Literacy – Was wir unbedingt können sollten

Of wildebeests, lions and the complexity of the world

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Humans tend to think linearly, but the world is complex: in the future, even more skills will be required in our professional and everyday lives to deal with complex developments and influence them positively. Overarching skills such as systems thinking, self-leadership and creativity are in demand.

There is drought and dryness in the African savannah. The grass is withering – and thus so is the food of the wildebeest that live here. The animals start their migration, with huge herds moving through the savannah. The lions follow the large herds, their source of food. Aridity and bushfires, an abundance of rain and lushly growing grass, epidemics that decimate the herds or a large number of wildebeest that fall prey to predators: all of these possible scenarios not only influence the size of the wildebeest herds and the amount of lions, but rather also the vegetation of the following years. The whole thing is a very dynamic system.

Inhabitants of the savannah have to live with the dynamic nature of their surroundings – they intuitively understand these dependencies from their own experience. “Understanding how a system like this behaves is not something that comes naturally,” says Andreas Schönborn, Head of the Ecological Engineering Group at the School of Life Sciences and Facility Management. Just how the individual variables interact and change has to be analysed.

“Systems literacy will be one of the core competencies in society in the future.”

Andreas Schönborn, Head of the Ecological Engineering Group

Systems literacy refers to the ability to recognise, describe and model the behaviour of a complex entity with respect to its structure and behaviour. People, who tend to think in a more linear fashion, need strategies to identify and understand the network of interactions between the individual variables, i.e. to read such systems. In the age of digitalisation, Schönborn opines that it is important not only to use the appropriate tools, but rather also to understand the underlying mechanisms and techniques. He believes that systems literacy will be one of the core competencies in society in the future.

Complex systems are the rule

After all, complex systems are the rule, not the exception. It may be a savannah ecosystem, a lake or a technical system. What they all have in common is that they have cycles, respond to inputs and outputs, have tipping points and interact with other systems. These systems can also be linked to social issues such as the major topics of climate change or population growth, the occupancy of intensive care beds or the next referendum: “We are always dealing with systems that are dynamically influenced by many factors.”

“Unfortunately, we still talk far too little about the ethics and consequences of technological development. It is important to think about the core values behind a technology.”

ZHAW student

One example is the tipping point often mentioned as part of the climate debate: the sluggish system has for a long time reacted minimally to any disturbances – but once a certain point is reached, it could suddenly switch to a new mode. The warming of the Gulf Stream may trigger a tipping point, for example. “Tipping points are difficult to grasp intuitively and thus emblematic of complex system behaviour,” says Schönborn.

“Navigating complexity” is also one of the seven skills that the School of Life Sciences and Facility Management has identified as part of a project. The background to the broad-based project is formed by DigitalTransformation@LSFM, the School’s strategic initiative for digital transformation. “The university should make young people fit for the professional world,” says Daniela Lozza, Head of Digital Education at the School of Life Sciences and Facility Management and one of four members of the core team implementing the strategic initiative. According to Lozza, however, the fundamental question was “What skills will actually be needed on the labour market in the near future?”.

“Such skills are often learned through active experiences and then reflecting on the experiences we have gathered. As part of modular training programmes, there often isn’t enough time for this.”

Daniela Lozza, Head of Digital Education at the School of Life Sciences and Facility Management

In order to answer this, lecturers, alumni and employer representatives were surveyed two years ago, while workshops were also held with students. Seven key skills came to light as a result: digital literacy, self-leadership, collaboration, self-directed learning, navigating complexity, critical questioning and, finally, creativity (see box “Seven skills for the digital future”).

For the creators of tomorrow

The School of Life Sciences and Facility Management has identified meta-competencies in a broad-based project.


The ability to use digital tools and understand their functionality, while also being able to deal with the (ethical) consequences of technological development.


Engaging with others, listening to each other and developing a common language.


Breaking down complex problems into their individual parts.


Taking new perspectives and breaking away from your own patterns of thought, being inquisitive – the driving force for innovation.


Questioning and classifying results as well as yourself and your environment. This is key to understanding the facts and checking their accuracy.


Understanding of your own learning behaviour and personal initiative to acquire knowledge.


Our relationship with self as the basis for our relationship with people and the world. It allows us to recognise our own abilities and shortcomings and to deal with cognitive stress in a healthy way.

Of course, imparting specialist knowledge remains key, says Beatrice Dätwyler, a lecturer in culture, society and language and also a member of the DigitalTransformation@LSFM core group. “However, software that you have acquainted yourself with will be modified or replaced – it is therefore important that you have the skills to deal with new developments,” says Dätwyler. She also opines that it is not only important for university students to be able to cope with change, but also to help shape it, stating that these skills will not only be important in the professional world of tomorrow, but rather also “an issue for everyday life and social participation in general.”

The information of feelings

When dealing with complex problems and high demands as well as performance and time pressure, for example, self-leadership and the clever handling of emotions are of great importance. Our relationship with self forms the basis for our relationship with people and the world. Our own strengths and weaknesses should be recognised as resources, while we should find a healthy way of dealing with cognitive stress. It is also about questioning what we ourselves consider to be a matter of course and reflecting on our own actions – and at the same time being able to understand the perspectives and actions of other people. Self-leadership also involves better understanding and dealing more consciously with feelings and behavioural patterns in shaping relationships and conversations. In short, it is about reading the information from our own emotions.

“I want graduates to have the ability to question themselves and classify results.”

Tobias Merz, Technology Manager at Lonza

In addition to coping with the digital transformation, society faces the even greater challenge of climate change. A transformation towards sustainability is also one of the aims of the UN 2030 Agenda. The expertise to navigate sustainability issues and work for positive change is summarised in the term “sustainability literacy.” This primarily comes down to networked thinking. However, it also involves the ability to think ahead in order to understand potential and desirable forms of the future and to develop your own vision for the future. At its core, it is about shaping the future: knowledge, skills and competencies should result in action.

Step by step to networked thinking

Networked thinking can be learned, but it needs tools. For example, software such as that the Ecotechnology Research Group team has been using for three years as part of the Energy and Settlements teaching module. Using symbols for flows, stores and control factors, the variables can be recorded pictorially and settlements can be modelled as a system. The software performs calculations in the background and points out open connections. In developing the model, students learn to “read” the system. The software is kept very simply, “meaning that it doesn’t get in the way of thinking about systems,” says Schönborn.

“Self-leadership forms the foundation for all other skills. It allows for other skills to be learned and for us to recognise our own shortcomings. It also enables us to deal with cognitive stress.”

Matthias Kaiserswerth, Managing Director of the Hasler Foundation

In the savannah ecosystem, for example, the factors that impact the growth of the grass would be analysed and recorded and these would be linked and modelled with other influencing variables. Schönborn explains that the Energy and Settlements teaching module deals with energy-sufficient buildings. It looks, for example, at the interactions between the input and output of water, the production, recovery or storage of energy and the heating and cooling of buildings, addressing issues right through to the question of whether it makes sense overall to also grow food itself in a self-sufficient settlement’s garden.

Reading the world of tomorrow

In view of the rapid change being seen due to the digital transformation, many organisations and institutions have been grappling with the question of what skills are needed in the working world of today and which skills will be required in the working world of tomorrow. In addition to basic knowledge, meta-competencies are at the top of the list here. Such skills have been formulated, for example, by bodies ranging from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the European Union, the World Economic Forum, the management consulting firm McKinsey and the Association for the Promotion of German Science and Humanities right through to the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI). Broadly speaking, all institutions have developed similar meta-competencies.

UNESCO has addressed the fundamental problem with the term “futures literacy.” After all, the future is uncertain, says the UNESCO website. Any attempt to describe what it will look like is merely a more or less linear extrapolation of the present. People should therefore have a skill set that enables them to imagine the future in different ways. Here, we have to wave goodbye to the illusion that there is certainty. This is because climate change, pandemics or economic crises can shake our conventional images of the future on the basis of which people plan and orient themselves.

Generally speaking, however, it is a challenge to integrate the teaching of these skills into academic programmes, says Lozza. “You learn such skills from experience.” However, as part of modular training programmes, there is often a lack of time for and an awareness of such meta-competencies. “This aspect clearly comes up short in the modules at present.” The training of skills such as self-leadership or self-directed learning requires freedom that allows us to express our own curiosity as well as tolerance for mistakes, while critical questioning is learned in debates and discussions. “This means a cultural change,” says Dätwyler.

Key qualifications over time

The search for interdisciplinary skills is nothing new. As early as 1970, the German educational researcher Dieter Mertens formulated the term “key qualifications” for the professional world of the time. His future skills of the 1970s included logical and critical thinking as well as analytical, cooperative and creative approaches. He also viewed the ability to learn and a knowledge of information, including with respect to its nature, acquisition, understanding and processing, as significant. The background was formed by the economic crisis of the 1970s: it was the time of the oil shock and the collapse of the monetary system with fixed exchange rates – the German economic miracle came to an end and the Club of Rome spoke of the limits to growth. New technologies and production processes displaced jobs and constantly required new special knowledge from employees. These included, for example, robot and sensor technology, genetic engineering and biotechnology, computer-aided design and manufacturing as well as telecommunications and microelectronics.