The economic and social impact of rapid technological progress including artificial intelligence, automation, intelligent robots and self-driving cars will be a key theme for this week’s meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. Graham Brown-Martin asks how our global education systems can respond to what the WEF calls the “fourth industrial revolution”.

Illustrated GIF by Rachael Bolton.

We are on the precipice of what the World Economic Forum calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Artificial intelligence. Automation. Ubiquitous, mobile supercomputing. Intelligent robots. Self-driving cars. Neuro-technological brain enhancements. Genetic editing. The evidence of dramatic change is all around us and it’s happening at exponential speed.

This revolution brings with it exciting possibilities, new solutions to global challenges, and employment opportunities for jobs that have yet to be invented. At the same time it comes with the potential for technological unemployment that drives downward pressure on income security and social agency while society adapts to the new normal. Combined with climate change and rapid global population growth this century is the most challenging that our species has ever faced. Governments, educators and parents alike must ask the question about how they can prepare present and future generations to thrive in this transforming world.

Policy briefings from across the global political spectrum as well as organisations including OECD, McKinsey, Bank of England and MIT have been able to identify the breadth of jobs that are likely to be threatened by technological advance noting, for example, that “rapid progress in AI indicates a much broader range of jobs than previously thought could be carried out by machines” (OECD, Future of Work, 2013). Whilst economists, futurists and other experts have been good at predicting the demise of jobs they haven’t been great at pointing to the new jobs that will emerge, whether people will be equipped to do them and whether they’ll produce adequate income.

But things don’t need to be so bleak or dystopian. The reality is that the jobs of the future will be the ones that machines can’t do and it’s fair to say anything that can be measured or is based on rules will be automated. This is great news because it means we can automate the work and humanise the jobs.

There are three key areas where humans beat machines that are key to future job creation:

  • Creative endeavours: everything from scientific discovery to creative writing and entrepreneurship.
  • Social interaction: robots just don’t have the kind of emotional intelligence that humans do.
  • Physical dexterity and mobility: millennia of hiking mountains, swimming lakes and dancing practice gives humans extraordinary agility and physical dexterity.

It is beyond doubt that education is at the heart of preparing present and future generations to thrive. As a result it’s vital that we have an education that develops human potential rather than pits it against machines. An education system designed for an industrial economy that is now being automated requires transformation, from a system based on facts and procedures to one that actively applies that knowledge to collaborative problem solving.

This won’t be easy given the perverse financial incentives of an education model rooted in the late 19th century, driven by an antiquated text book and measurement industry that regards teaching as delivery rather than design. For decades this industry imagined that teaching as delivery, in the form of instruction, would mean that human teachers could eventually be replaced by computers. But this has misunderstood the nature of teaching and learning which is a uniquely personal and social activity between people that caters to every learners changing needs, unique talents, passions, and interests. In fact the very things that set them aside from the machines that are now emerging as part of this next industrial revolution.

Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock (1970) posited that “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”.

Toffler wasn’t suggesting that reading and writing would become unimportant, he was emphasising that in times of rapid change in an uncertain future the most valuable skill would be learning how to learn rather than simply reciting a set of facts and procedures.

De-siloing the curriculum and designing learning experiences that encourage learners to make things by collaboratively solving interesting real world challenges will be the key to thriving in this century. We will succeed by working alongside our machines rather than competing with them, by programming them rather than being programmed by them.

. . .

Further reading

During the summer of 2017 I was commissioned by the Canadian public television broadcaster, TFO, to research and prepare a literature review and white paper which I titled “Education and the Fourth Industrial Revolution” which you can download here courtesy of TFO.

This paper lead to a further collaboration with TFO and the Centre de Leadership en Évaluation which resulted in the publication of further white paper titled “Adapting to the Digital Revolution” in November 2017 to wide national and international acclaim. It has been published in English and French.

For the Francophone community and French speaking people, this interview with Glenn O’Farrell, CEO of TFO about L’avenir de l’éducation numérique (The Future of Digital Learning) that reflects on this body of work is illuminating.

Meanwhile, this work forms the basis of a keynote talk that I have been delivering at international education and governmental summits in the US, Europe, Asia and Middle East:

If you would like to hear this talk at your summit or conference please contact Wendy Morris at The London Speakers Bureau.

This piece was originally published on Medium and was reproduced with permission of the author.

Graham Brown-Martin

Graham Brown-Martin

Foresight & Anticipatory Researcher & Author at Learning {Re}imagined
Graham Brown-Martin is a leader in the field of foresight and anticipatory research, bringing together social, political and technological trends to consider how we might prepare ourselves for the future. He is the author of Learning {Re}imagined, the best selling book on global education published by Bloomsbury. He has enjoyed a 30 year career spanning the education, technology and entertainment sectors. He was the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live.

Get to know Graham Martin-Brown

- How do you spend your days?

With my head in my hands


- What in your answer to Q1 is especially important to you and why?

My head and my hands - my head because this is where most of my thinking happens, my hands because I use them to make things with.


- What drove you to focus on foresight and anticipatory research? Was there a particular moment you can remember that led you to this field?

For a long time I thought I was merely clairvoyant but then realised I was a just a freak of nature.

What had been diagnosed as disorders (ADHD and ASD) also came with gifts that included the ability to spot trends and patterns across many different disciplines quickly and then anticipate what was most likely to happen. One would have hoped that this would have lead to untold riches from knowing lottery numbers to who would win the Grand National or perhaps investors hoping to exploit me. Alas this isn’t how it works given that I join the dots up so quickly that I find it difficult to explain why to those wanting to make bets on me.

The result is that despite being right all of the time my predictions are so implausible, to those with a private school education and a penchant for emptying their bank account into consultancies like McKinsey, that I haven’t been able to make a living out of it.

What I realised and found so difficult to explain was that technology doesn’t determine our social structure and cultural values, try telling that to the Economist for example, but if you follow social and political trends and cross-reference to technological developments you are in a better position to anticipate the future.

Note that famous clairvoyant Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, people who call themselves futurologists are charlatans and futurism is rooted in the Italian fascist movement of the early 20th century.


- What drives you professionally?

The naive belief that I can make a difference.


- In your opinion what are the three biggest problems facing the developed and developing world?

Greed, inequality and arrogance.

- If you hadn’t become an educator, author and anticipatory researcher, what would you have done?
As a child I wanted to be an astronaut but was told at my careers meeting when I was 13 that they didn’t have a brochure for that so I could work in the local meat processing factory, the brick making yard, or, if I got good grades, work in the high street bank.

I left school at 15 because I couldn’t see the point of it. I never went back although I recently applied to do a MA in education at UCL was refused.

I wish I’d tried my hand at acting.

- If you look at recent history, can you identify a turning-point that explains how we come to face the peculiar challenges of today?

Yes, after WW2 we became obsessed with neo-classical economics. This became the lingua franca of socio-political discourse, thus removing the voice of the proletariat from democracy as power was transferred to unelected financial institutions and global multi-national corporations. This has shaped the planet ever since and will lead to the global decline of our species.


- What are the lessons we failed to learn during and since the 2008 crisis?

That the attack on the commons is an attack on the people.


- Name one measure we might implement immediately to improve the situation.

Use taxation to motivate desirable outcomes by, for example, taxing air pollution, packaging, private education and healthcare, etc. Also encourage individual or collective ownership of the means of production by reducing taxation on businesses that are employee owned and benefit distributed, e.g. John Lewis / ARUP style businesses, while increasing taxation for those based on hierarchical ownership.

- If you were a President / Prime Minister what would your first three pieces of policy be?

Abolish university tuition fees, abolish private education, abolish private healthcare.

- What was your biggest & / or your most recent mistake?

Confessing to an extramarital affair.


- You are stuck in a ski lift for twenty four hours and you can have one person (living or dead) with you. Who will it be?

My Father

- Name the book that changed you.

My Problem Child, Albert Hoffman.

- What would you do differently if you were to start all over again?

Have more confidence in myself and my ideas.

- Give our readers, members and subscribers a piece of advice that has served you well.

Do the right thing.

- What is your main anxiety where you and / or your family are concerned?

Not doing the right thing.

- What gives you hope for humanity?

N,N-Dimethyltryptamine
Graham Brown-Martin

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