A major theme at  2019’s World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos was how we deliver the skills of the future.  We desperately need a shared language that speaks precisely to the skills and capabilities we need to develop in young people to thrive in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Depending on which authority you refer to, the touted “skills of the future” focus on digital skills such as coding, data science and cybersecurity to be able to be relevant to the challenges faced by business; digital literacy, collaboration and communication to be able to participate in the gig economy; or  people-focused abilities  such as empathy, leadership, emotional intelligence and branding. Others focus on nebulous abilities  such as agility, complex problem-solving, creativity, sense-making and design thinking. But which is it? And exactly how are such capabilities developed?

The oft-used quote  relating to the writings of Charles Darwin,  “It is not the strongest species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change”, hints at what we need to thrive in the future. Darwin speaks to “responsiveness” being the decisive survival trait. Should we not then define intelligence, in terms other than IQ or EQ, and rather our ability to respond to change, to react to the tasks of work and life, to demonstrate the agility we seek in businesses today?

“Task” is used broadly here — from learning to ride a bicycle or play the piano, to speaking in public,  producing a report or  delivering against performance targets.  Isn’t responding adequately to a task or a challenge what we ultimately really want?

Research and adult development theory have started to identify multiple dimensions that speak to responsiveness. This could be a starting point to define a different kind of intelligence  with which we can measure and grade the degree of responsiveness and develop people accordingly. Some of the dimensions could be:

  • Task competence: the well-known model of  Four Stages of Competence covers various stages of learning a new task, from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, conscious competence and finally unconscious competence. Progress depends on how well one understands the desired end result, the required substeps to achieve it, the risks along the way and how they are mitigated.
  • Whole-brain function: analysis entails the ability to zoom in to see the detail, while synthesis is the ability to zoom out to see larger patterns, the bigger picture, the why or purpose of something. This dimension speaks to the traditional separation of left- versus right-brainers, or task-oriented versus people-oriented individuals, and positions the need for whole-brain function.
  • Locus of control:  the locus of control is external when we perceive factors outside ourselves to be driving an outcome, while internalised locus of control speaks to a depth of understanding of cause and effect that allows us to self-direct and author the outcome we seek. Locus of control affects the degree of independence we build into a task.
  • Sense of consciousness: all we do is in service of something that motivates our behaviour — the need for safety, financial reward, belonging, being the best, freedom, autonomy, finding meaning, making a difference, serving others. Our level of consciousness at a given point determines the lens we have on the world and the outcome we focus on.

Responsiveness then could entail a combination of multiple dimensions. And this is where the work needs to be done. Instead of using lofty phrases such as  “design thinking” and “complex problem-solving skills”, we could align with the underlying functions of the brain and adult behaviour to understand how to drive greater responsiveness, which would result in the development of the celebrated 21st-century skills. Ultimately, to succeed at design thinking requires the individual to deeply understand the task (task competence), in detail and at a high level, and appreciate the view of the end user (whole brain), to believe they can effect the necessary change (locus of control) and to be driven to achieve a positive outcome for key stakeholders (consciousness).

By unpacking the underlying dimensions of the skills and capabilities we seek, we begin to define an architecture of capabilities that could be specific enough to be measured and with enough insight to know how to develop those capabilities in people. Which leads us to the next big question: once we have the architecture, exactly how are those capabilities developed?

Developing people for responsiveness will not be achieved by stuffing information into our brains, as we have been doing with the current education system. Developing such a capability requires deeper, mind-shifting, psychological transformation that can only be gained from immersive experiences. Before, we worried about the quality of textbooks and we couldn’t even get that right, but now we have to worry about the quality of experiences, the level of exposure to the world we get. This goes beyond tablets in classrooms, which in truth only speak to content.

Internships and work experiences will save some, at least those who have the privilege of a manager or mentor dedicated to crafting out-of-comfort-zone experiences to drive personal growth. It goes beyond work experiences, though. What about the young people who don’t have the benefit of listening and learning from their parents around the dinner table for decades; the benefit of being taken under someone’s wing and having access to conversations that inform how we make sense of the world; the benefit of being close enough to someone to see enough to model your work and behaviour on them? The mountain young people must climb to be future-fit has risen to dizzying heights.

Virtual reality (VR) and artificial (AI) intelligence present us with an opportunity to create a scalable platform for artificially created experiences that can be consumed by millions and consistently provide the right quality of experiences depending on an individual’s progress across the dimensions. Imagine young people  preparing for an interview by undergoing several practice experiences with a computer-created human being; or  practising communication and assertiveness skills in artificially created team meetings; or tackling a project and engaging with an artificially created client who provides feedback and responds like a real client would; or practising specialised technical skills. Given the plight of its young people, the African continent has to lead in the use of AI and VR to artificially create the experiences that will provide the required stimulus to develop young people’s minds.

It is not the first time the human race is confronted with the reality that  it is no longer as great at some things as  it used to be — memorisation, calculation and analysis. In prior industrial revolutions, steam and electric power showed that human physical strength is extremely limited, while electronics and automation showed the human limitations for repetitive, high-precision manual work. Due to people being replaced in certain tasks, we had to find new ways of being. Every revolution replaced functions we were no longer so good at, allowing us to push our energy into what we were best at. We have another opportunity now.

• Rabana is founder of innovation learning technology start-up Rekindle Learning and a Young Global Leader of the WEF. She is also a partner at private equity firm Nisela Capital.