Hints of the future can often be learned from the past. In this case, the deep past. The Cambrian Explosion refers to a point in our evolutionary history 524 million years ago where there was an explosion of animal forms. Before this time, the world was awash with largely single celled animals which floated through the Cambrian Sea able to consume only the things they bumped into.
During what is a relatively short period in evolutionary time there was a radical increase in biodiversity, in which 23 out of the existing 24 animal phyla that exist today were born. Deemed the most important evolutionary event on Earth to date, it changed the biosphere forever.¹ How eerily similar this explosion is to our own Anthropocene, where the effects we as living creatures have on the environment are profound. Let us revert to the Cambrian explosion allegory to see where it leads us. Fossil records show us just how experimental this explosion was. There are many theories about what caused this explosion, but in 2014, Prof Andrew Parker, a researcher at Oxford University, published his in a book titled ‘In the Blink of an Eye’.
His theory is that it is the evolution of the eye that drove evolution cataclysmically forward. As eyes evolved, so did the ability for animals to seek out and find food, causing the ‘predator/ prey’ relationship, which in turn caused the emergence of millions of new body forms. Predators developed teeth and prey developed exoskeletons. As eyes developed so did the need to develop camouflage, or bold colours that would make prey look bigger or more dangerous. One animal ‘technology’ led to another resulting in a massive diversity of innovative forms. Many of these experiments failed and died off but many became the foundation for life as we know it.
The technological explosion of today is changing the jobs of tomorrow
Like the evolution of the eye in the Cambrian period, today, we are witnessing this same kind of explosion of technologies. Material technologies have given birth to data storage and communications capabilities; increased processing speed allows for and even demands innovative software languages; communications combined with materials sensing technologies have created an entirely new, hyper connected, globally engineered world.
This rapid change in capability has led to new business models, radical new valuations, a plethora of alternate currencies, and created unprecedented volatility in the marketplace. Since the 1950s, the average life span of Fortune 500 companies has dropped from 75 years to 15 years², and this has led to a profound change in how this generation of students face their careers.
Automation and artificial intelligence will see the disappearance of 47% of current jobs in the coming decades. At the same time, entirely new industries will emerge. By 2030, the majority of Australian workers will be employed in industries that don’t even exist yet³. A student today can expect to have 17 different jobs and five different careers and one of them is likely to be their own company. The days of ‘a job for life’ are long gone.4
Universities need to respond
It is no longer sufficient for universities to confer a single subject degree with little practical experience. Students and employers both agree that graduates are underprepared for the working world. To address this ‘skills gap’, universities must provide the opportunity for multi subject degrees, be taught to think for themselves, and be tested through real world experience.
My interest is in universities supporting students to initiate, explore, experiment, build, and test their own solutions in the marketplace and society. With so much volatility in the marketplace, outcomes are hard to predict.
Encouraging students in experimentation, testing and iteration based on real world feedback are ways of helping them respond to volatility without having to be always certain about outcomes. Students learn to accept feedback and not stigmatize it as failure, building up their resilience and cognition.
I’m speaking about the need to teach design thinking and entrepreneurial approaches as means for coping with an uncertain future and as a basis for a prosperous career and life. As of the last couple of years, 39 Australian universities have now launched entrepreneurial and design thinking courses with the intention of increasing their entrepreneurship offerings to students.5
My question, though, is this enough?
Climate change, environmental and biodiversity destruction, genetic engineering, mass migration, global economic upheaval and increasing inequity define the broader challenges for this age. Is it enough for our students to learn to be entrepreneurial, resilient, and respond only to market forces? Or do universities have an obligation to help them consider a wider landscape? What environmental impacts is their company leaving behind? What values is there entrepreneurial startup inadvertently reinforcing with the supply chain choices they make? When they build new technologies are they considering the full product lifecycle so that circular economies are considered from the outset?
In order to build students’ resilience to a challenging market, but also shape the world to be a fairer and more hospitable place, we have built our entrepreneurship program around what we have called the Founder’s Ethos. We encourage social responsibility and what it looks like to make a commitment to giving back; we embed product design principles that build in sustainability; we teach them the value of diversity. In short, the UNSW Founders Program does more than just offer participants a roadmap for success in an entrepreneurial world; it gives them a new perspective on what success and excellence looks like.
1 An excellent overview of the Cambrian Explosion can be found on line from the Royal Ontario Museum: https://burgess shale.rom.on.ca/en/science/origin/
2 http://www.aei.org/publication/fortune 500-firms-1955-v-2017-only-12-remainthanks to-the-creative-destruction-thatfuels economic-prosperity/. See also https://www.innosight.com/wp-content/ uploads/2016/08/Corporate-Longevity 2016-Final.pdf
3 Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A.
Osborne ‘The Future of Employment:
How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?’ Technological Forecasting and Social Change January 2013; World Economic Forum ‘The Future of Jobs Report’ http://reports.weforum.org/ future-of-jobs-2016/
4 Foundation for Young Australians ‘The New Work Mindset’ Foundation for Young Australians 2017.
edu.au/australias-universities/Universities and-the-startup-economy/University startup-support-programs
Dr. Elizabeth Eastland is the Director Entrepreneurship at UNSW, responsible for driving the entrepreneurship brand of the University, including scaling up its successful student start-up program with the aim of creating more than 100 start-ups per year. In her role, Elizabeth is responsible for bringing UNSW’s commitment to entrepreneurship and innovation to life by developing collaborative relationships and growing the student and staff start-up ecosystem.
Elizabeth is a seasoned executive with three decades of business, innovation and technology experience. She has shown outstanding leadership in complex, fast changing, multi stakeholder environments with an ability to penetrate complex situations and develop and execute strategy. Elizabeth has thirty years’ international experience in high tech research and development, innovation management, business development, M&A, and strategy, with senior executive roles at UNSW, CSIRO, University of Wollongong, Alcatel, Optus, Optus Vision, GEC, NorTel, BNR, and CEO of a startup.