Using technology to achieve a higher purpose

  • Education
  • Sunday, 12 Jan 2020

“GENERAL, you’ll have to find a new enemy.” These were the words President Gorbachev said to Colin Powell, then in charge of American troops stationed in Germany, after he started the process of reform for state and party, Perestroika. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the nineties, the US Army coined the acronym VUCA to describe the new world they found themselves in – one where enemies are ill-defined, enemy strategies are ever changing, and the war has no clear end in sight. The letters stand for Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic/Complex and Ambiguous.

Almost three decades later, the VUCA concept seems applicable to many areas of life beyond the purely military. Politically, the end of the Cold War ended the certainties of the past and created a dynamic and ever shifting geopolitical landscape where not only interests and ideologies are at play but even the personalities of leaders (think Donald Trump). Economically, the world witnessed major crises in 1997, 2008. Globalisation and hyper-connectivity means that not only people, products and services can move quickly across borders, but also terrorism and pathogens.

Humans bring to any endeavour three types of labour; physical, cognitive and emotional. The fourth industrial revolution and the potential of automation are progressively replacing humans in both the physical and cognitive domains.

Physically, machines are stronger, faster and more precise than us. Cognitively, computers are better than us with memory, managing huge sets of data as well as optimisation. But while computers surpass humans in playing chess and undertaking medical diagnosis, they are making very little progress when it comes to emotional labour, such as developing awareness or having empathy. Great news! Technology is, after all, helping us know what make us really human so that we can focus on that.

However, although emotional labour seems to be our last stand, we seem to be losing our grip there too. Mental health and issues such as depression and suicide are on the rise around the world, especially among young people.

In short, while we achieved outstanding advancements in technology, we still have major challenges in politics, the economy, the environment and now mental health. Resolving this will require a strong sense of purpose at individual and institutional levels. However, purpose turns out to be in short supply too.

A study conducted by the Harvard Business Review and the Energy Project, where 20,000 employees across 25 industries were polled, results indicated that the presence or lack of purpose was the single most important contributor to high performance and ‘feel good’ among the participants. Interestingly, the same study indicated that fewer than 20% of the business leaders developed a clear sense of purpose that they can readily and convincingly communicate to inspire their employees.

A four-year study of young people aged 12 to 26, performed in the United States showed that they are struggling to find their purpose in life. Prof William Damon, the leader of this study and the director of the Stanford Centre on Adolescence said: “A majority of young people are struggling to make the leap into adulthood, and educators, parents, and communities should make a more concerted effort to help rudderless youths find a clear direction and overarching sense of purpose.”

Helping our youth be resilient, emotionally intelligent and happy will require taking a serious look at many of our establishments and institutions and transforming them to be fit for this new world. This includes regulatory and educational institutions.

The choice is clear - we can either evolve and use technology to free us to achieve our higher purpose or, alternatively, we can allow technology to disrupt our job market, concentrate wealth in the hands of a few and keep a growing population to compete for a shrinking job pool, a miserable and stressful choice.

Personally, I prefer the first option. To pursue it, we will need educational institutions that will not only focus on academic excellence but also on developing creative, happy and purposeful individuals.

That is why at Heriot-Watt University Malaysia, we have started a purposeful and impact based community. We are encouraging every member of our community to develop an “Impact Statement” to describe how they would like to impact the world beyond themselves. Everyone on the leadership team of the university attended a two-day workshop teaching them how to draft their Impact Statement. The same workshop is offered to all members of staff. Now, every student is required to develop an Impact Statement in the first year of study. We hope that this will be the basis of a lifelong journey of personal growth for our students and staff.

Young people still need the academic and technical skills that higher education provides. But it is high time that universities took a holistic approach to making our youth fit for the future through also helping them develop a sense of purpose and impact.


Provost and CEO

Heriot-Watt University Malaysia
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