Bring your own lunch: Lessons for the future from primary school

By Jeanette Kwek

Futurist Jeanette Kwek discusses how Singapore can face up to the forces of technology, erosion of public trust and shifting social sentiments.

As a futurist, I spend so much of my life immersed in what-might-be that sometimes, the present can be a rude and unpleasant shock. Since becoming a parent, however, I feel like the futurist’s lens makes perfect sense. My future will be my children’s present; that gives that unknown future a specificity and concreteness that was absent before, when analysing future trends was a more academic exercise.

That does not mean that I am able to predict that specific, concrete future. For instance, people keep asking me if we had predicted Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and a host of other bugbears little and large. When I reply that that is not really what I do, I often hear the retort: “Well, what good are you then?”

After a decade, I may finally have picked out the elements of a good answer to this question. These elements are just fragments, drawn from flashes of insight triggered, naturally, by our daughter.

Our eldest has just started compulsory education. After half a week of excitement, she broke down in tears and told me that she didn’t want to go to school anymore. She was feeling overwhelmed by the adjustments she had to make. I was floored. I had known it would be a big change, but had severely underestimated how big. The complicated timetable imposed an incomprehensible structure to her day.

There were new things to learn hidden among the familiar, for instance having to buy her own lunch, where before she just had to eat what she was served. She had gone from being part of the oldest (and wisest) cohort in her kindergarten to one of the youngest children in the school. The campus was enormous, and it took ages to get where she needed to go. No wonder she felt overwhelmed.

It turned out that tackling the chaos had a relatively simple remedy: we let her bring her lunch to school. Our daughter is an extremely picky eater. For some kids, the plethora of choice in the school canteen is a thing of joy. For our child, it caused paralysing distress. Knowing that she would have to brave the chaos of the canteen at recess time, select from an extensive menu of food that nevertheless contained almost nothing she wanted to eat, buy it, force herself to eat it and still get back to class on time was a huge source of stress.

Moreover, we had told her she was not allowed to eat the same thing every day. More stress. The constraint we added – bringing lunch to school – simplified her life, and as a result greatly increased her ability to cope with the changes around her. It added an element of certainty and predictability to her day, and more importantly, gave her a sense that the rest of the day would also become more predictable over time. All she needed to do was figure out where the new boundaries lay. Her relief was very nearly a physical thing - for her and her parents!

How does this relate to futures? Thinking about the future is also an exercise in grappling with vast uncertainty. The further out in time we go from the present, the more unknowns we must throw into the mix. The complexity of that exercise can, like primary school to a six-year-old, be paralysing. That’s where frameworks and methods come in, to serve as our enabling constraints.

It was Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework*, for example, that served as a new lens to examine my daughter’s daily stress. The framework has sat in the back of my mind, steeping like a favourite tea, for the last decade, and unconsciously orders how I see much of the world.

For instance, when I saw my daughter’s distress, I realised that things that seem perfectly ordered to one person might seem utterly chaotic to another. This led me to understand that imposing the right constraints enables, not removes, freedom of action. That insight and the attendant solution has gotten our first official school year off to a much smoother start than it otherwise would have.

Moreover, thinking about the future is rooted in a deep understanding of the past. Winston Churchill once said, “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see”. This year is, in some arbitrary ways, an inflexion point in our nation’s history.

We commemorate the bicentennial of modern Singapore, a reminder that thanks to our geographical location, our colonial masters decided we were worth investing in. Being a British colony had its benefits: it brought us into an international system characterised by free trade and the rule of law, and started the development of strong public institutions, like the civil service.

This has been among the factors that allowed us to establish ourselves as a hub, and thrive in a globalised world. Being a British colony has also had its costs. Singapore’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious society was a prime target for “divide and rule” tactics, the consequences of which still haunt us today.

2019 is also the centenary of the end of the Great War, when the international system was thrown into disarray after the collapse of the Concert of Europe, and took three decades to settle into a new equilibrium. Our generation grew up in that peaceful, stable, post-World War II world, but we will now have to live through the return of history.

After almost seventy years, we are seeing a global backlash against hyper-globalisation, and the inequalities – social, financial, spatial – that seem to come alongside it. Ideas we thought over with the end of the Cold War, such as Great Power competition, nationalism and religion, are returning to global and local politics, often forcefully.

All this is underpinned by a revolution in technology, led by the melding of artificial intelligence and robotics into a new world of cyber-physical systems, that could rock the foundation not just of the global economy, but also human society and its place in the world.

Singapore may not be at the epicentre, but neither are we immune to the global backlash. We have already been rocked by the return of tribalism, as technological dislocation hit white-collar workers and kick-started anti-immigrant sentiments that continue to simmer today.

We are seeing trust in public institutions slowly erode, as evidenced by cries of “return my CPF” in the last General Election (even though such calls were not supported by votes at the ballot box). Public servants desperately battle fake news that can only take hold because segments of Singaporeans no longer fundamentally believe that the Government has their best interests at heart.

I often feel helpless in the face of the scale and complexity of these changes, and of the changes we must make in order to adapt to it. But instead of being paralysed, we should see this as a chance to take advantage of how Singapore has grown and matured as a society and economy.

All of us must work together now; the complex world needs all our diverse perspectives and skills in order to make sense of how to move forward together. We must equip ourselves and our children with the tools to understand, imagine, and shape the future that we want.

We must discover our own simplifying constraints, the trellises that we can put in place as a society to allow us to collaborate and thrive, not just survive. To accomplish that, we will need to find in ourselves the courage to rethink old assumptions,the imagination to find new solutions, and the resilience to accept failures and start over.

This is a tall order, alarming in magnitude. The hardest thing for me is to not automatically say “it can’t be done”, but to explain why it would be difficult to do. That leads me to my own version of “taking lunch to school”: I am my daughter’s role model. She looks to me to show her what she needs to know. If we cannot bring ourselves to learn new skills for our own sake, surely we can do it for our children. Hopefully, our new equilibrium will not take another thirty years to find.

At dinner a few days ago, a new friend, to whom I’d just spent ten minutes describing my job, very thoughtfully and kindly said to me, “I think you must be an optimist. Because you must believe that at their core, people can and will change. Otherwise, what is the point of your job?”

For the sake of my children, and theirs, I hope she is right.

*The Cynefin framework sorts issues into domains: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic. Each of these domains require different, contextually appropriate responses. There remains a last domain, disorder, that applies when it is unclear which of the other four domains an issue sits in.

About the author:

A political scientist and economist, Jeanette works as a futurist for the Singapore Government in her day job. She thinks this goes to show it doesn’t really matter what you study in school, and you can make a living doing what you would do for free. She has frequently been called the team’s resident cynic, probably because pessimists are never disappointed, so expecting the worst means you can only be pleasantly surprised. (Wait, maybe I am an optimist?!) Her professional life jostles for space with her husband and two precocious children, as well as a dangerous addiction to caffeinated beverages and the written word.

This essay was first published in The Birthday Book: Narratives Undiscovered and Underway. As Singapore turns 54, the book includes essays from 54 contributors on the narratives of their lives: the stories that define them, their communities, the causes they champion, and Singapore’s collective future. The book can be purchased at The Birthday Collective.