Humanity must deal with a global crisis of its own making. Climate change, extreme wealth inequality, runaway tech, war and famine… these are all outcomes of human activities. In the last 6000 years, we have built cities and expanded our footprint all over the world. And now we have to learn how to manage the full complexities of the systems we have created.

But here’s the kicker — no one knows how to do it!

That’s right. While we build our schools around learning objectives that have students reproduce answers that are already known, the problems they will face in the real world require learning systems to discover solutions that don’t yet exist. This fundamental mismatch between schooling and reality appears most dramatically in the ways we manage our cities and the larger ecosystems they depend upon.

Everywhere on Earth there are problems with the buildup of pollution, runoff of topsoils, bleaching of coral reefs, and thinning out of forests. What I propose in this article is that we use the well-known fact that universities have been located in cities as a “platform solution” for creating bioregional-scale learning ecosystems.

What this means in practical terms is:

  1. Adopt the proven techniques of setting up and managing field sites — which are standard practices in anthropology, archeology, biology, and ecology.
  2. Treat cities and their bioregions as field sites for applied cultural evolution research.
  3. Establish campus-level missions of regional sustainability at universities all over the world.
  4. Build and maintain learning ecosystems of collaborative partnerships between governments, associations, civil society organizations, and market actors to drive regional development toward sustainability goals.

None of these ideas are new. I write them here because my colleagues and I have just launched the Center for Applied Cultural Evolution with a mission to curate, integrate, and translate into practice the best scientific knowledge available for guiding large-scale social change. We will do this by building a global network of culture design labs where local communities become increasingly capable of guiding their own developmental processes.

Two Major Dimensions of this Work

I have written previously about how universities are failing humanity. They are not currently set up in a manner that enables the kind of vision outlined here. The reasons for this are multiple and I will not go into them today.

What I want to focus on now is how there are two essential ways that universities need to be restructured if they are to become vital hubs for learning as humanity navigates shocks, disruptions, and increasingly likely collapse of ecosystems around the world. The two major dimensions of the change I am advocating for have to do with contextualization and content.

There has been a long and veritable history within the academy of giving greater credence to universal principles (like the Law of Conservation of Energy) than to the profound importance of contextual factors. In every field of study, the cutting-edge work today is all about grappling with systemic interdependencies of things that are embedded in context. This is as true for literary studies of poetry and playwrights as it is for the physical sciences as they grapple with fundamental forces of nature.

Only by making learning about context can we see how human minds develop as part of their larger social system — and more significantly, that human evolution is now principally driven by the cultural contexts of technology, media, economics, and politics that shape our behaviors from our first breath to our dying gasp. When we take contextualism seriously, we see that universities are part of urban landscapes. And urban landscapes are part of bioregional ecosystems. These ecosystems are part of planetary-scale geochemical cycles that make up the Earth’s biosphere. And the Earth itself is part of a larger cosmic dance of stars, planets, floating debris, and galaxies that all impact the evolution of life in subtle, yet significant ways.

When we take context seriously, we see that all universities exist somewhere. And each somewhere is currently threatened by environmental harm due to human activities. So we must take seriously the ethical call to action that this context thrusts upon us. Our universities need to become catalyzing places of transformative action for the contexts shaping and shaped by them.

This leads to the second dimension of content. What we learn depends on the categories of knowledge that we use to construct our inquiries. Universities developed specific departmental structures throughout the 20th Century that gave us the disciplines that silo and fragment all that we have learned so far. Only when we put Humpty Dumpty back together again — as is routinely attempted in modeling and simulation studies, interdisciplinary research centers, and collaborative real-world projects — can we see that the content we use to learn with is too broken to serve our needs.

This is why we need to take on the Grand Challenge of Knowledge Synthesis. No more pretending that boundaries exist between “hard” and “soft” sciences. Or that the social sciences and biology are different, when in reality they all study behaviors of living creatures that are part of the singular web of life on Earth. Our knowledge has been fragmented because we embraced the illusion that its parts were separate from each other. That is not only unscientific, but it is profoundly dangerous when living in times like these.

Our problems are systemic and holistic. Thus our pathways to addressing them must also be systemic and holistic. We cannot continue to let the content of our universities remain fragmented when preparing students for a maelstrom of catastrophic interdependencies in the world around them. Luckily, the complex challenges of bioregional sustainability require exactly this kind of synthesis.

When we begin to treat universities as place-based and contextualized, we see that we must establish campus-wide initiatives that bring together knowledge from the arts, sciences, engineering, and humanities to make our best “moon shot” attempts at regional sustainability. I have been thinking about the transformative power of land grant universities in the United States as one concrete expression of this potential. When I attended grad school at the University of Illinois, I was struck by how deeply integrative their agricultural sciences were in the Department of Natural Resource Management at that time (roughly 15 years ago).

Go to any other land grant university — in the California system, at Oregon State, in Boise or all the way across the continent at the University of Maine — and you will see centers and labs set up to tackle social and ecological challenges in their own back yards. What is needed now is not to begin this work, but to catalyze and drive it much higher levels of capability.

This is a task for applied cultural evolution. It can only be done by understanding how humans build trust, work well in groups, use tools to achieve otherwise unattainable goals, and other things that cultural evolutionary studies has on offer. My colleagues and I are setting out to do our part in this domain. But we cannot possibly do it alone.

Only by achieving the level of meshed networks across many locations will it even be possible to attempt planetary-scale sustainability. What I argue here is that universities can become the platforms for partnership in cities around the world. They can declare a mission that their campuses will work closely with local and regional partners to drive socio-ecological change toward health and resilience. And they must do so as part of increasingly global networks that target global goals that must simultaneously be met for local efforts to succeed.

This will be harder than anything ever attempted in the long and glorious history of our species. And now is the time to roll up our sleeves in earnest.

Onward, fellow humans!