Open-ended Goals Setting can be an Empowering Strategy

I am tempted to leave this blogpost unwritten, illustrated only by this photograph of an analysis & synthesis workshop I did with my master’s thesis worker on the data that will drive her master’s thesis and my first journal article. I have checked the flexibility of my doctoral research plan and understood that the opportunity exists within this first semester to change it as much or as little as I please. I am grateful for that wriggle room as I set out to discover what could conceivably be a viable career path for me given that I’ll probably be around 58 years old when I finish my degree. The conversations I had were highly informative and subsequently a rather coherent vision of a consensus reality – an emerging future – can be pieced together.

Digitalization: A broad word that makes it meaning in context and is a function of face to face encounters but all of you reading along will nod in understanding when I say that this is one of the transformations that will inform your career trajectory and future path. It is the biggest difference between my father’s workspace, business landscape, and operating environment, and mine. Whilst he’s always online now, he was 60 when the internet became available to the private individual user in 1994 or 5 in New Delhi where he happened to be based at that time. For many of you, smartphones were already a part of your childhood, most likely your earliest teens. The digital divide, as currently defined, might not be vast given that the generations of early adopters have always been present with the onboarding youth, but the contextual divide is immeasurable and impossible to shorten in any optimal manner. For my digital generation, who fall in this category of earliest adoption of evolving technology, this era puts us at the edge of viability of our own careers and professional journey. Some of us find ourselves back in school. I can say that I was probably influenced by Nokia Chairman Risto Siilasma’s example of going back to school to learn about AI and related technology (he has written what is called an ‘explainer’). He is only two weeks younger than me. Regardless of our chronological age, the rapid transformations of our global “informal” social ecosystem of value exchange is one which will influence and drive our decisions regarding our employability and future directions.

Resource Scarcity: This is what I’m hearing in the Engineering school where I am a PhD candidate in the Mechanical Engineering department. This is not a development aid problem but a systemic ecosystem engineering design challenge. And it is not one the Global North can achieve on its own. After all, so much of the world’s manufacturing has moved to lower wage locations, and these tend to be mostly in the Global South. Africa’s circular economic ecosystem would keep a researcher busy for years.

Global, social, local: We are all next door to each in the virtual world. The whole concept of neighbourliness has changed. I have learnt to call this a socio-technological system, and am discovering its an entire field of study with its own Master’s Degree and fulltime professor. His 5 year contract was crowdfunded through a student led initiative to raise money from the private sector. This digital world will be our operating environment in our cyborg world. This was a factor that I was debating for the past couple of weeks, just how much of an impact will digitalization have on all kinds of aspects of our life. Was it still only a confined to the screentime thing or permeating through our ‘meatspace’ as well? I have come to the reluctant conclusion that we cannot avoid it but I will not get a smartphone either.

Flux: Change and transformation will be the only constant, and uncertainty will become the norm. This is not a bad thing. Rural communities have always been recognized for their resilience and persistence in the face of adversity. Managing volatile conditions and uncertain and unpredictable cash flows builds in flexibility at the systemic level and my guess is that this happens intuitively since I have observed similar clusters of coping mechanisms that resemble each other in as far apart locations as rural Philippines, rural India, and rural East Africa. We cannot externalize risk and uncertainty anymore.

Flexibility: Thus, as a natural outcome, the ideal systems in such a described landscape are the ones with the most viable and feasible tolerance levels built in at the design level. Here, my use of the word design is very specific to engineering design and machinery that makes and runs things. One example of what I mean relates to climate change. We will see increasing variability in quality of infrastructure and environment due to the unpredictable impacts of climate change, even if we manage to bring a halt to the juggernaut this week. Our appliances need to go back to becoming the robust well engineered easily fixable electro mechanical artefacts they were and not go further into fragile delicacy and too many unknown electronics. I have written on this aspect by studying the case of Whirlpool’s world washer launch failure in India.

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