Leonardo Award

“Letting things happen will dominate over making them happen”

Sugata Mitra

Sugata Mitra, Professor for Educational Technology at Newcastle University in Great Britain and currently visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Media Lab, is the winner of the Leonardo – European Corporate Learning Award 2012 in the category “Crossing Borders”.

Mitra is particularly well-known for his “Hole in the Wall” experiment where he installed a computer with internet access in a wall in a New Delhi slum in 1999. In this interview he talks about how education experts could re-think learning methods and develop a new kind of learning based on self-organisation.

Prof. Mitra, the Indian author Vikas Swarup said that the ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment inspired him for his novel „Q & A“ on which the film „Slumdog Millionaire“ from Danny Boyle is based. What is your opinion about this kind of effect?

It was a complete surprise for me. I am not sure whether millionaire is what should be the result of self-organised learning. 'Slumdog professor' would be better. Sometimes I am called that!

You will receive this year’s Leonardo Award in the category ‘Crossing Borders’. This category distinguishes persons who initiate alternative learning approaches that bring about change through their influence on people, companies and society. What was the new way of thinking in your ‘Hole in the Wall’ project?

I wanted to give a computer to children who did not have one and never would have one, because everyone thought they would not know what to do with it and there was no one to teach them. I still wanted to give them a computer and see what would happen. Safe, public, reliable, fault tolerant, large screen access to the Internet is at the heart of the method.

Your ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment was able to prove the great extent to which children can learn and develop social behaviour by themselves – even without teachers. Do we still need teachers?

We still need teachers but they need to learn to let things happen. ‘Letting it happen' will dominate over 'making it happen'. We do not find anything in nature is made to happen. Things just happen. But the difference is: when you make things happen, it assumes that you will exactly predict the outcome – and that is impossible, in most instances. The difference that I am talking about is like the difference between an architect and a gardener. Both of them build things. The architect makes the building and he knows exactly what he is going to do. The gardener plants the trees and does all the right things to cultivate a beautiful tree but he has no idea of what the tree will look like, except that it will be healthy and it will be beautiful.

Modern technology provides us with an amount of information. How can people in self-organised groups select which information is important?

I find that when groups, particularly of children, interact with the Internet, they are able to identify the important and correct issues. An ‘expert’ only distracts from this process. The enormous extent of the Cloud and the wisdom of the crowd, when put together, give us the power of a thousand experts.

To which extent does self-organised learning also work for enterprises?

Self-organised learning can be used wherever the Internet is available. It is simple and quite effective, as my work seems to suggest. Learners use the Internet, social networking and collaboration all the time. Often they are told that this is cheating. The system needs to change. The existing educational systems are mostly a result of a bygone age of empires. The system is engineered to produce identical people because that is what empires need: soldiers, sailors, administrators or workers. In our age, that old system is outdated. I don’t have a formula to solve that problem except to say that we no longer need identical people to run organisations. Not only is this no longer useful, but harmful from the point of view of the company evolving into what it should be in the 21st century. Management can work with employees that are very different from each other.

But how can companies enable self-organisation?

Through the internet finding an answer is very easy for anybody. My work shows that even very small children are able to find answers to really complex questions. But there is a difference between a question and a problem: questions have answers and problems have solutions. The internet has answers but it doesn’t necessarily have solutions to specific problems. In order to solve a problem we need a human ability, it is the ability to join together the answers to many different questions and then use that for the specific problem. If we take a problem in an organisational context and break it up into what are the questions the answer to which will help us to solve this problem, we need to assemble the answers of different groups of people into a solution. That way of working is really what companies should look for.

Could you give an example for the difference between answers and solutions?

In rural India, a problem is that people cook inside little huts. They have very small windows and they use charcoal, which produces a lot of carbon monoxide. All the family members get exposed to it. When you look at the problem, the immediate reaction would be: “how stupid of them, why don’t they cook outside?” Well, they don’t do that because when cooking outside the chances of dying from dengue or malaria are a lot higher than from poisoning with carbon monoxide indoors. They are aware of the fact that there is a danger. But if you offer them less harmful combustibles for free, they refuse and say, “If you want to give me something for free, why don’t you give me a colour television set?” Entertainment is more important to them than physical help.

So we have a problem to which we don’t have a solution but we have answers to several questions. Therefore, I assembled a solution: give them a colour television set that has a little carbon monoxide sensor in it. When the carbon monoxide level in the room is higher than it should be, the television switches off and warns the family to go elsewhere. If this happens often, they will ask for a better stove that produces less carbon monoxide. So when you break a problem up into questions, you find that the problem was actually more than what you thought. There were other things you didn’t take into consideration.

Do you think that management in companies is prepared for this new way of learning with self-organisation and a “letting it happen” style?

Management science has always followed physics with a gap of about 20 years. In Newtonian Physics, physicists thought they could calculate everything. Twenty years later industry took that up and believed they could run society, our industry and our human relationships like a machine as well. But then by the early 1920s physics changed completely. Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist, discovered that it is impossible to predict exact outcomes – his 'Uncertainty Principle'. Industry and management scientists have not caught up with this reality yet.

There is a joke in management that says: things never go according to plan. This is just natural. Things don't go according to Plan A or Plan B, but by some Plan Omega created by the chaotic laws of nature. Physics is beginning to understand the nature of chaos and self-organisation. The study of self-organising systems will have the same status in ten years time as mechanics once had. It will create a new lifestyle – and will change management. But I do hope that gap of 20 years can be reduced.

Physics also has links to art. The documenta in Kassel, a most prestigious art even, invited quantum physicists from Austria to this year’s exhibition to show their experiments on site. The idea was not to present them with a classical art guide but with people like worldly companions. For example, in the parks you were accompanied by a gardener. The idea was that rather than having an audience you were actually sharing a space together. Does that link to your ideas as well?

Yes, it does link to my idea about education in particular. Education is a process where the 'teacher' and the 'student' actually share the same space. Everyone is a learner and a friend, everybody guides everybody else.

A metaphor for organisational management could also be the relationship between a conductor and an orchestra.

Oh yes, 2010 in Oxford, I was in a lecture in which someone showed us video clippings of conductors. There was a conductor who was a classical 19th century dictator, waving his baton, sweating, looking angrily at people who made mistakes. Then another conductor was shown, who didn’t seem to be working. This guy used the baton just for the first one or two minutes and as soon as the music took hold he stood in one corner clapping, tapping his foot and enjoying the music. That’s how management and education should work as well.

In other words: You can’t manage knowledge, you can just enable it. But how do we let education happen and avoid bad things from happening?

Letting it happen can be misinterpreted as Laissez-faire, or being lazy and not doing anything. That’s absolutely not what I mean. Thinking about that, another remarkable thing comes to my mind: Michelangelo’s famous quotation: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” I think this is a beautiful example of letting it happen rather than saying “I constructed an angel”.

So the angel would be to grasp common sense, common meaning and concern?

Exactly, and wouldn’t it be very funny to imagine a set of engineers sculpting an angel and talking about it: “Let’s take about 30.5 centimetres as the length of the food of the angel and start working the stone.”

You are engaged in the issue of increasing educational opportunities in remote locations where schools and teachers are in scarce supply. How can we improve our methods of distributing learning opportunities around the world?

Children should be given free access to broadband Internet, large screens for group access, a safe environment and stimulating questions. It should be their right to get these things as much as food, shelter, clothing and healthcare. We need to include access as a fundamental right of children.

At this year’s HRM Expo people will also discuss the potential negative effects of computers on our brain. The renowned psychiatrist Prof. Dr. Manfred Spitzer says if we work with digital media very often they can cause some kind of dementia because we don’t train our brains anymore – a problem especially for kids. What do you think about that opinion?

When writing was invented, people thought memory would disappear because we won't need to remember anything anymore. Nature adjusts to prosthetics. When we invented levers and pulleys, our biceps became weaker because we did not need to use them much anymore. When cars were invented, we lost the ability to walk long distances. This time, the knowledge and communications Cloud is a prosthetic for the brain. Nature will adjust our brains to do other things. Throughout history we have used technology to improve ourselves. We will continue to do so.

Interview: Günther M. Szogs and Stefanie Hornung