Repurposing Universities for Tomorrow

Repurposing Universities for Tomorrow

The most common question I’m asked when I do consulting sessions for university presidents globally is, “What is the future of learning?” Since traditional sit-and-get models of learning are no longer suitable and the value of a degree has been brought into question, I believe the question these university presidents are intending to ask is, “How can my institution remain relevant as new technologies get adopted?”


“The human experience will evolve at a much faster pace between now and 2040 than it ever has before in human history programs”


The higher education system risks complete irrelevance, if its leaders refuse to acknowledge this change.

The Human Experience Is Changing

“We currently have AI algorithms that can learn everything that humans can do, and it should take about ten years to master it all,” says inventor and eminent futurist Ray Kurzweil.

The pace of social change is accelerating due to exponential technologies. Humans are being disrupted Repurposing Universities for Tomorrow Tammy Lakes and the implications are profound. Consider what that means for an education system preparing students to thrive in that new world. The rate of change we’ll experience will force new paradigms and different systems to support that change. I have trouble imagining any sector that won’t change, due to impacts of new technologies.

We don’t know exactly what our planet and society will look like in 2040, but I believe the most important skill we can train right now is adaptability.

Teach Adaptability

Current university systems operate in a model that often requires students to stop their lives, attend university, and then go out into the world to apply the learning. I see this model as being insufficient by 2040.

Since the rate of change will continue to accelerate, it will not be sufficient to learn a competency in college and then assume students have achieved all the learning they’ll need for the rest of your career and life. Adaptability will be required, in order to cope with transformation and provide students with the flexibility to reposition themselves for each new year of change. Many skills will become irrelevant quickly and only adaptable people will have the ability and mindset to quickly get trained as new skills become required. ¹

New Focus Areas

As new technologies destabilize the status quo, it’s obvious that teaching humans to live in the new world of tech enabled experiences will be critical. Preemptive training for new technologies is key. The change will occur so quickly that new skill training and businesses should work together much more closely and at scale.²

Below are three areas in which universities could focus their attention. Universities could become:

1) Convening mechanisms for key stakeholders in society

When we wait for new technologies to appear before we start legislating for them and training the general population on uses and implications, we’ve already lost. Universities can act as the convener of key stakeholder groups, with the goal of increasing the articulation between policymakers, business leaders, technologists, non-profits, investors and students. Increased coordination between these groups could result in early and intentional design of solutions to solve problems plaguing the most vulnerable populations of the world, while opening new business opportunities for entrepreneurs and businesses. Higher education could start taking the lead in bringing these stakeholder groups together earlier, playing a role to actively design the future of humanity.

2) Implementation centers for new models of senior living

The US higher education infrastructure investment has created university campuses that can be retooled as scalable experimentation centers for senior living models. As the human lifespan and years of good health increase, there will be more need for new models that provide active engagement for people over 70 years of age. Instead of discarding the elderly population, university campuses could become testing grounds for new models of senior living or provide matchmaking for seniors and families that need childcare.

3) Research and training for humans to live in space

As humans become an interplanetary species, universities should host training programs to teach humans to live in space. Another opportunity for universities over the next decade would be to become centers of research for these five key risk areas, identified by NASA: gravity fields, isolation/confinement, hostile/closed environments, space radiation, and distance from Earth. If higher education takes too long to establish training and research programs for the space field, corporations will step in and fill the void. I see this as one of the biggest opportunities for the higher education space in 2040.³

4) Test centers for smart cities

News about ‘smart cities’ is flooding our daily lives, revealing the possibilities for improved quality of life through the use of new technologies. The four pillars of smart planning are connectivity, mobility, security and sustainability. Test centers combining technologies working to solve all four pillars and their intertwined complexities will become critical. This is an opportunity for a partnership with key corporations to use the university campus as a testbed for smart city technology. Imagine a university campus where sensors monitor and adjust for public safety, air quality, traffic management and human engagement.

5) Coordination centers for disaster recovery and resilience

Natural and environmental disasters will have an impact on most of the world’s populations by 2040. Planning for disaster recovery and resiliency are areas of opportunity for universities to step in and create significant impact. Advance planning for mass evacuation and displacement of millions of people will be required to save as many lives as possible. Universities should play a pivotal role in this space.

Opportunities to recast higher education are endless. University leaders should surround themselves with people actively working on designing the future, in order to properly navigate the space. Proactive planning and stakeholder engagement will be required to transition the higher education system from yesterday to tomorrow.

¹ U.S. Department of Education.(2018) Rethinking Higher Education. Retrieved from: finaid/accred/rethinking-higher-education. Pdf

² Stephen McBride. (2019) These 3 Computing Technologies Will Beat Moore’s Law. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes. com/sites/stephenmcbride1/2019/04/23/ these-3-computing-technologies-will-beat-moores-law/#2f6dfa3737b0

³ NASA. (2015) The Human Body in Space. Retrieved from: https://www.



Tammy Lakes advises education leaders on the future of work, technology and new learning models, as Founder of Creating Collaborative Change and an active board member. She spent the past twenty years working at the intersection of education, technology and business. Reasoning from first principles enables her to approach large systems with a methodical process, breaking those systems down and rebuilding to meet the needs of the market. The focus of her work for the past decade has been in rebuilding systems to be customer-centric, creating flexible new business models to support that shift and virtualizing experiences to increase user satisfaction. Tammy has led Product Management, Product Innovation, Digital Development, Design, Marketing, Sales and Implementation groups for multiple organizations, including Singularity University, Pearson and Strada Education Network.

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