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
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
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
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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