How to reinvent the 21st-century university

Tackling the lack of vertical literacy

Otto Scharmer PhD
is a Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan, a Thousand Talents Program Professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and cofounder of the Presencing Institute.
“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” This quote from Plutarch is as true today as it was two thousand years ago. Still, the misconception of education as a vessel-filling activity remains. In this article Otto Scharmer outlines an idea that could reshape our universities while also prototyping new ways of addressing urgent societal challenges. The kindling of the flame that Plutarch talked about has never been more relevant than now.
VERTICAL LITERACY: Addressing the Knowing-Doing Gap

The difficulties we have in meeting today’s global challenges, such as implementing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) worldwide, are not caused by a knowledge gap. We have all the knowledge we need. The problem is a knowing-doing gap: a disconnect between our collective consciousness and our collective actions. In most societal systems we collectively create results that (almost) nobody wants. Examples: the ecological divide (the self-nature disconnect), the social divide (the self-other disconnect), and the spiritual divide (the self-self disconnect).

These gaps and divides are amplified by the silo structure of our key institutions and the mindset of the decision makers that operate inside them. To address these issues at their root requires two things: new platforms for cross-sector co-creation and an upgrade in the operating system that people use to collaborate – practices that facilitate a shift from ego-system to eco-system awareness. 

The lack of vertical literacy is the main problem in our universities and schools today. Talk to experienced CEOs and CPOs (chief people officers) of major companies and ask them what they need. They commonly say: people, teams, and leaders that can make our organization thrive in a world of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity). By that, I believe they mean people and capacities that can take their organization into the 4.0 world in which they respond to disruption by co-sensing and co-shaping the future. 

Then go to universities and talk to faculty and deans of management and engineering schools. Many, maybe most, are rather illiterate when it comes to vertical development. They think mostly in terms of horizontal development – for example, about adding another skill here or another app or course there. They do not think in terms of upgrading the entire educational OS – of our students, our learners, and our societal systems. 

But if you think about it, if we follow Plutarch, I believe that the only reason universities exist in the first place is to provide vertical developmental literacy. Especially now. If you want the app, you just go to an online learning store like edx.org and get your free knowledge download. Done! You don’t need a physical university for that. The primary reason we have universities and other institutions of higher education today is to support the development of vertical literacy. That means creating a learning environment in which the learner can step into his or her highest future potential in the context of hands-on societal challenges. In our experience, this requires us, as learners, to upgrade the way we pay attention and listen, to upgrade the way we converse, dialogue, and think, to upgrade the way we organize and coordinate in the context of VUCA shaped environments. Vertical literacy gives us the vocabulary and capacities to:

  1. Become a blackbelt in listening with our minds and hearts wide open
  2. Turn a conversation from debate to generative dialogue
  3. Shift organizational fields from competing silos to generative eco-systems
  4. Invent new coordination mechanisms that operate from shared awareness. 

UN-Habitat Sustainable Development Goals


































10 Principles of the New University
How do we build vertical literacy at scale? Well, not by placing learners inside lecture halls. And also, not by separating out humanities, social sciences, and STEM into separate universes. That much we know. What it will take is nothing less than a complete reinvention of schooling and higher ed based on a new set of principles. Here is a first cut at a list of core ideas: 

1— Co-initiate

Put the learner into the driver’s seat of profound societal change. The learner is not a consumer. She or he is a partner in making the world a better place. 

2— Co-Sense

Move the outer place of learning from the lecture hall to the real world. This isn’t just about action learning but also includes immersion journeys to the global hotspots of societal renewal across cultures.

3— Embodiment

The essence of learning in this century revolves around activating the intelligence of the heart and then putting it to use in serving the needs of others and the whole.

4— Science 2.0

Science 2.0 must integrate first-, second-, and third-person data by bending the beam of observation back onto the observing self.

5— Systems Thinking

Make the system see itself. Systems thinking is a core capacity of vertical literacy.

6— Systems Sensing

Make the system sense itself. This is the core capacity to unlock collective creativity. Learners must become literate in “aesthetics” in its original meaning (aistesis means to sense): the cultivation of all our senses.

7—Systems Inversion

Transform the system through eco-system activation. All societal sectors go through similar institutional changes: from perpetuating systemic silos to cultivating generative social field in the context of their eco-systems.

8— Know Thyself

Deepening our self-knowledge requires us to access not only the intelligence of the open mind (curiosity), but also the intelligences of the open heart (compassion), and open will (courage).

9— Tend the Fire

To patiently elicit and draw out the unique qualities and expression of each person with perseverance and in support of his or her highest possible future.

10— The Fourth Teacher

Use nature and social fields as gateways. Building on The Reggio Emilia approach we see the cultivation of profound learning relationships to nature and to social fields as gateways to the deeper sources of knowing.

The primary reason we have universities and other institutions of higher education today is to support the development of vertical literacy. That means creating a learning environment in which the learner can step into his or her highest future potential in the context of hands-on societal challenges.
Five Building Blocks
How can we build a 21st-century university that embodies these principles of vertical literacy, i.e., of awareness-based systems change? The answer will vary across contexts, cultures, and geographies. But in our experiments, we have found the following five building blocks to be critical:

1— Cross-Sector Innovation Labs. Create cross-sector Innovation Labs that bring together key stakeholders and innovators who need each other in order to evolve the system they operate within.

2— Cross-Intelligence Capacity Building. Create massive online-to-offline mechanisms for complementing the labs and building the deeper capacities at scale (that means at marginal costs close to zero). With the u.lab MOOC we have prototyped a mechanism that combines the democratization of access to knowledge with the activation of the deep learning cycle.

3— Awareness-Based Action Research: Deep Data Imaging. Although “big data” has been useful in many parts of our daily lives, the algorithms that increasingly shape our reality have also became a liability that undermines some of society’s foundations. We need to progress from big data to deep data.

4— A Community of Eco-System Catalysts. The fourth building block deals with people. The best concept is worth nothing if the faculty do not embody these new forms and the principles of student-centered learning. We need a new faculty track for reflective practitioners who are more deeply involved in major projects of societal transformation and who can share their knowledge-in-action with students while also helping learners deepen their own capacities for embodied knowing.

5— Places, Platforms, and Practices for Making the System Sense Itself. The fifth building block concerns places, platforms, and core practices. The piece most needed here is places: high-quality spaces that are designed and structured to build vertical literacy. change this text. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

Reinventing the Idea of the University

The classical university was based on the unity of research and teaching. The modern university has been based on the unity of research, teaching, and application. The emerging 21st-century university, I believe, will be based on the unity of research, teaching, and civilizational renewal. To transform higher education into its most advanced evolutionary state requires nothing less than a full inversion of its traditional discipline structure toward 4.0 ways of innovating and learning. The purpose of education is not to fill vessels. It’s also not to spurn people who diligently rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. The purpose of the 21st-century education and university is to help us develop what matters most: vertical literacy – the capacity to sense and actualize our highest future possibility in the face of disruption. All the elements for making this happen at scale already exist. By connecting them we can activate a vibrant global eco-system that can protect the flame that Plutarch was talking about and that we need to pass on from one generation to the next. We need intentional places to kindle, cultivate and evolve that flame.

NOTE: A version of this article appeared earlier at Huffington Post

COVER: University of Copenhagen, Library BY Fiolstræde/Jens Fink-Jensen