The future will happen to all of us. We must all be part of building it.

I write this post at the direct mid point between two events I would never have imagined being part of at the start of the year. Which makes it a perfect time for writing about the subject that crosses them both — how we enable people to be part of shaping the future — the questions we, as a world, ask, the problems we put our resources of time, money, and intellect into solving, and the way we implement the answers we find.

prototype design for the back of the Mycelium cards

Because right now we are being told what choices the future holds, we are being told which issues are worth addressing, we are having our minds closed by short-term small-scale fears rather than opened by the need to come together and turn challenges that threaten to all but destroy us before the century is out into opportunities to take our species into the centuries to come with a sense of anticipation, hope, and excitement at the prospect of fulfilling common dreams.

Last week, I found myself a finalist at the Oxford University Humanities Innovation Challenge. I don’t quite know how. Technically I wasn’t sure I was even allowed to enter — after 10 years studying Theology I am now, following a breakdown, an administrator, and chances of this kind are usually strictly academic staff and students only. Still, there I was. The idea I was pitching was very simple — a tool in the shape of a card game and then an app to help us all become more creative and innovative.

Mycelium, as I called it when, the night before the application was due, I realised I didn’t have a name for it, had come from my rather strange background. Years of researching early modern sermons had introduced me to a fascinating and really rather bloodthirsty 16th century dispute about how to memorise things, so I had done a lot of thinking about the finer points of image-based as opposed to list-based systems, and in particular about the very interesting “memory wheel” system first devised by Ramon Llull, which for all its hermetic occult symbolism (pursuit of such a system led, several centuries later, to several of its adherents paying the ultimate price) felt remarkably modern, not unlike a mediaeval version of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies.

I have also been competing at mind sports for the past 20 years, and am the current Creative Thinking World Champion. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about what creativity means and what I do that is apparently “creative”. And the final part of this creative three-cornered-hat is the growing neuroscience of creativity, which shows the brain’s involvement to be basically twofold — associative parts of the brain get active and all joined up, and the bits of the brain that act as our self-censor go into temporary shutdown, allowing us to make connections without ruling them out as “too silly”.

Mycelium is a card game that uses all of that to prime the brain for innovation. But that’s only half the story. The real thing goes back to the start of this post, which was also the start of my pitch:

The future will happen to all of us. We must all be part of building it.

If we are all going to participate in building the future, as I have argued above we must, then we need three things:

1. The time, space, and financial security to think without the shackles of scarcity — the key to that is a universal basic income.

2. Access to the sum of the world’s knowledge — the key to that is open access.

3. The tools to use 1 & 2.

What I have learned about creativity puts me in the position to do something directly about number 3 — I can provide the tools to think imaginatively about our future.

I was shocked, delighted, and more than a little humbled to win. And as a result of the support that will provide, I can now bring the idea to life, and maybe help change people’s futures.

But because what I care about is the end goal — a future shaped by us all — I will continue to campaign for 1 and 2, for the resources we all need if we are going to put the skills we have to use for the common good.

And that brings me to the second event, on June 1st — the Oxford Disability Lecture. I am, again, surprised and humbled to have been given such a platform — and determined not to let it go to waste.

My talk, which goes by the title “A Future Not to Feel Sad About” focuses on precisely these things. It relates specifically to mental health, and to the thousands whose talents are being recklessly and needlessly discarded because their mental ill health and life circumstances, such as the debt their health has plunged them into, see them brimming over with talent but shut out from the opportunities to use it.

I will argue that it is essential for our future survival to provide the resources necessary for those whose doors have been slammed shut by mental ill health to get back to the very heart of our conversations about the future. It is a matter of duty and compassion towards individuals; a matter of the dignity of a society that must stand by how it includes and excludes groups and the individuals who form them from its central discourses; and it is a matter, at its starkest, of our survival as a species.

I will make the case for local action — “free to fail” initiatives I call them. These are schemes that you could put in place, now, at your organization. They amount, simply put, to providing a full pay sabbatical coupled with access to resources, for those members of staff who in the day to day running of things are invisible — the support workers, clerks, cleaners, and cashiers who might just have what it takes to do something truly remarkable if only they had the horizons of scarcity lifted.

Ultimately, the preconditions for a future steered off the expressway to self-destruction have to include universal basic income and open access, but whilst we campaign for those larger goals there are many things we can do on a smaller scale.

CEO & founder of Rogue Interrobang, University of Oxford spinout using creativity to solve wicked problems. 2016, 17 & 19 Creative Thinking World Champion.