a greater percentage of the total score. Some sailors spotted the change and focused their attention on that one task; others noticed the change but continued to devote equal attention to all tasks. Hambrick noticed that conscientiousness, a trait typically correlated with positive job performance, was instead “correlate[d] with poor performance” in this context. A similar observation had been made by Jeffrey LePine, an Arizona State management professor, when he was doing Navy-funded research on decision-making close to a decade before Hambrick. LePine also observed that the ones who performed well on such tests were instead individuals who tended to score high on “openness to new experience”.10

Traits such as being open to new experiences, accepting failure, comfort with ambiguity and a willingness to return to square one could help us relearn how to flexibly respond to complex environments.

If taking on multiple roles onboard a minimally manned warship is analogous to surviving an ever-changing future job landscape, a devotion to rules and sticking to the task may be crippling. Instead, traits such as being open to new experiences, accepting failure, comfort with ambiguity and a willingness to return to square one could help us relearn how to flexibly respond to complex environments.

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” — The Princess Bride

Nevertheless, not every situation will benefit from tapping on existing neural connections or past experiences. We need to resist seeing patterns when there are none, to avoid forcing unsuitable responses on a different context. We need to not overlearn from the past.

History is littered with examples of earnest efforts to apply yesterday’s lessons to new contexts, which have only resulted in more problems. In their book Thinking in Time, authors Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May warn of past American leaders who have turned to history to inform their decision-making, yet learnt the wrong lessons and misapplied these to terrible ends. One of the more infamous examples is how US President Lyndon Johnson had ‘learnt’ from UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s mistake of appeasing the Nazis rather than confronting them. Johnson had ‘learnt’ this lesson so thoroughly that when it came to the growing Communist movement in Vietnam, there was no other option in his mind other than to escalate American involvement and confront the Communists. His decisions had disastrous consequences, both for the thousands of Vietnamese civilians killed by the aerial bombings, as well as the thousands of American soldiers who died fighting a war far from home. Neustadt and May argue that because of this fallout, most American politicians ‘learnt’ to avoid involvement in Asian-jungle guerrilla wars.11 This unfortunate example demonstrates the dangers of overlearning from past lessons; of seeing likenesses while ignoring the differences.

In Singapore’s case, scarred by memories of the 1964 and 1969 racial violence, the lesson we might have inadvertently overlearnt is that there is no space to air racial and religious differences in public. The headline of a Channel NewsAsia article sums it up—“High time to talk about racism, but Singapore society ill-equipped after decades of treating it as taboo”.12 Legislative safeguards such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and the Sedition Act empower authorities to act in response to incidents that could potentially threaten our religious harmony; however, these safeguards may also have discouraged Singaporeans from engaging in open conversations about race and religion. According to Dr Mathew Mathews, Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Singaporeans have accepted “a certain level of discomfort and manage[d] it quietly for the greater need to preserve harmonious relations”. He adds that in this context, “minorities who call out racism are sometimes viewed as oversensitive and ultimately creating rifts between ethnic communities”. Singaporeans also seem to have internalised that the appropriate response to incidents of racism is to turn to the law, as evidenced by a 2013 IPS survey on race, religion and language. About 65% of a nationally representative sample of 4,000 Singaporeans believed that making a police report when they encountered racism was what a responsible citizen should do.13 With that as our first reaction, no wonder it is hard to imagine us having a civilised discussion about race and religion in public.

But things today are different than they were before. Yes, Singapore’s population, like that of many other countries, is becoming increasingly diverse with a growing proportion of inter-ethnic and transnational marriages. Yes, clashes in ideologies are increasing in frequency and growing in diversity too. But we are also living in an age of social media, where almost everyone has access to tools and platforms to help articulate and share their perspectives. Significantly, it seems like more Singaporeans are learning to forget this ‘lesson’ and to speak up and call out acts of racism.14 In addition, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's recent announcement in his 2021 National Day Rally speech that the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act will also incorporate “some softer, gentler” touches to “heal hurt” is also a much welcomed move.

“The map is not the territory.” — Alfred Korzybski

Some lessons should be entirely forgotten, given that fundamental transformations of our contextual, lived and institutional realities are afoot. For instance, changes in climate and weather patterns are reshaping where and how communities live, work, and play; alternative sources of information are further fragmenting our shared reality and influencing how and with whom we form kinship bonds; changes in international institutions such as the international financial system and the global trading system are posing new governance challenges. As the pace of change accelerates, there is a need to question and challenge assumptions, to experiment and adapt.

But in order for us to embrace new ideas or acquire new skills, we have to first unlearn the old. For example, in learning to read, the brain’s visual system has to undergo great changes, including unlearning the ability to recognise an object and its mirror image as identical.15 Similarly, we have to let go of skills and ideas that are no longer fit-for-purpose, and which may compete with newer ideas and values.

The US military currently faces this challenge of having to unlearn parts of its culture which are at odds with innovation and causing it to lose its technological edge. Setting aside exceptions like the Special Operations Forces, the military services tend to incentivise risk-aversion, focus on established practices, and encourage consensus. These behaviours run counter to creativity and innovation. Yet, these values and habits are further reinforced by how members are trained, equipped and promoted. Former Assistant Secretary of the Army Paul R. Ignatius summed up the military services as “conservative organizations, slow to change and reluctant to give up traditional ways and weapons”:

When Japan was defeated in the Pacific, the signalmen on our carrier were told to resume signalling with flags even though radio had been employed through the war. The Army took generations to give up the mule for the truck.16

As these values and habits are inherited and in fact rewarded, it may be hard for the US military to unlearn and shed these rigidities.

We have to let go of skills and ideas that are no longer fit-for-purpose, and which may compete with newer ideas and values.

Unlearning can also be observed in how governments have slowly moved from directing citizens to partnering them. All over the world, as citizens become more educated, and populations grow more politically mature and diverse, citizens increasingly want to be more directly involved in shaping the future of their country. Governments no longer have a monopoly on the best ideas or thinkers. At the same time, the world is facing problems that are increasingly complex in nature. This requires governments to tap on the wits and will of all its people, to explain complex issues and involve citizens in the development and implementation of solutions. What is needed is a shift from top-down approaches to empowering citizens and working together, from seeing citizens as consumers to seeing them as partners.

Singapore, and Singaporeans, are no exception. Over the years, Singapore has moved in the right direction, starting with the formation of the Feedback Unit (later renamed REACH), and then moving to national public consultation exercises such as The Next Lap, Singapore 21 and Our Singapore Conversation. Singapore’s citizen engagement journey continues with the more recent Singapore Together movement—where the Government works with Singaporeans, and Singaporeans with each other, to build a future Singapore together. Other recent efforts at partnering citizens include the Citizens’ Jury for the War on Diabetes (2017), the Recycle Right Citizens’ Workgroup (2019),17 and the Citizens’ Panel on Work-Life Harmony (2019). This positive shift would not have been possible if government had persisted in treating citizens as customers and in ‘controlling’ the conversation; it had to unlearn these habits in order to adopt new models of citizen engagement.

Unlearning old approaches also makes room for us to learn from others who have more or different experiences. One interesting example comes from Peñalolén, a Chilean commune in the province of Santiago with a history of participatory budgeting. In 2019, it launched a participatory budget under the slogan ¡En mi Barrio, Yo decido! (In my neighbourhood, I decide!), giving citizens a say in which urban planning projects would be funded and implemented. From start to end, citizens were front and centre of the process. While the local government of Peñalolén did establish that the ideas had to be related to improving infrastructure and public spaces, it was the citizens who proposed the ideas, gathered support from the community and decided which ideas would receive funding. Unlike most governments’ approach to citizen participation which is limited to consultation, involvement or collaboration, Peñalolén’s participatory budgeting was an empowering exercise that placed final decision-making in the hands of the citizens.18

As the pace of change continues to accelerate, the need to unlearn outdated assumptions underpinning our mental maps grows ever more important.

Look no further than the future

When the coronavirus pandemic struck the world in early 2020, many referred to it as a “black swan”—an unpredictable, rare and catastrophic event. This label seemed to fit, given how most governments and health organisations were caught off-guard by COVID-19’s explosive speed of transmission, and were uncertain about what the future might look like. However, global health agencies have spent the last 25 years helping countries to prepare for such pandemics (1970–2020 dengue, 2004–2014 chikungunya, 2007–2016 Zika virus and 2009 H1N1 influenza).19 In addition, if we look into the not-so-distant past, we will find useful parallels or signals of possible futures. The cholera pandemic of 1832 aggravated social and economic inequalities, brought busy cities and ports to a standstill, and wreaked havoc on the economy;20 and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 saw doctors prescribing toxic levels of aspirin to alleviate flu symptoms, and fines for citizens caught in public without masks.21 Knowing that similar pandemics had happened before means we should not have been surprised, but humans have short memories and even “analogies [can] create blind spots”, as noted by historian on science, technology and medicine Robert Peckham.

It is thus vital to bear in mind differences in context: be it political, economic, social or infrastructural. To prepare for this century of complexity, we should learn to take the long view and to be discerning. By having a better sense of where we are and what may be awaiting us, we can better decide what to relearn, not overlearn and unlearn.

“We are not only living in a world of accelerating changes but also of changes which are global in scope and which permeate almost all aspects of human activity...only a future-oriented society can cope with the problems of the 21st century.”

— Mr S. Rajaratnam in 1979, then-Foreign Minister of Singapore.22


Angel Chew is Lead Foresight Analyst at the Centre for Strategic Futures.



  1. This was in an interview with San Jose Mercury News in January 2000.
  2. Nigel Nicholson, “How Hardwired Is Human Behaviour?” Harvard Business Review, July 1, 1998, accessed July 5, 2021.
  3. Janine M. Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (New York: Morrow, 1997).
  4. “Eiji Nakatsu: Lecture on Biomimicry as Applied to a Japanese Train”, April 23, 2012, accessed July 5, 2021.
  5. Mick Pearce, “Passively Cooled Building: Inspired by Termite Mounds”, Ask Nature, 1996, accessed July 5, 2021.
  6. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, “Forgotten but Not Gone: How the Brain Re-learns”, November 22, 2008, accessed July 5, 2021.
  7. Chong Koh Ping, “Robots to Wipe Out 20 Million Jobs around the World by 2030: Study”, The Straits Times, June 26, 2019, accessed July 5, 2021.
  8. Matthew Sigelman, Scott Bittle, Will Markow, and Benjamin Francis, “The Hybrid Job Economy”, Burning Glass Technologies, January, 2019, accessed June 15, 2021.
  9. Jerry Useem, “At Work, Expertise Is Falling Out of Favor”, The Atlantic, July, 2019, accessed June 15, 2021.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking In Time: the Uses Of History For Decision Makers (Riverside: Free Press, 2011).
  12. Nabila Awang, Ng Jun Sen, and S. M. Naheswari, “The Big Read: High Time to Talk about Racism, but Singapore Society Ill-Equipped after Decades of Treating It as Taboo”, CAN, June 21, 2021, accessed July 5, 2021.
  13. Mathew Mathews and Shane Pereira, “Why Singapore Needs New Ways to Tackle Racism More Effectively”, Today, August 18, 2020, accessed June 15, 2021.
  14. Anjali Raguraman, “Be Confident to Call Out Racist Behaviour, but Do It Respectfully and Constructively, S’pore Youth Told”, The Straits Times, July 3, 2021, accessed August 31, 2021.
  15. Mark Bonchek, “Why the Problem with Learning Is Unlearning”, Harvard Business Review, November 3, 2016, accessed July 5, 2021.
  16. Paul R. Ignatius, “On Military Innovation, the More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same”, War on the Rocks, June 2, 2020, accessed July 5, 2021. Also see David McCormick and James Cummingham, “America’s Military Needs an Innovation Overhaul”, Fast Company, August 12, 2020, accessed July 5, 2021.
  17. Carol Soon and Sim Jui Liang, “Citizen Engagement in Singapore: Applications of the Citizens’ Panel”, Institute of Policy Studies, May 19, 2021, accessed July 5, 2021.
  18. Marcela Ayarza, “24,450 Citizens Take Part in Peñalolén’s Participatory Budget”, CitizenLab, October 6, 2020, accessed September 1, 2021.
  19. Duane J. Gubler, “Covid-19 Is No ‘Black Swan’ and This Crisis Shows Pandemic Prevention Must Be Part of Government Policy the World Over”, South China Morning Post, May 6, 2020, accessed September 12, 2021.
  20. Elena Conis, “What History’s Economy-Disrupting Outbreaks Can Teach Us about Coronavirus Panic”, TIME, March 9, 2020, accessed September 12, 2021.
  21. “Spanish Flu”, HISTORY, October 12, 2010, accessed September 12, 2021.
  22. S. Rajaratnam, “Political Developments towards The Year 2000”, December 20, 1979, accessed June 15, 2021.

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