Conversations 25 - The Idea Of An Institution

My agenda in 2015 is to be able to build the kind of institution I keep talking about - a global, entrepreneurial, practical, creative school. 

I know the idea but I dont know where I should eventually build it. One tempting answer is, everywhere, which was indeed at the heart of my earlier venture. The technology to reach out to people wherever they are exists today, and building an institution on them is a sort of no-brainer. But, having tried this, I want to build a more traditional institution enabled by those technologies, so that it can reach everyone, but at the core, it offers a rich experience and cohesive purpose for all its learners.

One of the things I learned through all my ventures is that it is the purpose that defines an institution, rather than its physical locations, courses or technologies. Too many people think too much about everything else, but forget to ask the why question. My essential starting point is indeed the why question - I see that to be the most difficult to answer - and I know everything else will fall in its place once I have done so.

So, why set up such a school? Essentially, to prepare the students for the emerging reality of globalization and automation. I believe our current institutions, too obsessed with various academic rituals and funding games, do not grasp the shifting dynamic of globalisation and automation, their effect on work and their effect on our values, cultures and societies. The students who come out of school today, to live a productive, engaged and successful life, they will need to grasp the phenomenon of automation and globalisation and learn to make their trade in context of it.

Like any other institution, the school I want to set in will train on certain trades. It is likely to be creative media and business, given my experience and interest in those areas. However, it is not the trades that matter most. It is that we would like them to fully appreciate what is happening around us, and grasp the practical, moral and social issues they have to work with, so that our students could be really successful when they come out of school and start building their individual identities.

I want to set up this institution in Asia, rather than where I am currently. Indeed, this is a demand thing - that is where the students are - but also because the twin forces of globalisation and automation are hitting Asia hard and I see the need there to be the greatest. I believe European (and North American) institutions are somewhat in the driving seat as far these twin forces are concerned, as their economies and governments shape a lot of this agenda. On the other hand, Asian governments are somewhat caught in the headlight, and without much debate or participation at the grassroots level, they are bound to make bad choices because, in matters of globalisation and automation, they are not being held accountable. The long term goal of the institution I want to get involved into is to prepare graduates so that they can shape the agenda for globalisation and automation in their societies, by starting businesses which harness the power of technology, by tackling sticky issues, by engaging democratically in the contemporary debates, by shaping public policy, by proving leadership to others and by promoting sympathy and cooperation with others as the society goes through some of the most profound changes ever to happen in human history.

I am often told Asia is not ready for it. The education debate in Asia is about jobs and money, and nothing else. But this is precisely the top-down view I want to disrupt. Having grown up within a newly independent nation, I instinctively reject any notion of a world where developed countries would find solutions for everyone else. For me, Asia is at the sharp end of globalisation and it must find its own response, and I am concerned with making that response appropriate, productive and socially beneficial.

Indeed, this is a big project and I am just starting. My current role allows me to engage and see the education question from close quarters, though admittedly, I am just tinkering at the edges. However, I am right in the middle of the conversation that I want to be in, and I get a lot of opportunity to meet interesting people doing interesting work. I may not agree with many of them, given my peculiar views about institutional purpose etc., but I can still engage and explore. I am hopeful that in the next few months I shall be out of my stop-gap life and be able to start the big project. Watch this space!


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