Life-long learning, sustainability and work - RSA

Life-long learning, sustainability and work

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  • Picture of Owen Berkeley-Hill FRSA
    Owen Berkeley-Hill FRSA
  • Sustainability
  • Skills
  • Vocational education

Having joined the RSA recently, Owen Berkeley-Hill FRSA outlines his journey to understanding the potential for people who are at the bottom of societies to provide some of the radical and sustainable responses we need to climate change and other challenges.

I spent most of my career at Ford bouncing around like a pinball rather than progressing up the ladder of one division. This allowed me to become very interested in processes: how work actually worked. Towards the end of my career, my Damascene moment happened when I was asked to join the Ford Production System, Ford’s Lean journey. In summary, Lean, or the Toyota Production System (TPS) is Toyota’s radically different leadership philosophy, which focuses on its people rather than the more common obsession of the majority of leaders: profit. My immediate reaction was, “Why the $%^&* was I not taught this when I was in my 20s?”. Learning more about Lean became a mild obsession and I managed to get Ford to sponsor my MSc in Lean Operations at Cardiff, which made me want to learn more about this radically different form of leadership, not talked about in polite academic circles, but openly practiced in the Derbyshire countryside at Toyota.

Serendipity and the old school tie got me teaching Lean at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, which I did for a decade. The experience of being back in India opened my eyes to what I had taken for granted as a boy. I learnt that over 90% of the Indian economy is in the ‘informal’ or ‘unorganised’ sector. The people working there, having little or no support from the government, rely on their wits to stay alive. Their ingenuity is known as Jugaad a textbook example of necessity being the mother of invention. How did people learn when they had had very little or no education? I was also fortunate to meet some amazing people who were focused on improving the lives of the people at the bottom of Indian society.

At the start of the lockdown, I began reading Compression, a book published in 2010, by Emeritus Professor Robert W Hall, known to his friends as Doc. I remember Doc being the keynote speaker at a Lean conference in 2011, where I had bought his book and then left it gathering dust on my shelves for nearly a decade.  Rather than preaching to the choir, Doc challenged us ‘Leanies’ as to whether we were really eliminating waste in all its forms. Compression was all about sustainability from a highly regarded Lean thinker. The heart of the book is not about finger pointing at the baddies, but the need for us to develop vigorous learning enterprises.  Doc cites Toyota as a seminal example of a learning organisation, but even Toyota is not vigorous enough. According to Doc, we need to reuse-repurpose-recycle in that descending order before we reach out for more raw materials.

I contacted Doc and apologised for my laziness. That led to conversations with him about my experiences of Jugaad and he agreed that, perhaps, just perhaps, the poor in India and in other developing countries might teach us a thing or three about sustainability. But how did they learn when the formal education system in India (as I remember it) is based almost exclusively on rote learning, which discourages creativity? 

This led me to Sir Ken Robinson and the need to find the element in all our young people, not just applaud those who excel at academic intelligence. It also resonated with the 70/20/10 model, which suggests that around 10% of what we need to know comes from formal, academic learning, usually in the classroom; the next 20% grows from working with others and having a good network (colleagues, teachers) who share their knowledge willingly. The remaining 70% comes from experience, experiment and reflection, the ‘scars’ and ‘burns’ that embed the knowledge as ‘muscle memory’.

But how realistic is it to expect parents to move away from their myopic obsession with five A-Stars and admission into Oxbridge?  Can the education system blend academic and experiential learning and regard vocational learning as an equal to a university degree?

Suppose we do radically change the education system so that it creates highly intelligent young people (in touch with their elements) who can hit the ground running. In this fast-changing, technological world how much of that knowledge will be past its ‘sell-by’ date next Tuesday? Will people be encouraged to learn by their organisations or will they be thrown onto the scrap heap, as is happening all around us now? How many of our leaders, both business and political, value life-long learning as Toyota does?  If they did, would we have outsourced and offshored the vast majority of manufacturing jobs to China? Was this done because we could not compete on labour costs, or because the vast majority were brainwashed by Milton Friedman’s edict of maximising shareholder value, regardless of the long-term damage to the lives of their workforces and the health of their companies? How compatible is Friedman’s edict with the need for sustainability?

The conversations with Doc expanded to include his circle of people in the US who are looking to improve the lives of those left behind, in both North and South America.  That circle was then expanded further to include the people I had met in India. 

One of our projects is to see if the inventors in Doc’s circle can develop an oxygen concentrator which can be made in India, using the materials and knowledge available there, not by Indian corporations (the10% of the formal Indian economy) but by the people in the ‘informal’ economy. This is a long shot but the kind of ambitious new approaches we need.

Another example is to see if we can get a Finnish technology, which one of Doc’s circle discovered in England, to be produces in India, again in the informal sector. This technology has been successfully used in the USA and other countries where large, centralised, water-treatment and recover plants make no financial sense. ‘From toilet to tap’ might make you squeamish, but, in the name of sustainability, does it make sense to water parks and golf courses with potable water? Would it make sense for poor, rural economies in rain-shadow areas of India to recover more of their waste water and return it to the aquifer?

As a newbie to the RSA, I see separate workgroups looking at work, education and sustainability, areas in which I am interested (though no expert). I hope they are interconnected so that they can make a real impact. I would be delighted to introduce any interested RSA Fellows to Doc’s circle or to the people in India in the hope of creating some much-needed synergy.

Owen began his career in Overseas Service, travelling America and the Far East. He then became an auditor and has since worked as an IT consultant in the US and Europe. This led him to discover the early attempts at process improvement, which eventually led to Lean and an MSc in his early 50s.


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  • I'm the "Doc" that Owen is referring to. I've been on a deeper learning journey since writing Compression. Thirteen years ago I was filled with "hopeism." My book described human consumption as "compressing" nature into a space too small for it to thrive, complete with a list of existential threats. Then I described what we need to do as Compression -- compress our human profligacy down to a level that lets all other life thrive. Needless to say, very few readers of this could comprehend this message. Almost all interpreted it as "doing more with less" -- greater efficiency. (I spent most my prior life with industry doing exactly that until it dawned on me that we were thereby enabling people to waste more than they could have ever imagined before.) Naively, I expected that readers would easily comprehend a logical argument and galvanize to do something. Wrong! Even two young guys I hired to promote Compression had difficulty. They understood the message intellectually, but could not act on it emotionally (I have trouble with that too). Why? They had mortgages to pay, kids to send to college, etc. My naivety crumbled quickly. What I see now is that we are trapped into living by a system that cannot exist without perpetual growth. "Progress" is a never ending development of new technology and the seeming necessity, political and otherwise, of squandering resources. This is our de facto secular religion, and the system itself enslaves us to it with incessant advertising, financial inducements, and so on. Fall deep into debt, and the system does not serve us. We serve it. Any discussion of this rapidly explodes into examining the worms under an infinite number of rocks that support consumptive society. We seek a new dream to undermine the old ideal of unending progress. (What's a much more frugal, nature friendly concept of progress?) Society has a vast array of defenses to prolong the status quo -- rocks in the road -- pervasive mass media, automotive layout of cities and communities. We underestimate the depth of change needed. A few tweaks won't do, but we keep hoping that they will, and psychologically, we have to contend with this "hopeism." I battle hopeism too.In time, I became convinced that only a mass change in basic values could motivate such big changes in a short time. Since none of us have a clear vision of this new mode of living, a clarion call to action is impossible. (OK, folks, figure it out for yourselves.) One inhibition is that specifics vary depending on local ecology, but a few generalities seem to be common anywhere: local circular economies, much more self-sufficiency; recycle; reuse; produce much of your own food. That's a change in how we live, but we need to let other life thrive too, and for that it needs space. Each locality needs to protect its own ecology -- if by doing no more than cutting fewer weeds. Yes, each of us can make a little dent with personal initiatives, but those have little effect without systemic change -- like ability to recycle most stuff locally. And how do you use the system's rules to essentially undermine the system? Changes this momentous seem naive; people do not change religions quickly or easily. Maybe proposing this is Just a different kind of hopeism, but I see more and more people trying to live as if nature mattered. That's a teeny uptick on my hope meter, although I note that many of them are well educated; plus open to questioning old beliefs. However, most of us are not, and seem determined to hang on to an imagined past. I'm open to sharing ideas with anyone interested.

  • Owen, This is an excellent article, and the point about sustainability also brings to mind the gap between the rhetoric surrounding climate change and the ways in which some corporations, in their blind pursuit of growth and profit, do precisely the opposite of what is needed if the climate crisis is to be addressed successfully. One example of this is the practice of planned obsolescence, when the focus should be on building to last - and the astonishing lack of scrutiny that enables companies to push unnecessary "upgrades" on to consumers who they cynically (and, sadly, rightly) believe will be seduced by the offer of the latest gizmo. So, for instance, producers of mobile phones, laptops and similar devices continue to push their latest offerings down the throats of consumers, many of whom seem all too willing to swallow the arguments that encourage them to buy the newest tweaks on offer. The introduction of yet more unnecessary upgrades that are difficult to dispose of only adds to the environmental degradation caused by the consumerism that remains rampant in rich countries and is escalating among the wealthier middle classes of poorer countries. What is astonishing is that all this often seems to go on unchallenged by those who are supposed to be responsible for the environment. Planned obsolescence should be a badge of shame, and those who claim to care for the environment should be much more active in demanding that the organisations which practise it should focus instead on building products that will last. Your article refers to how we can learn from developing countries which have developed ingenious approaches to sustainable living. They should be applauded for their inventiveness and their dedication to the communities they care for - but, equally, a negative spotlight should be shone on those who do the opposite, caring little for sustainability or the environment, their "ingenuity" being channeled instead towards encouraging the consumerism that enables them to make ever vaster profits.

  • Hi Owen - great article. I had a discussion with another fellow yesterday about Key Stages in school. Why are they “key”? Why are they “stages”? At the heart of your article and your own life journey is the advancement of thinking over many years. Experience being the key determiner here. I note that from my experience our leaders (in banks, in services and in schools) all seem to be young (relatively speaking). Nothing wrong with that per se but in schools the model encourages leadership when experienced with 5 - 10 years of practice. Great experience seems frowned upon. Personally I find great pride in being something of a late developer and I wish we would encourage our young people to see life as a learning journey that goes on well into our dotage. I’m reminded of a man I met on a train ten years ago. He was a retired doctor. Since retirement he had gained a PHD in archeology and was an expert in Roman toilet habits. In fact he was on his way home from Pompey when I met him. I thought then that I would learn and learn and learn until the end. I am further reminded of a great friend of mine who is 73 and runs every day up and down Seaford Head several times. It is a habit he has followed daily for the better part of 40 years. I asked him once if he had thought about taking up golf instead. He replied that he has every intention of playing golf - but was putting it off until he was older. For now, he told me thoughtfully, he was still learning how to run. Thanks for the read and your energetic interactions at the forum yesterday.

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