To imagine transformative innovation and productive disruption, look at other sectors for inspiration.
The best innovation happens when people and ideas from disparate spaces come together. We’ve found some of our biggest breakthroughs by connecting dots across seemingly disconnected sectors, industries, and focus areas.
Earlier this year, we were charged with rapidly identifying three disruptive ideas for education. We’ve been tracking the promise of open banking, the critical role of batteries, and the revived interest in work-based learning — so we asked ourselves how those trends and themes might help us reimagine education in the United States.
An idea from banking and finance: Opening up to accelerate innovation
In the 20th century, organizations prioritized closed systems; in the 21st century, partnership and collaboration are a new way to innovate. Take data, for example. Historically, individual companies created value by securing access to proprietary datasets. Today, a new approach is transforming entire industries: Companies are competing not on data, but on their ability to access, reuse, and reimage open data for the benefit of the company and the customer. This is particularly true in the financial services industry, which is in the midst of a revolution known as “open banking.”
In 2016, the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets authority created the Open Banking Implementation Entity (OBIE) to encourage the financial sector to implement open APIs. Incumbents and established institutions could have perceived open banking as a threat, but many seized the opportunity to rethink their relationships with new upstarts. When they provided third-party developers with access to data, the resulting innovations supported the development of new products and services, met the needs of customers, increased access to the underbanked, and reduced fraud.
Open banking has also seen success in the United States. Plaid, a data transfer network that powers fintech and digital finance products, is currently valued at $13.4 billion and powers applications such as Venmo, a mobile-first alternative to traditional retail banks, and Dave, an application that helps the underbanked get paid up to two days early or build a credit history.
Not unlike established financial institutions, education incumbents also have an opportunity to rethink their role in the ecosystem. Rather than placing themselves at the center, they could increase bidirectional flows of information. The exchange of open data could accelerate the development of new EdTech solutions, launch new services to meet the needs of students, and improve educational outcomes. To be sure, education has made preliminary efforts: The state of California has allocated $115 million toward open education resources (OERs); Data.gov hosts three education APIs; and SURFNet, the organization that develops, implements, and maintains the Netherlands’ national research and education network, supports the development of an Open Education API in partnership with individual higher education institutions.
Still, education could do more. To maximize the benefits of “open” and realize the same level of transformation we’re seeing in the world of finance, education must consider opening up more than just textbooks or test scores. It should also consider opening up the entire system, emphasizing interoperability and data portability while reimagining how information flows between all stakeholders.
An idea from entertainment and tech: Reimagining schools through the lens of career pathways
Philanthropists, employers, and school communities are rethinking outcomes and transforming education experiences. They’re launching new schools and education initiatives oriented toward modern skills and career pathways — not only a traditional high school diploma.
In Los Angeles, Andre Young (Dr. Dre) and Jimmy Iovine are opening a new public high school intended to be “an incubator of entrepreneurial and silo-busting talent.” The academy is focused on making connections across disciplines through applied learning — with direct pathways to local industries such as music and film.
Similarly, George Clooney and a cohort of television and movie stars have announced plans to open a new public high school “to diversify the pipeline of cinematographers, engineers, visual effects artists, and other technical workers” in LA’s entertainment industry. The school plans to work with industry professionals to develop a curriculum and “intensive internships” for an initial enrollment of about 120 students, then scale the program throughout the school district.
In 2011, IBM worked with the New York City Department of Education and The City University of New York to open the first P-TECH school in Brooklyn. P-TECH has now grown to more than 200 schools in 11 states; hundreds of companies partner with the schools to help underserved youth gain technology skills through “rigorous and hands-on academic, technical, and workplace experiences.”
In the U.S. and abroad, employers have started offering work-based learning opportunities, including apprenticeships and fellowships, to diversify their talent pool and train entry-level talent, extending the boundaries of the traditional “school.” Most models combine on-the-job training with classroom instruction — and students can earn wages while they learn new skills. At Spotify, the company’s NYC Technology Fellowship Program aimed to hire new engineers entering the tech industry from a diverse set of backgrounds; as of 2019, 87% of program participants had been hired into full-time roles.
When funders, businesses, and educators join forces to design learning experiences with career pathways in mind, schools become platforms for disruptive innovation. Thoughtfully designed industry academies and work-based learning initiatives do more than just deliver skills and credentials; they expand access, transform communities, and diversify the workforce across sectors and industries.
An idea from energy and engineering: Optimizing the building blocks to enable transformative innovation
In 1800, Alessandro Volta invented the first electrochemical cell, a copper-zinc “voltaic pile.” As a result, Napoleon made him a count and scientists honored him by naming the unit for electromagnetic force in his honor. Volta had created the first battery, which helped further innovations in electrochemistry, electromagnetism, and electricity.
More than two centuries later, batteries are essential elements that enable modern life. Lower-cost, faster-charging, higher-capacity batteries are critical to improving everyday technologies such as smartphones, computers, and automobiles. Some of the world’s biggest tech companies — the Napoleons of our day — host splashy events to announce specifications of their products’ new batteries. Entire nations are placing bets on battery technologies, and investors are eager to get in on new battery startups and initial public offerings.
Of course, it’s not just about cars or phones or laptops. And it’s not just about boosting profits or stock prices. Better energy storage can actually help solve one of the biggest problems humanity has ever faced: climate change. Widespread electrification — a key step toward dramatically reducing fossil fuel emissions — is only possible with efficient, affordable batteries. And the newest million-mile batteries can reduce waste and preserve scarce resources. To solve a global crisis that threatens our very existence, we must rethink the way we power our homes and businesses, as well as the way we get from point A to point B. Batteries are the building blocks that underpin some of the most critical transformations; improvements to the humble battery, applied at scale, can have a massive impact.
Many systemic transformation efforts — including some initiatives to improve education — aim to change the biggest components of the system. What if we looked at the system’s smallest components instead? Rather than overhauling a school or a classroom, what if we rethought desks? Rather than overhauling the entire school year, what if we rethought the first five minutes of the school day? Reimagining how we prepare students for 21st-century careers requires us to think systemically — and that means identifying and scaling improvements to the “battery” of education.
Photo by Timothy Allen