Education in the Age of Innovation

Spring 2017

By John Kao

Sometime around 1830, the great Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai created his most memorable artwork, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. In the woodblock print’s stark asymmetry, it offers a timeless portrait of a world out of joint. Mount Fuji, the cultural heart of Japan, is shown displaced to one side — overpowered by a wall of water. Meanwhile, we barely notice the tiny figures of people riding fragile boats who seem powerless to influence the course of events.

Hokusai’s image resonates today. We live in a time of VUCA — an increasingly popular acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Times of stability require only incremental adjustment and fine-tuning. Times of VUCA require bold innovation. Steve Jobs once famously observed in a time of crisis that “[t]he cure for Apple is to innovate its way out of its current predicament.”

The same challenge might well be on the minds of many organizational leaders today as they face an uncertain, disrupted, turbulent future. Welcome to the Age of Innovation.

Of course, this raises the question of what we mean by innovation, which is one of the most overused and poorly understood words in the lexicon.

Here is a brief semantic interlude: At its most basic, innovation is the process by which ideas are generated through human ingenuity, developed, and lead to the realization of value, whether seen in financial or social terms. My own definition of innovation takes things a step further: Innovation is a set of capabilities that enables the continuous realization of a desired future. Capabilities are abilities that are acquired through practice to achieve effects. Playing jazz piano, for example, is a capability; it doesn’t come about simply by wishing or reading books. Innovation also needs to be about something. It needs to serve a purpose, hence the notion of what is desired. It is a process that is never completed, hence the term “continuous.” It is also worth noting that innovation capabilities can be developed on multiple levels and result from the behavior of individuals, teams, organizations, and societies.

The Age of Innovation

Why is this the Age of Innovation?

  • Because a new generation of cultural visionaries has demonstrably coupled its ability to generate and develop new ideas to realize disproportionate value. The list of visionaries includes Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page, among many others.
  • Because a tidal wave of digital capability is disrupting existing business models and patterns of behavior. Remember Blockbuster, Tower Records, and Borders? All fell victim to disintermediation, the ability of end users to connect to the products and services they wanted in new ways.
  • Because worldwide there are at least 50 countries with national innovation agendas, chief innovation officers, and budgets to support this work. The field of large-scale innovation is back in vogue as political leaders increasingly look to innovation as the key to economic and social development. Countries worldwide are investing heavily in innovation capability; China’s innovation agenda alone is said to be budgeted at $500 billion1, while countries as diverse as Rwanda, Ireland, and Brazil have national chief innovation officers and strategies. In the United States, innovation as a ­federal agenda embraces everything from brain science to the human genome.2
  • Because competition demands it. Developing innovation capability routinely shows up as one of the top priorities identified by CEOs. In a time of turmoil, the only capacity worth having is the ability to innovate faster than the competition.
  • Because the global challenges we face as civil society today far outstrip our current capacities to deal with them. To address climate change, human health, habitability, etc., we will have to innovate our way forward.
  • Because traditional jobs are giving way to an unknowable future landscape of employment. This is an era in which to be employable means to have the ability to quickly learn new skills — or, better yet, have the skills to create your own job. It is an era that favors the innovator and the entrepreneur. Individuals are empowered as never before with new technology-based capabilities to learn, collaborate, publish, and influence.

The Need to Innovate Education

I have identified four key drivers of the coming disruption that require an inevitable transformation of education.

Upside Down

Much has been made of the ability of new digital technologies to invert traditional authority and status hierarchies. In the digital domain, knowledge and skill are often inversely proportional to age. The phenomena of crowdsourcing and crowd-funding liberate the power of the many to influence the behavior of the whole.

Education is not immune to this dynamic. Traditional educational practice clearly expresses a vertical structure. It is built around an implied hierarchy of learnedness in which teachers, given their age and background, are presumed to have the knowledge worth sharing. The “sage on the stage” is authoritative, while students are compliant learners who ingest knowledge and demonstrate its acquisition through performance on standardized tests and assessments.

This hierarchy is intimately related to an industrial approach to learning that is increasingly out of step with the needs of a networked, digital age. The industrial model implies standardized curriculum, quality control metrics, efficiency, and batch processing. However, we are moving into a world of personalization, playlists, themes (not subjects), and demonstration of competencies in a portfolio (not check-off-the-box exams). This shift implies an expanded role for teachers as coaches, enablers, and facilitators.

Inside Out

Inside out involves a shift in the where and when of learning. In the old days, we had a homeroom and walked from classroom to classroom like ambulatory widgets in an assembly line synchronized to a common clock. The locus of learning today is shifting from the classroom, a fixed container with firm boundaries, to a 24/7, always-on platform — a blended learning environment that lives outside the boundaries of the classroom.

Disruption of education is being fueled by massive waves of change caused by digital technology. In his recent book, The Inevitable,3 Kevin Kelly observes that there are currently 60 trillion webpages, or 10,000 for every person on the planet, all created in approximately the last 8,000 days. And this is a participatory, not top-down, phenomenon. Some 65,000 videos are said to be posted to YouTube every day. This equates to 300 every minute.

And since YouTube is becoming the new self-directed classroom for Generation Z, these statistics hold special significance for educators. We live in a world increasingly fueled by the availability of powerful technologies for learning opportunities that exist outside the classroom and are in fact increasingly uncoupled from education. Augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), YouTube, Xbox, smartphones, and PlayStation are becoming the new classroom. For many students these days, learning is about what happens outside of school in the rich media soup of smartphones and gaming devices.

Events to Flows

The third major change is the transition from events to flows, which in turn transforms the how, or process, of learning. The industrial model requires discrete, measurable events that can be efficiently scheduled. The school year stops and starts on a fixed timetable, which refers back to the archaic reality of agricultural cycles that required students to be free to participate in farming. Students take a standard set of courses with a fixed sequence of exams. Standardized tests demonstrate college readiness, and graduation and prom are the icing on the cake.

Today, the potential exists for educational institutions to enable continuous evaluation and learning. The notion of a playlist as a list of tasks that students address on their own time to personalize their experiences changes the when and what of learning. And this has implications for higher education and beyond — as skills must be constantly developed through life to cope with new occupational and community challenges and opportunities.

In flow education, digital portfolios become increasingly important, as does the future of credentialing, which will evolve from scores on standardized tests to increasingly effective media for demonstrating competence. This also shifts the role of the teacher from inspector to enabler of holistic and practice-based learning. And in the so-called gig economy — with its requirement for just-in-time skills— badging, certification stacks, and micro-master’s programs will increasingly supplement or even replace traditional degrees. New just-in-time certification models will enable the demonstration of work-related competencies to serve specific objective needs.

From Symbols to Experiences

The fourth and final dimension of the great wave that will transform education is the transition from symbols to experiences. This is a shift in the how of learning by the use of new, powerful media.

Most of us in senior positions grew up in an era of analog media and verbal literacy in which writing essays, penmanship, and manipulating words were considered to be core skills. These days, many students have a new concept of literacy. Some even actively avoid the effort of learning to write in cursive, preferring instead to work on keyboards. This is an era in which new artificial intelligence capabilities can enable a student to write a perfectly composed 10-page paper instantaneously when a topic is typed into a search bar. Perhaps it is search and curation, rather than composition, that should be seen as the new literacy.

The unit of learning is also changing. It is well known that young people prefer shorter experiences that involve motion media. YouTube has become a major repository and vehicle for learning among young people. Video games have profited in large measure because of their mastery of experience design and learning theory. The arrival of VR and AR as immersive technologies with the potential to create engagement is another dimension of the transition from symbols to experiences, as many initiatives — often backed by venture capital — strive to gamify the learning experience to make it even more relevant and engaging for learners.

Educating for Innovation

Worldwide, it is becoming abundantly clear that members of Generation Z — the generation born around the millennium — are more socially engaged and concerned about the condition of the world than previous generations. They are eager to learn the capabilities of innovation and entrepreneurship that will empower them to have a positive influence on the world.

The passion and idealism of this rising generation, however, is one of the most underutilized resources for good on the planet because there is a gap between what education usually provides and what young people need to know to thrive and to become socially active in the 21st century. This gap was poignantly illustrated to me by Gabe, a 12-year-old in New York, who told me point-blank, “I know I’m going to leave a legacy. I know I’m going to leave my mark. I just need someone to show me how.”

What this new era requires is the ability to generate new ideas, to develop them through mastery of such skills as storytelling, design, and collaboration and then drive these ideas to the realization of value through entrepreneurship. These are skills that employers have stated clearly as among their most important criteria for employability. And this is the new blended set of capabilities that defines the landscape of innovation.

This relates to the mission that my organization, EdgeMakers, has set for itself: to create a new learning system for innovation and entrepreneurship that will activate the idealism of young people and allow them to make a difference ahead of schedule. We believe in the importance of a new approach to innovation learning that is integrated, practice-based, and purpose-driven. Purpose provides a “why” for learning. We have suffused the learning experience with societal challenges and “wicked problems” that provide the grist for developing skills while arousing a kind of civic mindedness and appetite for activism that the world needs. And we firmly believe that these capacities of innovation and entrepreneurship are learnable and teachable— and at a young age.

We also believe that educating for innovation can be a centerpiece of an educational institution’s renewed focus on innovating education, a subject to which we now turn our attention.

So What?

Like it or not, education must transform; there is simply no alternative. It is a service industry in which its “customers” — students, parents, teachers, and funders — are increasingly dissatisfied. In my view, there is an “invalid social contract” in which students can do everything right according to the existing system and then find gaps in their employability and ability to thrive in the world.

The question that educators and educational institutions must now face is how to embark on the innovation journey. Every educational institution must prepare to navigate the Age of Innovation in the face of disruptive change. And while it is impossible to present a one-size-fits-all prescription, the following framework is intended as a starter kit to help educators and educational institutions begin that journey.

My experience shows that there are seven key ingredients that must be identified in a robust innovation agenda.

  1. Vision. Innovation was defined earlier as the capability to continuously realize a desired future. Vision is the description of that desired future in concrete terms that provides the vector for innovation efforts. Vision answers the question: What will the world look like if everything works out?
  2. Purpose. If innovation is the answer, what is the question? Why should we care about innovating, and what values and social priorities are being expressed through our innovation efforts? How will we make the world a better place?
  3. Process skills. Generating and developing ideas involves a suite of process skills that are teachable and learnable, and improve through practice. Adopting techniques from design to create user scenarios, future narratives, and prototypes are examples of objective processes for creativity. So are techniques for ideation, brainstorming, and visualization. Facilitation is an underappreciated skill set that should be a cornerstone of everyone’s learning experience.
  4. Innovation infrastructure. Innovation is the result of combining three cardinal resources — ideas, capital, and talent — in an effective manner. Eliminate or delay any leg of the tripod, and innovation efforts will be hampered.
  5. Narrative. Stories have a powerful ability to make ideas influential. When we hire an employee, satisfy a customer, or bring a sponsor on board, we have successfully used a story to motivate action and align effort. Stories are also critical to creating a sense of urgency, without which innovation efforts will fall short.
  6. Culture.This refers to the set of beliefs that guide behavior or, stated another way, that really guide behavior. One wag described culture as what people do when the boss isn’t around. Three values are key to a culture of innovation. Attitudes toward risk comprise a core cultural belief that can either enhance or impede creativity. Seeing risk as hazard will lead to conservatism. Seeing risk as learning will empower the bold. Cultures that focus on relentless business to the exclusion of needed white space for creative work will not get very far. And finally, curiosity and the desire to learn continuously are fundamental, especially in an era in which educators themselves must, in a sense, become students again.
  7. Leadership. In an organization built around the core value of efficiency, the leader directs effort through formal authority. In an innovation-driven organization, the leader must evangelize for the vision, support talent, provide resources, and create a sense of possibility and desire for reasonable risk taking that informs the culture of the organization.

Two other matters must be mentioned in designing an innovation agenda for educational institutions. First, one is well advised to build innovation capability with an eye toward sustaining it. In my experience, most leaders underestimate the level of investment required — of time, mind-share, and resources — to turn innovation into an ongoing way of doing business.

Second, providing the best mechanisms for innovation stewardship is key to sustaining it. This involves answering the question of who is responsible and for what elements of the process. Stewardship occurs at three levels in an organization. Buy-in at the top of the organization is essential to an innovation agenda. And having leaders who understand their role in the overall innovation agenda is key. Leaders are keepers of the vision, storytellers-in-chief, and catalysts who empower others, make useful exceptions, and provide resources.

Sustainable innovation also requires sustained bottom-up leadership — the inclusion of “all of us.” It is essential to have a robust flow of ideas and to create a culture of engagement.

What is most often missing in innovation initiatives is what I call the middleware — a coalition of the willing, in the form of an innovation task force or team — that is responsible and accountable for developing and managing the organization’s innovation strategy. This innovation action group must be central. It cannot be successful if it’s merely an exercise in form or the 11th item on a 10-item priority list.

How We Thrive

The twin agendas of innovating education and educating for innovation could not be more important, given the demands of the times, the profusion of new learning-relevant technologies, and the desire of Generation Z for a greater voice.

Education is always an answer to a question. It holds up a mirror to our society and to our values. In addition to its other responsibilities, education today must serve the goal of activating a sense of civic-mindedness in our young and equipping them to thrive in uncertainty.

John Dewey, a seminal thinker on education, stated almost a century ago that education was not only a way to gain content knowledge but also a way to learn how to live and realize one’s full potential for the greater good. I agree with Dewey and take things one step further in saying that the purpose of education must be to enable the young and their teachers to thrive in the Age of Innovation.

Each educator and educational institution will have to find its own pathway. However, I hope this framework will enable all educators and schools to begin their innovation journey in a meaningful way.

Dubbed “Mr. Creativity” by The Economist, John Kao has spent the past 30 years growing his skills and reputation as an innovation activist, practitioner, and educator. His nonlinear noncareer reveals an eclectic set of accomplishments: Harvard Business School professor, Yale Medical School trained psychiatrist, Broadway and Hollywood producer, Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and Yamaha “Artist in Innovation” (perhaps no surprise since he played keyboards in Frank Zappa’s band). He is currently CEO of EdgeMakers.


1. John Kao, China: The Next Innovation Nation, Amazon Kindle Store, 2016.

2. John Kao, Innovation Nation, Free Press, 2008.

3. Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable, Viking, 2016.

John Kao

Dubbed “Mr. Creativity” by The Economist, John Kao has spent the past 30 years growing his skills and reputation as an innovation activist, practitioner, and educator.