Preparing Children For An “Only the Innovators Survive” Future

Access and Inclusion October 06, 2015

The Economist published an article on 18 January 2014 titled “Coming to an office near you: the effect of today’s technology on tomorrow’s jobs will be immense – and no country is ready for it”. The Oxford University’s “The Future of Employment” study in 2013 predicts that 47% of today’s US jobs will cease to exist in 2030. The viral video “Humans Need Not Apply” illustrates the fallibility of human workers, compared to their digital counterparts.

The world of work is poised to undergo seismic transformation in the coming decades, arguably the biggest since the industrial revolution and as the creative destruction of industries accelerates. Many of the jobs today will not exist in 2030s and vice versa, many jobs in 2030s are not yet invented. The old “operator” jobs in the industrial economy will be superseded by the new “innovator” opportunities in the digital era. Massive value will be created and captured by innovators, while operators will face a losing battle against their digital counterparts. Powerful yet affordable technologies will be available for innovators to solve real-world problems, which will inevitably involve automating inefficient manual processes. 

With such a dramatic future where “only the innovators survive”, how can we prepare our next generation to become innovators? Innovators have existed since time immemorial and can be found in every society and profession. They are the very few outliers who push the frontier of science, challenge the boundaries of possibility and advance the progress of humankind. How can we extract the essence of these few innovators, adapt it to the digital era and inculcate it in the future workforce? What are the traits of the digital era innovators who will be able to harness digital intelligence, instead of being replaced by it?

The archetypical innovator of the digital era possesses the characteristics of an Intellectual, a Builder and an Entrepreneur, roles which are tough for machines to perform. 

  • Intellectual: Deeply curious learner and highly critical thinker, the modern intellectual is well-read, open-minded and perceptive.
  • Builder: Like a chef, architect and engineer, the digital builder is apt in the art of creation, translating intangible ideas into physical realities and integrating disparate pieces into a seamless solution.
  • Entrepreneur: Enterprising, creative, and resilient, the dynamic entrepreneur spots opportunities, attracts capital, and leads teams to improve worldly conditions. 


The current education system of knowledge transmission found in most countries is designed to mass-produce job-ready graduates but is inadequate to create the innovators of tomorrow. While knowledge acquisition must remain a key agenda of any education system, it must now be synthesized with the need to nurture the core traits of innovators, such as curiosity, enterprise and creativity. 

Here, I present five ideas to create more future innovators.

Enlarged Role For Parents 

While school should be the predominant educator, parents can play a big role in shaping the child’s development. School and home can contribute equal proportions in imparting the right mindset of innovators. Parents can be involved in a variety of ways, such as identifying and fostering the child’s natural talents, imparting an entrepreneurial and risk-taking spirit, making intellectual conversations, playing stimulating games, encouraging inquisitiveness and questioning, and inculcating the values of resilience and diligence.   

A Parallel Track Of School And Professional Life

The paradigm of dedicating one’s early years strictly to schooling before joining the workforce is not helpful in moulding innovators. Innovation is not an academic exercise that can be learned through books, but is best applied though interactions with the real world. Youth should be engaged in outside-school activities such as part-time work, corporate attachments, overseas educational trips, fund-raising exercises, problem challenges, entrepreneurial ventures, socially responsible initiatives, and community projects.    

Learning Opportunities To Code, Build And Create

Technologies continue to empower and be more accessible to innovators like never before. The latest incarnation of digital and social technologies, such as cloud services, robotics, cognitive computing, 3D printing, synthetic biology, social networking, crowdfunding, enables small teams of today to invent like large corporations of yesteryears.

Hence, juniors should learn to code, build machines, and create ventures. This will help future innovators to exercise mastery and superiority over machines through constructing and instructing them, as well as to forge entrepreneurial ventures around them. 

Problem-Solving, Gamification And Reality Challenges

Problems will be increasingly complex, multi-faceted and technologically challenging. Innovators will have to acquire relevant knowledge and discover new domains, as they construct the solution. Through problem-based learning, schools can mirror how problems are solved in reality. In the same vein, game-like learning gives learners the freedom to experiment and fail without repercussions. Educators can also organize crowd-based pitching and scoring mechanisms to simulate the common market reality where the optimal answer is not what’s right but what’s popular (such as in stock markets, popular entertainment and blockbuster products).

Independent, Inquisitive And Interdisciplinary Learning

Learners should be encouraged to pursue deep learning of any topics outside the formal curriculum and be assessed of their competency in these topics. This fosters independent scholarship, inquisitiveness and intrinsic love for learning. With abundance of free educational resources on the Internet, independent learning and assessment is now possible. In addition, undergraduates of the future should be allowed the flexibility to design their own degree programmes by picking courses from a wide variety of disciplines. The intended outcomes are highly intellectual, interdisciplinary, and inquisitive thinkers who can solve challenging and wicked problems of the future.

While not everyone can be the next Elon Musk, everyone can be more innovative and entrepreneurial. The earlier we recognize and nurture these successful traits of the future, the more the next generation can be ready for an era when science fiction manifests into reality.