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On the responsibility of vision
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by Dr. Wendy L. Schultz 00 The Future

12 November 2004

I could say that there is no future without "vision", our image of the future preferred.

That would of course be untrue: the world will carry on without our consciously willing it to be so. The natural world has its own momentum, as does our built environment - and its impacts on the natural. Social structures, organizations, communities, nations and their bureaucracies, all have, if not momentum, at least inertia, a staying power that would guarantee their existence for some time without our consciously willing it to be so.

But would the world carry on well? If we exerted no conscious, responsible effort to change the systems and actions we have implemented up until this point in history, if we carried on tomorrow doing exactly what we are doing today, what would 2050 be like? 2075? 2100? This corner of the globe will be warmer, scientists say - and even wetter than it is now, given the meltdown of the Arctic ice cap.

What do we care? We won't be here to deal with the mess - or will we? Given the acceleration of our understanding of developmental biology, and our ability to apply our understanding of genomics, maybe we will. Certainly our children and grandchildren will. They will have to live in the world our actions create - the actions we so often fail to ground in well-thought out images of possible and preferred futures.

Worse, our children will inhabit the world created by someone else's explicitly articulated, designed, planned and implemented image of a preferred future - because other people are envisioning their preferred futures and marshalling resources to create them. They are colonizing the future we shall all share. By our lack of explicitly articulated creativity considering what the future could be, what we want it to be, we are giving up our gift of choice as to what the future might be - and condemning ourselves to compete in conditions of our competitors' making.

I said ten years' ago I didn't want to live in the computer environment Bill Gates and Microsoft were creating with their monopolistic image of the global software future. Having now experienced pop-up windows, spyware, trojans, viruses, worms, spam, and the complete collapse of one computer system due to the installation protocol of Windows XP, I am convinced I am correct: letting other people colonize the future - setting aside both the creative opportunities and the responsibilities we each have to create a preferred future - produces a weak future, just as monoculture in farming creates vulnerabilities to diseases, parasites, predators, and shifts in environment.

We need an 'open source' approach to creating a preferred future.

In the early 1950s a Dutch scholar named Frederick L. Polak gave us the conceptual basis for that open source approach. His seminal work, The Image of the Future: Enlightening the past, orientating the present, forecasting the future, takes as its task the analysis of cultural change based on the vibrancy of a culture's implicit image of the future.

The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as a society's image of the future is positive and flourishing, the flower of the culture is in full blossom. Once the image of the future begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture cannot long survive.

While he acknowledges that many forces interact to create history, he nonetheless affirms that the positive ideas and ideals of humanity, expressed as positive images of the future, make history what it is. These images serve as "motifs and guiding stars" to the societies which create them.

Motivating images can exist, Polak argues, because people have the capacity to split their consciousness between recognition of the instant, the immediate, the here-and-now, and some time, space, and reality completely and discontinuously Other. Within the space opened up by this split consciousness, people can create images of a future time and a future world of ideal and idealized conditions, where the sorrows of the present are considerably or absolutely ameliorated. These images also subsume the expectations people have regarding the behavior of the natural world, the behavior of other people, and the behavior of the gods, if any, in response to religious practices. Embedded in images of the future are the implicit notions people hold of what drives social change.

In order to affect cultural change, the images must picture another world vastly different and vastly preferable to the present and must be widely disseminated throughout society. Using these two criteria to select images for study, Polak analyzed them along two continua: essence-optimism and -pessimism, and influence-optimism and -pessimism. By essence he referred to the culture's perception of the untouched course of historical events: what would happen if people did nothing. By influence he referred to the possibility of human intervention in the course of historical events. Influence may either be direct, the action of people upon reality, or indirect, the action of people to sway a higher power to act upon reality. Utopian images of the future result from the secular approach dictated by direct influence-optimism -- we can create a better world; eschatological images of the future result from indirect influence-optimism -- if properly propitiated, God will create a better world for us.

If both essence-optimism and influence-optimism characterize a culture's image of the future, then it believes that history is basically unfolding for the best, but that people can work to improve it even more. These are vibrant, vital cultures. Cultures that are essence-optimistic and influence-pessimistic also remain vital, for although their members feel nothing they can do can change the way the world is, they feel the world is gradually improving all on its own. Cultures, which are essence-pessimistic and influence-optimistic feel that, left to themselves, things would go from bad to worse, but that people can change that and improve things by applying themselves. The cultures, which are in trouble, have images of the future which combine essence-pessimism with influence-pessimism: things are going to hell in a handcart and there isn't a damn thing we can do about it.

The final concept on which Polak's analysis rested is that of challenge and response. For, he stated, the real puzzler is not the rise and fall of cultures, but the emergence of robust and dynamic images of the future. What is their genesis? To answer that question, he borrowed Toynbee's notion of challenge and response, pointing out that Toynbee never clarified what the source of challenge was, nor what form the response took. Polak suggested this clarification:

The challenge of the times need not only be based on the past, as it pushes into the present. It can also be based on the future, which draws the present to itself. The future challenges us to examine and prepare in advance to solve the problems, which it has in store for us, problems, which may well overwhelm us with their sudden onslaught if we do not anticipate them. It is the not-yet-existent future, or certain special possibilities out of a numberless infinity of possible futures, which throws light or shadow on the present...[And an] adequate response to the ever-shifting challenge of a rapidly-changing future can be nothing less than a comprehensive and inspiring vision of the future!

The problem, and the conclusion of his survey of cultural history, is that Western civilization no longer has a comprehensive and inspiring vision of the future, and that unless one emerges, the culture will wither away.

Where has our image of the future gone? According to Polak, into our arrogant confidence in our ability to manipulate the present, objective reality and our fixation on the tangible, material present. Western culture is so satisfied with its ability to influence change that it no longer sees the need to do so. Furthermore, what images of the future do exist in modern culture are fragmented, contradictory, dehumanized, and lack spiritual depth.

But, he concludes, we can still save ourselves. Salvation will require a transcendentally idealistic, widely disseminated image of the future. Such an image must be "purposeful, vital, and inspiring":

These images must have the power to tear our civilization loose from the claws of the present and free it once more to think about and act for the future. The seed of these images becomes the life-blood of our culture, and the transfiguration of our civilization waits upon the sowing of new seed.

Nothing retreated from the past will do; nothing light-weight, ephemeral, or easily devised: Madison Avenue can't design an public service ad campaign for this. Polak advocates a tripartite strategy: 1) reawaken the culture's dormant awareness of the future; 2) nourish cultural awareness; and 3) revitalize creativity. In the five decades since Polak articulated this analysis of human history, the intellectual field of futures studies has been attempting those very tasks, with the insights contained in The Image of the Future as its conceptual core.

Reaching our full potential - as a civilization, society, organisation, or community - requires goals that challenge us to exceed that potential. Unfortunately, in this most instrumental of ages, daydreaming is unfashionable. An educational system inherited from the industrial era teaches us to keep our attention on the task at hand; the drive for upward mobility focuses our creativity on immediate problem-solving and practical matters of management. The age of deconstruction awards more points to critiques than to castles in the air.

Given these barriers, little wonder that people are uncomfortable with the verbs "vision", "imagine", "dream". If not for the cases cited in recent leadership and management literature which underscore the utility of vision for motivating exemplary performance, it would be difficult to convince professionals to engage in visioning. Yet it is something humans do naturally, that in fact we must be trained not to do. Reinstating visioning as a powerful creative tool is simply re-balancing our internal environment: giving equal pride of place to intuition and imagination next to logic and calculation. Envisioning a preferred future requires them all.

Visioning is an exercise in structured idealism. It requires wrenching our "common sense"-ibilities away from the practical for a few moments to indulge in effective daydreaming and wishlisting. It not only assumes that people can create the future, but also that a sufficiently inspiring vision of a preferred future motivates people to do so. Most simply, it is an iterative brainstorming process, relying heavily on imagination, ideals, and intuition.

To begin, we state a handful of general characteristics for a preferred future: peace on earth, environmental stewardship, racial equality. These are too general to be useful building blocks; they must be refined into more precise statements.

Next, we perform an idealistic incasting (extrapolating details of an image of the future based on logical consistency with its determining characteristics) on the staple components of social reality: in our preferred future, what form will nation-states take? government? what will community social structures be like? how will people be educated? how will work be structured? how will goods be produced, distributed, and consumed? The next step moves further into the realm of imagination, by asking what the components of an individual's everyday reality look like: describe a typical day in this preferred future -- begin with waking up and getting out of bed, being sure to describe the bed and the bedding.

This exercise has two primary goals: one, to create a richly descriptive image of a preferred future; and two, to get beyond the imaginative constraints of a purely practical, "yes, but..." mindset. Many people find it difficult to let go of the problem-identifying and problem-solving perspectives that work ingrains in all of us. Often the best bridge to the ideal is a string of complaints: most people know what it is about the present they do NOT like. Consequently, the psychologically natural opening exercise for visioning is a problem-listing or "catharsis" stage, in which we list what we absolutely reject for our preferred future.

The statement of positive components can begin with restating the negatives as their opposites: if cultural intolerance is the hallmark of a negative future, the delight in cultural diversity may be a major component for our preferred future. Another way to shift to the positive is to identify our greatest recent successes, either individually or organizationally. This has the added benefit of reinforcing the belief that we can create change.

It reinforces, as Polak would say, our influence-optimism. And given all the very bad news we hear every day about the changing climate, the extinction of species, pollution, extreme political and philosophical beliefs creating more conflict, rising income disparities, and… well, you can add your worry du jour… it is unlikely, in Polak's terms, that we have much reason for essence-optimism: if left as it is, our world would not improve. Thus, in order to have any hope at all of a vital, flourishing, positive future, we need to enact our influence optimism by articulating our vision of that preferred future. And then building it.

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See also Summit for the Future

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