Among our keynotes this year was Dr Njeri Mwagiru, Senior Futurist at the Institute for Futures Research (IFR) at Stellenbosch University Business School. Her work focuses on strengthening capabilities of individuals, organisations and states in Africa, to navigate complexity and uncertainty, to realise long-term goals and visions. Her research interests include leadership, organisational performance, knowledge, gender and diversity, inclusivity and transformation. We had a chance to catch up with Njeri to gain insight into her life, work, and participation with OEB Global.
Who, or what, was your most important teacher?
I’ve been fortunate to have many teachers and sources of important lessons throughout my life so far, each valuable in their own way. I try to be aware that there are multiple sources of learning, and therefore not to discredit where lessons may be imparted from. What I also note, is that it is helpful to be ready and willing to receive the lessons that come to you as they arrive, but sometimes, you might only become aware of something learned at a later stage. There is continuity in teaching and learning.
What was your most important lesson?
I think an important lesson that I have gained from, that I have been taught in many different ways, is the African shared philosophy of Ubuntu. To see oneself in others and vice versa, and to understand the interrelatedness amongst us all. It is a way of thinking that emphasises empathy, but also the accountability of self to others. In the contemporary world, there can be an overwhelming drive towards individuality, separation and fragmentation, and of course this has both pros and cons. However, Ubuntu recognises that we are interconnected by virtue of our shared world. The important lesson is that our actions have repercussions that extend beyond ourselves to others, including future generations.
If you could try out any job for a day, what would you like to try?
I’m in it! I greatly enjoy my job as Senior Futurist at the Institute for Futures Research (IFR) and as part of the academic faculty at the Stellenbosch University Business School. At the IFR we are positioned at the intersection between academia and industry, theory and practice, and offer a platform for knowledge exchange and competency building that links thinking and doing. The Business School is focused on academic excellence, responsible leadership and social impact and we strive to continually adapt to respond to teaching, learning and research demands as part of a rapidly changing world. We have our challenges that are historical, bureaucratic and similar to general organisational challenges faced in a diverse globalised and complex world. However, as a teaching, learning and research community, we work towards pushing past the limitations we face and exploring innovative approaches to solution-finding to overcome challenges.
A genie gives your three wishes – what are they and why?
In folklore, this is usually a trick question! The main point, I think, is to understand that most of our wishes have positive and negative consequences. It’s helpful therefore to carefully consider what wishes we make and anticipate what the range of outcomes could be from fulfilling them. This is a key principle of future thinking too. It’s important to reflect on what we wish and want our futures to look like. It’s also important to pay attention to the multiple possibilities that could emerge from the decisions and actions we take in the direction of our desired futures.
What current learning trend do you think will have a lasting impact?
The trends of expanding access to learning and personalisation of learning will have lasting impacts in my view, alongside other pertinent trends such as digitisation. I think as access to learning widens, and as learners are presented with more choices to customise learning as per their requirements and interests, higher levels of education may be achieved across populations, creating a fertile environment for new and fresh ideas with the potential to add lasting value to our lives and world.
Which technology, in your view, had the biggest influence on the way we learn now?
Broadly, I think technologies that support online connectivity and learning are having a big influence in terms of reach and engagement. Increasingly immersive technologies may also have a significant impact, but this will depend on how these technologies are deployed. Technologies that facilitate inclusivity, for instance in terms of age, gender, disability, and language, can also have a big influence.
What is the coolest gadget/ technology/ tool you have seen lately?
There are amazing innovations and developments in intuitive software and sensor technologies that are contributing to rich information, data analysis and enhanced insights. If some of the difficult ethical questions and dilemmas can be carefully navigated here – issues such as privacy, ownership, and regulations – impressive gains could be made for a range of industries, in our personal and professional lifestyles, and also in matters of governance and leadership.
Who would you recommend in the learning world to follow on social media right now?
I would recommend following a range of diverse thinkers and content contributors to get exposure to different types of information, knowledge, expertise and analyses. The danger with social media is that it can be easy to fall into echo chambers where we are channelled to content that reflects our preferences and sustains blind spots and biases. It is helpful therefore to intentionally peruse various information sources and types of content to keep attuned to diverse schools of thought and different innovative initiatives being undertaken around the world in learning and education. I would urge that in exploring content, it is important to ensure sources of information can be verified, and that data shared is valid and accurate, in order to avoid channels of misinformation.
What would be the title of your autobiography?
If I am privileged enough to have the time to write my autobiography, and if there is a story worthy of telling, I may title it with my name in honour of my cultural heritage. In my culture, we name our children after our ancestors as a way of continuing legacy and memory. There is a system we follow in doing this so that each ancestral line has the opportunity to have their names continued by future generations. I believe there are similar traditions in many diverse cultures. I am named after my grandmother, who is named after others that came before her in our family. Titling my autobiography after my name would therefore be towards representing myself as an extension of a larger community. My name is both mine and shared, and similarly, my story is both my own and that of the community legacy I carry and continue, and hopefully will pass on.
What was your first thought about our overall theme, ‘Reimagining our Vision for learning’?
The theme aligns well with the focus of our work at the Institute for Futures Research. We apply futures thinking and foresight methods and tools to imagine and envision different futures for various thematic issues, industries, corporations, governments, and communities. The futures of education and learning are focus areas in our work. I was excited and pleased for the opportunity to engage an international audience on this theme at OEB 2022.
What have you taken away from OEB?
I have learned more about what is current and emerging in the field of learning and educational technologies. I greatly enjoyed meeting peers and colleagues and exchanging our work and interests. I look forward to continuing the interactions and networking going forward. I appreciated the platform to present on future thinking and foresight and to share our work at the Institute for Futures Research, which is linked to currently the only academic programme on futures studies in Africa.
Do you have a final message for the OEB community?
I greatly value the power of networking, connecting and collaborating. It’s a great way to benchmark against the market and industry trends, to meet like-minded people as well as to open the potential for the emergence of new ideas and innovations. Importantly, stretching the moment beyond the event is valuable, so that latent opportunities can be realized.
Thank you, Njeri. Watch Njeri’s participation in the OEB22 opening plenary.
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