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How we learn: a 21st Century riddle

Riddle: What starts unobtrusively but is emergent and unpredictable, spreads rapidly across boundaries, and can have widespread consequences across the system?

You might be forgiven for thinking of a virus or infectious disease. Viral infections begin in a host cell, multiplying and spreading rapidly across distances in unforeseeable ways. A virus spreads through biological networks – with no respect for national or other boundaries – and its effects can be far-reaching and with sweeping consequences.

But the answer is not a virus, nor an infectious disease. The answer is social learning capability!

Social learning capability – or the ability to spread learning rapidly through horizontal networks, irrespective of boundaries or silos – can revolutionize a system. Unlike a virus, however, it is easily thwarted by mismanagement. Yet it is what we need in order to address the often capricious but large-scale, interconnected challenges facing individuals, communities, organizations, countries, and the world.

Ambitious perhaps – but we have to figure out how to do it. Global challenges make it imperative that we develop our ability to learn together. We need a social discipline of learning to get better at increasing our social learning capability in and across systems.

Virology as a discipline requires cross-disciplinary synergies. People across professions combine their knowledge of a microbial ecosystem to address the challenge of an infectious disease spreading in different ways across the globe. Similarly the discipline of social learning calls for combining knowledge across boundaries to make progress on issues that have systemic consequences at multiple levels of scale.

In our work we are increasingly invited to help people convene social learning spaces in which those cross-boundary encounters can take place. From health and education to agriculture and ecology to business and government, we are seeing the need to bring together multiple stakeholders across different domains and across different national, cultural or social boundaries so that they can bring their combined energy to address a common problem.

A social learning space allows people to develop a shared practice and a shared identity around a problem. In combating infectious diseases people from traditionally separate disciplines such as human health, animal health and wildlife need to be able to see each other as learning partners, developing a shared language and shared identity to be able to talk about the problem on a systems level. This shared identity anchored in the development of a shared practice is a condition for the social learning space to function and be sustainable.

Creating social learning spaces and convening cross-boundary encounters are just some of the ways we are exploring in order to develop the theory and practice of social learning capability. One thing we know is that we have much to learn from viruses and infectious diseases if we are to keep up with the speed, unpredictability, and scale of the challenges facing us in the 21st century.

Etienne and Beverly write about this and other similar themes on their blog ( where they are in the process of sharing the resources they produce. They also run online and face-to-face workshops in July/August, which bring together people from different organizations and sectors to work on some of these issues. See

See also:

“Virology in the 21st Century” by L.W. Enquist in Microbe magazine, July 2009

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