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21st Century Lab - Our Publications


The 21st Century Lab produced its first major report, Thinking Ahead, in 2018. Drawing on insights from contributors from across many sectors and countries, it explores the challenges and purpose of universities in the 21st Century. The publication develops themes first investigated in an earlier publication, A 21st Century Civic University, which examined the continued civic mission of the University of Lincoln in supporting its communities.

The New Civic University

A university working with its communities

The New Civic University (PDF)

Thinking Ahead

Exploring the challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century

Thinking Ahead (PDF)


21st Century Lab Grand Challenges

The 21st Century Lab Grand Challenges are based on the contributions to our first publication Thinking Ahead and are being further developed with input from our Reference Group. The Challenges are intended to help crystallize a set of global disruptive drivers that universities should be well positioned to respond to across their teaching, research, knowledge exchange and civic engagement activities. These will form the basis of our next publication focusing on the purpose of universities in the 21st Century.

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Challenge 1: Unequal share of wealth

How do we find and share the opportunities of globalisation to counteract mistrust and discontent?

"The challenge is to improve the standard of living … essentially the government must be involved when you are looking at improving the quality of life for people with reduced bargaining power. It really does have to be about what they get from government.”

Daryl Dixon, Executive Chairman, Dixon Advisory

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Challenge 2: Changing economic powers

How do we respond in the West to the loss of our overall dominance? 

[Seeing the world changing from Western dominance to eastern Power] “the majority of Australians would see Australia as being a part of the Asian Century - they are excited about this and keen to be part of it. This feels noticeably different from the UK where, in the most part, there is much less awareness of this global economic shift. There is a level of underlying cultural awareness – and an excitement about the future - that feels very different over here.”

Libby Hackett, Senior Partner, Perrett Laver

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Challenge 3: Technological disruption

How do we support people, businesses and organisations to adopt, adapt and thrive?

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution means that we can automate, personalise, drive productivity, and be competitive without the same level of capital investment because, although these digital technologies are complicated, the cost of them is relatively low. So the technology driving this Fourth Industrial Revolution allows you to be very agile and allows a real flexibility between the human and the automated element.”

Juergen Maier, Chief Executive, Siemens UK

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Challenge 4: Planetary health

How do we advocate for and then support the transition to a more sustainable way of life and a greener economy?

“The decisions we make in the next 15 years will determine whether or not we avert the worst scenarios related to climate change. Yet this is also a century of unique opportunity. The technological improvements that we have seen … are huge … to make the world more efficient, more connected, and to … make the right choices so that we move into a more sustainable way of life.”

Nick Molho, Executive Director, Aldersgate Group

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Challenge 5: Civic re-engagement

How do we nurture a more inclusive and connected society?

“The real challenge is that our existing systems of representative democracy don’t meet the demands of the present era … we need to shift from purely representative democracy … to enable more direct democracy with ongoing participation by citizens … educationalists are going to have to become vastly more flexible and maintain the highest possible level of curiosity.”

Sean Cleary, Executive Vice-Chair, FutureWorld Foundation

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Challenge 6: Global collaboration

How can we nurture and develop an open, collaborative global society?

“Collaboration is critical. Think about how cars today are made of components from different vendors in places all around the world. Content and knowledge are the same … educators need to think about how to bring all of this collaborative information and knowledge together, and how to work with different thinkers from different backgrounds.”

Lake Dai, Partner, LDV Partners

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Challenge 7: Vision and foresight

How do we develop diverse and inclusive leadership practices that can look beyond the immediate and the everyday?

“All senior leaders in public service need to operate as system leaders and engage externally. They need to be able understand other organisations and sectors, and learn on behalf of the system. They need to be able to lead teams and build confidence in the process of leadership.”

Lord Victor Adebowale, Chief Executive, Turning Point

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Challenge 8: Identities and changing norms in society

How do we support and respond to changing identity formation in future generations and interact with difference across the globe?

“When you cannot trust society’s infrastructure, society’s norms, you find your own trust networks in a community of interest… How we can ensure that these communities of interest are informed, unbiased and sufficiently independent to genuinely illuminate different perspectives? The danger is that you might end up talking only to groups of people who think like you and do like you – so the impact is that of narrowing rather than broadening your gaze.”

Hilary Carty, Director, Clore Leadership Programme

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Challenge 9: Migration and mobility

How do we respond to the extensive movement of peoples and support local communities to avoid the backlash?

“Because of rising economic inequality and geopolitical threats, global migration is becoming a more prominent feature of the landscape, threatening the sense of identity of significant proportions of electorates who do not feel themselves to be global citizens.”

Sean Cleary, CEO, Strategic Concepts

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Challenge 10: Conflict and war

How do we learn from the past and try to establish more peaceful living environments and the technology of war impacts wider society?

“These asymmetric conflicts will go on for a lot longer with a lot more civilian deaths. War is no longer about armed forces on a battlefield face to face, trained to kill each other. It is about ordinary people having their complete lives and communities destroyed.”

Di Lees, Director General, Imperial War Museums