When the professor works at Google
FORTUNE — Singularity University may well be the future of higher education. With backing from an array of high tech corporate partners, it isn’t what you typically think of when you imagine a school. In fact, this fledgling Silicon Valley institution holds powerful lessons for any business that wants to stay ahead in a rapidly changing world.
Singularity University doesn’t have a big staff or a long history. It was founded in 2009 by two successful entrepreneurs, Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil, with the vision of using disruptive technologies to positively impact a billion people within a decade. Rather than hiring resident faculty members, this small institution — part university, part think tank, part business-incubator — taps into a large and growing community of scientists, thinkers, engineers, investors, business leaders, and public policy makers. They are motivated to explore the potential of rapidly advancing technologies to take on humanity’s big challenges, such as water scarcity and energy consumption.
With technologies such as computing power, storage, and networking improving at an unprecedented pace, no one can afford to stop learning. This imperative for continuous, lifelong learning drives Singularity University’s extended faculty model.
Singularity University is not organized into traditional departments (physics, economics, and electrical engineering) that tend to lock into historical lines of inquiry and decades-long turf battles. Instead, it has 12 evolving “tracks” focused on the future. The university identifies topics such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and bioinformatics, and artificial intelligence and robotics that will likely have the greatest impact on our economy and society in the next 5-10 years. With 80% of the course content on so-called “future-looking” disciplines, the school must constantly scan the environment, sorting temporary fads from significant developments and reconfiguring faculty and curriculum based on those signals.
Sound familiar? If companies today aren’t trying to filter insights from the surface events that consume our daily headlines, they should be.
Because of this bias toward the future, experts on topics most relevant to the university tend to work outside of academia. The school leans heavily on temporary faculty. The core faculty, comprised of a chair and advisors for each track, are all part-time. Chosen to be curators as well as thought leaders, these faculty members use their personal networks to keep abreast of new developments and identify emerging experts. The core faculty updates the curriculum on a near-constant basis and reviews each lecture every few months. The curriculum for some tracks changes up to 85% each year.
No tenure models here: the school brings in 160 different guest lecturers each year with 40% of that list changing year-to-year. Vint Cerf, Larry Page, Dean Kamen, and Craig Venter have all lectured at Singularity.
By not having a large permanent faculty, the school can draw from a broad spectrum of experience to bring to the classroom. It flips the traditional model: rather than academics who dabble in consulting engagements during the summer, the faculty — temporary and core — is primarily out learning through work in the field. They bring that experience back to share with students, reinforcing the ethos of “learning through doing” and providing insights into the potential and the constraints of a technology. Of course, expertise is not everything, and masters of a discipline are not always good at teaching it. Singularity ultimately selects people who are able to communicate their expertise and excitement to non-experts in a compelling and inspiring way.
What do temporary faculty, already well known and with large professional networks, derive from this relationship? Prestige is part of it. But the real benefits of affiliation come from the opportunity to engage in thought-provoking discussions with students and other faculty members. The school’s selectivity in choosing both students and faculty ensures a high-caliber conversation, which in turn draws the best students and lecturers. The nontraditional format and lack of degrees and tenure contribute to a sense of meritocracy and appeal to lecturers who may not have found a home in academia.
An “ecosystem” or network — of vendors, customers, and partners — allows an organization to achieve greater reach with a small number of employees, particularly for initiatives like entering a new market or launching a new product or service. Ecosystems can also accelerate learning. This helps everyone perform better, but only if companies let participants do actual project work together, focus more on the people involved than the technology itself, and are transparent about what they can offer participants.