By T.A. Frank
Starting in the 1950s, and then for the next half a century, Peter Drucker saw that knowledge was supplanting land, labor and capital as the most important resource in the economy. People would have to use their brains more than their backs.
In such an environment, Drucker warned, “if knowledge isn’t challenged to grow, it disappears fast.”
And yet corporate training for frontline workers has been declining for decades. Per-student funding for public education has stalled or shrunk. And the knowledge demands of employers are rising at a faster rate than Americans are acquiring the skills necessary to fill them.
“There’s a big disconnect between what’s going on in the world and what Drucker saw as the critical things to be doing,” says Rick Wartzman, director of the Drucker Institute’s KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society.
So what might happen, Wartzman wondered, if you brought a full array of resources to bear on one community in the hopes of making it a model for the knowledge age? Could you actually create a “city of lifelong learning”?
As to where the Drucker Institute might take up a challenge of this size, the choice of city was obvious: South Bend, Ind.
For starters, the Drucker Institute’s director of public sector engagement, Lawrence Greenspun, had been based in South Bend for several years, working with officials there as he devised a management and leadership training program for local government agencies.
South Bend also has an enterprising mayor named Pete Buttigieg (“Mayor Pete,” to locals—and, these days, to those following presidential politics, as well). He is so enthusiastic about South Bend serving as a testbed for big ideas that he likes to call it the “Beta City.” And, with a population of about 100,000, South Bend is large enough to offer economic and demographic diversity yet also small enough to be manageable in scope.
In the fall of 2017, Wartzman and Greenspun met over lunch with Buttigieg to pitch him on the concept of turning South Bend into a city of lifelong learning. The mayor immediately liked the notion and agreed that his name could be invoked in fundraising for the effort. But he had one stipulation: The project shouldn’t be housed in his office. Instead, he urged Wartzman and Greenspun to see if they could interest the St. Joseph County Public Library in becoming the long-term steward of a lifelong learning system.
Buttigieg pointed out that unlike mayors who come and go—with new administrations invariably changing priorities—the library’s mission would always be lifelong learning. And so Greenspun contacted the library’s executive director, Debra Futa, to see if she was interested. “I jumped in with both feet,” Futa recalls.
With buy-in from Mayor Pete and the library, Wartzman was able to raise seed money from Google.org and Walmart.org to begin exploring what residents across South Bend thought would be essential in a lifelong learning system, and whether they even wanted such a system at all.
By the numbers
The number of interviews conducted by the Drucker Institute and IDEO with South Bend residents to understand their learning interests and needs.
To help the Drucker Institute take this deep dive into the community, Wartzman connected with an organization that he had a hunch would make an ideal partner: the design firm IDEO.
Best known originally for its industrial designs of physical products, like Apple’s first computer mouse, IDEO has for the past two decades been branching out into design in its broadest form, creating experiences and systems. In 2008, it opened the Design for Learning Studio, which has gained attention for creating a network of K-12 schools for the growing middle class in Peru from the ground up.
Wartzman had previously met Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO, and he knew that he was a huge Peter Drucker fan for one main reason: Like IDEO’s own designers, Drucker put the human being at the center of everything and believed in closely observing people to really understand their needs and values.
“As soon as I reached out to IDEO and we started brainstorming,” Wartzman says, “my instinct was confirmed: We were bound to work together really well because our organizational DNA is incredibly similar. We’re related tribes.”
Listening in on one of these first calls was Sarah Zaner, a portfolio director at IDEO, who was starting her second day on the job. Zaner had two decades of experience working in product development and research in the educational sector, particularly in K-12 public schools, and the idea of reinventing learning for adults, making it accessible as never before, left her intrigued.
“When I heard the idea of turning South Bend into a city of lifelong learning, I thought: ‘Great! What does that mean?’” Zaner remembers. “After the call, I thought, ‘I still don’t know what it means, but I want to figure it out with them.’”
Ultimately, what the Drucker Institute and IDEO figured out was that they’d be designing and building a system that will offer individuals a smartly tailored set of learning opportunities—much of it provided for free to South Bend residents and made available digitally (through platforms such as Cell-Ed, GCF Global, Penn Foster, Study.com, edX and LRNG). When the system is launched in 2020, it will also connect learners to local brick-and-mortar institutions, including Ivy Tech, Indiana University and Goodwill. And it will facilitate other face-to-face learning experiences through study meet-ups at library branches and community centers, and job shadowing at participating employers.
The system will be focused on helping the most underserved and economically vulnerable acquire new knowledge and skills so that they can obtain jobs and advance in their careers. Yet it is meant to be universal—something the entire community, regardless of age or income, will find engaging—and will include courses for self-improvement (like cooking healthier meals or financial planning) and even just pursuing a passion.
The aim in all of this is to cultivate in South Bend residents the habit of lifelong learning and, in turn, help to build their confidence and sense of self-agency so as to unlock their full potential.
“We want people to feel successful and in control of their lives,” says Lex Dennis, the Drucker Institute’s director of lifelong learning. “One of our big bets is that by bundling these diverse offerings together we accentuate people’s habits of learning and strengthen their resilience.”
But first, before any of this could be mapped out, there was a lot of listening to do.
Step one was to talk with as many South Bend residents as possible, and on this front Greenspun took the lead, meeting throughout 2018 with people from all walks of life—in churches and prisons, schools and offices. At every turn, he would ask the same basic questions: What do you need to learn? What do you want to learn? How do you like to learn?
These meetings also forged crucial bonds between the Drucker Institute team and a wide range of institutional stakeholders—government agencies, businesses, nonprofit service organizations, churches and community groups. “South Bend is a word-of-mouth city,” says Isaac Hunt, a group violence intervention supervisor at Goodwill, which has been an active participant in helping to shape the lifelong learning system. “You’ve got to be engaged with the right people.”
In early 2018, IDEO researchers joined the cause and began to conduct hundreds of interviews on their own, eventually developing a full set of learner profiles that would help guide the design of the system by making sure that as big a cross-section of the city as possible would find it relevant and radically accessible.
Meanwhile, the fact that the Drucker Institute and IDEO truly wanted to learn from the community—and not just presume to know what was best for the community—left quite an impression.
“Oftentimes the middle class comes up with a lot of ideas, and the people it impacts most aren’t at the table,” says LeRoy King, director of the Bridges Out of Poverty program at Goodwill in South Bend. “But from the start everyone was very attentive to that problem.”
Early this year, IDEO began to roll out prototypes of what the system might look like. The design team knew that it had to appeal even to those who aren’t comfortable with technology—which in South Bend is not a small portion of the population. As IDEO design lead Rachel Young explains, “We’re trying to make an app for people who literally do not like apps.”
One key person responsible for overcoming this challenge was Allison Press, an IDEO interaction designer. Hundreds of sketches were tried, Press says, because “we want to fail fast and often.”
They did. One early version attempted to make the experience like a game, with a map of South Bend that got colored in according to courses that the learner took. But residents thought it was childish. “This app needs to be joyful and delightful,” says Press. “But it also needs to take people seriously and treat them with dignity.”
The designers kept working at it. Sometimes, they took trips to South Bend and spent time with users in their homes, usually for two-hour sessions. Other times, they would send out a prototype and have scores of users send their feedback via a research platform called “dscout” (pronounced “dee scout”), often in the manner of selfie videos. South Bend residents appreciated having such extensive back-and-forth with the designers.
“As the months went by, people were starting to say, ‘I really like this,’” Young recounts. “They’d come along for the journey because we built this with them. We just kept turning the knob closer to what they needed.”
“This app needs to be joyful and delightful. But it also needs to take people seriously and treat them with dignity.”
A couple of months ago, Press came up with an idea that has become the heart of the system: thoughtful playlists of learning options organized around particular topics—all of them curated by local residents. These “Collections,” as they’re being called, are where a South Bend shop owner can share his favorite learnings on becoming an entrepreneur or local basketball hero Skylar Diggins might point to resources that she likes on living a healthy lifestyle.
The system will also offer “Career Collections”—a more formalized sequence of learning experiences, put together in conjunction with local employers and industry associations, that will equip residents to land jobs in the region’s fastest growing sectors: health-care, IT and advanced manufacturing.
To emphasize the theme of resilience, and in a nod to the city where the lifelong learning system is being born, the library also recently locked in a name: Bendable.
Wartzman stresses that there is much to do before Bendable is up and running next year. To that end—and with the continued financial support of Google.org, Walmart.org and additional grant funding from several public and private entities in South Bend—he has assembled a cadre of talent to bring the system to life. In addition to IDEO, the library and the city, the group includes Carbon Five, a San Francisco-based software firm that is developing the online platform; FSG, a consultancy that is helping to choose the right outputs and outcomes to measure Bendable’s effectiveness; and a company called Credly, which will ensure that Bendable users are recognized for their learning achievements through the issuing of digital badges and credentials.
Even at this stage, several of those who have worked on Bendable describe it as one of the most exciting projects of their lives. Lawrence Greenspun calls it “a once-in-a-lifetime program.” For Zaner, it has offered the potential to improve lives on a scale that she could only dream of when working within the formal K-12 school system, in which meaningful change can be hard to make.
“As we’ve designed Bendable, I’ve realized we’re creating new ecosystems and new ways for communities to tackle these problems that we’re all facing,” says Zaner. “That’s been a goosebumpy feeling.”
Mayor Pete, for one, seems to share that sentiment.
“If we get it right,” he says, “if it’s universal enough that it will benefit the very different kinds of people who live in this city, in their very different kinds of professional, personal, family and community pursuits, then it will have global relevance.”
To enable that very possibility, the Drucker Institute and IDEO are planning a partnership that will, in due course, bring Bendable to other locations. “Our intention,” says Wartzman, “is to form a network of cities of lifelong learning.
“That we as a society are finally getting around to something like this 15 years or so after Peter Drucker passed away is too bad,” he adds. “But it’s like a lot of things. We’re just hoping to catch up with him.”
What will you do on Monday that’s different?
Give Yourself a Grade
Make an honest assessment of whether your organization is doing all it can to help everyone across all functions and at all levels regularly learn new knowledge and skills—and commit to improving things where necessary.
Go Really Deep
Consider focusing on one subject very deeply for a considerable period of time before taking up another, a practice that Peter Drucker used to build up “a substantial fund of knowledge,” as well as to become “open to new disciplines and new approaches and new methods.”
In addition to offering and seizing opportunities for learning, be sure to create opportunities for teaching—a recognition that knowledge workers need to do both to stay sharp.