During the first months of the pandemic, there was evidence of a strong desire for transformational change in many countries. People wanted to use the crisis to address the big unresolved issues of climate change inequality and much more, encouraged, for example, by the very obvious truth that the most essential jobs were often among the lowest paid and lower ranked. That everyone is affected by the pandemic seemed likely to fuel a more collective spirit, a recognition of the intertwining of our lives with those of millions of strangers.
Now much of that energy is gone. People are exhausted, expectations have fallen, and a return to normality seems acceptable, however inadequate that normality may have been. The war in Ukraine has reminded us how easily the world can roll back and that fundamental values remain under threat. My hope, however, is that as the pandemic subsides, we will return to our shared need for radical imagination about the future and the transformations to come.
I have long believed that we have a major problem with the imagination: that we can more easily imagine an ecological apocalypse or technological advances than improvements in the way our society works: better options for health, well-being or neighborhoods within a generation or two.
Some of the reasons for this problem are objective. Most people no longer expect their children to be better off than they are. They have good reasons for their pessimism: the stagnation of income for a large part of the population, especially since the financial crisis. But the causes of this pessimism also lie in the institutions – our universities have become better at commenting on or analyzing the present than at designing the future. Our political parties have largely given up on long-term thinking, while our social movements are generally better at arguing than proposing. Surprisingly, there are no more media that promote new ideas: magazines and newspapers focus instead on commentary.
One of the symptoms of this is the extent to which public debate, even in its progressive forms, is dominated by rather old ideas. Take, for example, the circular economy. The main ideas were first proposed in the 1980s. They guided many projects (including those I worked on) in the 1990s, gained support from the Chinese Communist Party nearly 100 years ago. twenty years, and were then skillfully evangelized by people like Ellen McArthur. However, they are not yet fully integrated.
Or take basic income. The idea has been around for at least half a century (advocated by right-wing figures like Milton Friedman as well as many left-leaning figures). It is now being taken more seriously with a proliferation of pilot schemes in countries and cities, such as Wales’ announcement in February of a pilot scheme offering a basic income to care leavers. Late on, thinking about it becomes more sophisticated and nuanced (and I suspect few people will end up with the original idea of a universal basic income, which is the ultimate “one-size-fits-all” solution to widely varying needs).
But, once again, what is striking is the slowness with which these ideas spread and thicken. There seem to be fewer new and fresh ideas and it’s easier to get funding for old ones than new ones, a recycling that mirrors what Hollywood does, with the vast majority of the most successful films being remakes or retreads.
So what can we do? Imagination is a very natural human activity. We all know how to sing or draw. But it takes time to do them well. We must therefore cultivate the habits and methods of the imagination in a convincing and useful way. Here I suggest four ways for this to happen:
- First, we need good methods to imagine what might be possible from one generation to the next to relate this to what is practical today. Fortunately, there are many methods that help groups or communities think deeply – my preference is a simple set of prompts that help a group expand, reverse, integrate, add, or subtract to generate a larger set of prompts. options. These can be particularly useful in opening up the thought patterns of people who are too entrenched in the details of the present – like many academics, think tanks and policy makers.
But many other tools are also available, some using fiction and stories (writer Ursula LeGuin has called science fiction a vital workout for the imagination). Others using visualizations help us grasp ideas more easily than prose. All of these can help us to describe possible future states – and then prompt us to think about the connections between the present and the future – using other methods that facilitate this task, such as the “three horizons framework” which asks groups to link the first horizon of immediate possibilities to a third horizon of radical change.
- Second, we need ways of imagining that are broad and inclusive. Sometimes that means taking a global perspective and not being too influenced by images of the future dominated by the US and California and engaging with the distinct takes of Africa, where there is a science- burgeoning fiction, or of China attempting a very different picture of the future of technology, albeit in a much harsher intellectual climate. This need for diversity also applies to the UK. Totnes’ vision of the future is bound to be very different from my home town of Luton, and Brighton sees the world in a different way to Belfast.
In this work, there is always a serious risk of echo chambers. Working in a university, I am often struck by how few people engage in opinions other than those of their peers, the Guardian and the BBC, and so I am often surprised by what is happening in the world and by times like the Brexit referendum. The United States is a dire warning about how easily societies can polarize into self-contained camps, and if nothing else, surely we want to imagine a future where there is more, not less, understanding and empathy, including for people who disagree with us. .
- Third, imagination must connect to politics. There’s plenty of grassroots spirited exploration and imagination across the UK. But the problem is that if it’s not linked to formal politics and national debates, it may not have much impact. It is therefore essential to speak to the people who are running for office – councilors and MPs – and to the mainstream media. Ultimately, the most fundamental social change – from same-sex marriage to carbon taxes, from equality laws to welfare reform – must pass through parliament and government.
- Finally, there’s a challenge of seeing how things connect but not being turned off by it. There are many links, for example, between climate change and social justice. Knowing the world means seeing how the pieces fit together – how, for example, the crisis in Ukraine relates to dependence on fossil fuel supplies and then to affordability issues. Many clever writers like to present the world as a cohesive whole: how everything connects to everything else.
But seeing things as connected can also become a trap. It may imply that the system can only be changed at once, or it may lead to feelings of helplessness. My experience is that the world is looser than that. Parts can be radically changed without waiting for the assembly to move. So it makes sense to reimagine the parts as well as the whole – how our parks, libraries, schools, healthcare could be better and different from generation to generation.
Imagination is lacking right now. The cultures of many of our most powerful institutions have ousted it. Apparently, rational pessimism can be found all around us. That’s why it’s so important that the freer money from philanthropy now helps fill the void and helps us paint plausible and desirable pictures of what our society could be like in a generation or two. If we don’t, our pessimism risks becoming self-fulfilling.