Q&A: Planning for the futures


How can community colleges better plan for the future (or, better yet, futures)? Developing your futures mindset is a good start. Parminder K. Jassal, founder/CEO of Unmudl Skills-to-Jobs Marketplace and of SocialTech.ai, has partnered with community and technical colleges in this work. She discusses the how and why of developing a futures mindset, and some signals that have the potential to disrupt higher education.

What does it mean to develop a futures mindset, and what is the first step to getting there?

Parminder K. Jassal

First, let’s contrast a “fixed mindset” with a “growth mindset.” People with a mindset believe that abilities are mostly innate and interpret failure as the lack of necessary basic abilities. Those individuals with growth mindsets believe that they can acquire any given ability provided they invest some effort, according to Carol Dweck. Similarly, people with fixed mindsets believe that the future happens to them despite the choices they make, whereas those with a “futures mindset” believe that the future can be harnessed and that the choices they make today will result in a better future for them and others.

This Q&A is an excerpt from the current issue of the Community College Journal, published by the American Association of Community Colleges since 1930.

The first step in developing your futures mindset is to learn how to spot futures signals. Signals are the building blocks of possible futures. Synthesizing signals helps you solve for problems of the future. Now you can take those solutions and apply them to better solve for today’s problems. Those with a non-futures mindset typically focus on solving today’s problems which are a result of the unintended consequences of decisions made in the past. So, why waste your limited resources solving for the past when the future is what’s coming at us so fast?

Some traits of a futures mindset include:

  • Thinking forward in years, not days or weeks
  • Asking, “What could happen?” rather than attempting to answer, “What will happen?”
  • Picking up on subtle clues around us (signals) and asking, “What difference(s) will the signal make if it scales in the future?”
  • Reverse engineering to today from the future and applying the future lens to today’s decisions and choices.

Can you talk about the lenses through which you investigate the future?

Sure, I investigate the future through three intersecting lenses: the changing role of people in their environments, the innovations of open economies, and the evolving relationship between learning and working.

For me, my futures investigation always starts with the changing role of people for the future; otherwise, why should the future even matter? My driving belief is that we must always be optimizing towards an equitable, sustainable and socially just futures.

My current thesis behind open economies is that as a society we are quickly transitioning from a world organized at the scale of large institutions to a world organized by distributed networks of social, political and economic value which is redefining long-held beliefs like “who” is considered an expert. Therefore, we need to step back and strategically examine the role of today’s organizations with very open minds.

And finally, I have a deep interest in the relationship between the domains of learning and working and how the relationship is changing for the future. The role of place-based educational institutions needs to be urgently addressed. Technology is increasingly blending the functions of going to work and going to college, and geographic boundaries are becoming less important since a working learner no longer needs to leave their residence for either.

It’s crystal clear that today’s community college leaders must address questions in a timely and strategic manner to redefine their future in a hyper-competitive new world.

Redefinition in terms of strategy and operating models needs to happen quickly: Do colleges transform? Do they optimize instead? Do they do nothing and react later, facing the inherent risks of inaction? It’s the responses to these questions that will determine the future of their organization, or whether there is even a future at all.

Why should community colleges undertake the work of not only developing futures mindsets among their staff, but also building a futures community?

For instance, I’m from India and fluently speak Punjabi, however, the less I’m around a community that fluently speaks Punjabi, the rustier my conversations become. Similarly, awakening and retaining a futures mindset requires a community to practice the art and science of investigating possible futures and then building the bridge back to the present for action.

What’s always been interesting to me is that most college leadership and faculty fear Silicon Valley and the entrepreneurs that are disrupting their role in higher education. When you look back to see forward, it’s actually the college and university faculty who are directly responsible for the most transformational disruption to higher education — from Carnegie Mellon professor Luis von Ahn who founded Duolingo, to James Madison University professor John Fairfield who co-founded Rosetta Stone, to Stanford professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng who founded Coursera. You can even look back to the mid-70s when John Sperling, a professor at San Jose State University, founded the University of Phoenix.

Essentially, the entire MOOC (massive open online course) industry was built on the transformational innovation of college faculty, so why do most college leadership and faculty continue to fear the future? I 100% believe that college leadership and faculty are the strongest accelerants to transformational innovation. We have just not taken the time to harness, awaken and develop futures mindsets to help us transform our own community and technical colleges to position ourselves for the future.

To me, the examples of innovative faculty and leadership should inspire the best use case for awakening and developing futures mindsets and for creating a futures community at your own college. Instead of fearing the future, why not choose to empower your own organization’s transformation by awakening futures mindsets within your own organization? In the end, you’ll need to rely upon these same individuals to fuel your education enterprise anyways.

Read the full Q&A in the current issue of Community College Journal.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
Tabitha Whissemore is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.