Education is a tide that lift all boats

From now on, as soon as the faintest memory of 2020 comes into consciousness, so will a sense of sinking disbelief. When a social movement, a contagious disease, and a modern-day diplomatic standoff assaulted the arc of the Hong Kong shore, a rough splash knocked sideways all common perception of normalcy. Regardless of who you are, you are bound to feel the sensation of the ground shaking underneath your feet. For most, the economic aftermath will merely fast-forward a transformation already underway to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Nowhere is the disruption more visible than in traditional industries such as retail and tourism. Viewed as a microcosm of Hong Kong’s existing quandary, at the heart of Hong Kong’s shopping district of Causeway Bay, rental posters are now plastered on the gates of many empty stores. The hustle and bustle that once characterized our city landscape has dimmed.

Hong Kong’s economy is heavily reliant on finance, trade, professional services and tourism. This singular economic ethos, at least before 2019, embodied a tacit dependence on an old saying ‘a rising tide lifts all the boats.’ It worked reasonably well when the world experienced the greatest bull run since 2010. In a falling tide, all boats run aground.

To revive the tide, the government introduced, among others, a one-off HK$10,000 handout and a HK$137.5 billion relief package to support enterprises facing bankruptcy pressure. In times of crisis, executive intervention to neutralize nature’s destructive effect is commonly heard. Are such makeshift measures merely papering over the cracks that have been steadily widening in our society?

But while the pandemic shall one day pass, the transformation it expedited will be here to stay.

Some say we are now living in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, one that has the potential to improve our lives through digital transformation. To date, the largest beneficiaries of technology — the innovators and investors — are constantly reinventing themselves, sucking in information about their environment and adjusting their strategies accordingly. It comes as no surprise that most big IPOs this year are tech-related companies. The long arms of these digital trailblazers extend to every quadrant of our daily lives. Ordering food, buying groceries, and transferring payment can all now be done remotely with minimal human interaction. Their omnipresence creates an illusion that even in these trying times, there are vibrant economic activities across the board benefiting the overall quality of life — lifting all boats. Yet, beneath the stable veneer of the Hang Sang Index, there is a hidden risk that is rotting away its very core. The economic vitality on display is reserved for the selected few that have the capabilities to fully exploit the benefits of technology.

For the rest, the recent events merely brought to a head our society’s entrenched preference for a brick-and-mortar network to extract economic values. When social distancing becomes commonplace, many old companies were unable to adjust swiftly to the digital migration. The double whammy of a healthcare crisis and a digital paradigm shift left behind a path of destruction no short-term monetary handouts can assuage. Our lives would not return to normal until an efficacious vaccine arrives. But while the pandemic shall one day pass, the transformation it expedited will be here to stay.

Forget about short-termism. There is an urgent need for future planning as digital technologies rapidly displace our workforce and decouple from our collective well-being.

To succeed now, we must continually refresh our stocks by acquiring new digital knowledge rooted in four ‘C’s: creativity, collaboration, communication, and compassion.

For example, while demand for workers with specialized skills such as coding or data analytics is expected to increase, the demand for less-educated, low-skilled workers operating in an old-fashioned way will decrease. It will not stop there. The revolution, catalyzed by social distancing, will relentlessly displace manual labor across the entire economy. Even the low-wage sectors will slim their workforce to remain agile. The emphasis on ‘less is more’ is essentially a reductivist approach to ensure sustainability and maximize function. This creates a future job market with a strong demand at the high end, but a hollowing out of the middle and low end. A rising tide that will lift only yachts.

If contentment in labor is key to societal stability, what should we do?

We need to build from ground zero: revitalize our education model to inject new energy and innovation. Our staggered system was hardwired on the traditional 3 ‘R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic. We extolled test-taking skills over original thinking. But entrepreneurship can only be honed through experimentation, not brute-force memorization of model answers. Built-in hardware such as government funding is no substitute for an audacious mindset to innovate.

Changes in social norms only come about if progressive minds can break out of normative frames.

As the world speeds up, the knowledge stocks we learn in school depreciate at an alarming rate. This shift calls on us to keep learning just to keep up. In the old days, we could sit back and relax once we learned something valuable, rest assured that we could derive value from such knowledge indefinitely. Not anymore.

To succeed now, we must continually refresh our stocks by acquiring new digital knowledge rooted in four ‘C’s: creativity, collaboration, communication, and compassion. Our focus should be recast to foster entrepreneurial spirits through team-based action learning backed by a tech-oriented mindset.

Also, to increase the overall tech participation, education institutions should partner with modern companies such as Alibaba and Tencent to jointly develop pilot learning schemes to solve real-life problems for the mutual benefits of all parties concerned. By infusing theoretical pedagogy with pragmatism, we can harness all the benefits brought on by the ongoing revolutionary changes and mitigate the resulting catastrophic effect on the analogue economy. Entrepreneurship is for all ages.

The pandemic might have temporarily retarded our societal growth. For who knows how long, it has also wiped the slate clean and reset a new world order. Never have we need educators more to bring the brightest minds into the fold to challenge received wisdom and replenish the senescing workforce. Changes in social norms only come about if progressive minds can break out of normative frames. This departure from the past might initially drag the mainstream reluctantly in its wake. But the next generation will grow up adopting a new cognitive baseline that provides the shot in the arm that our society so desperately needs. As the world is being remoulded in real time, cultivating innovative minds is a surefire way to shape what comes next.

(An abridged version of this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post)

Head of legal with an MBA@MIT. Exploring topics on education, data privacy, tech, entrepreneurship and PE/VC landscape.