Does Anyone Care Enough About the Future to Try to Change It?

(adapted from a chapter of the book Our Dreams Make Different Shapes: how your creativity could make the world a better place and why the world will try to stop you)

We need creativity because we need to build a better future. Possibly it is the only way of building a future that includes humans. It sounds really simple when you put it like that.

Ahmed Carter on Unsplash

But anyone who has ever tried to engage people in building a better future knows that it’s really hard to do. People don’t just “have creative ideas about the future and implement them.” Even the most creative person in the world will only use that creativity to change the world if you can get them to actively engage with the vision of the future you want to bring about.

If you have ever watched Greta Thunberg speaking to a group of world leaders, you will understand something of how hard that can be. We often think of the problem as one of getting people to “want” a better future. But that’s a mistake.

Most people, when you ask them, clearly want a better future for themselves, their families, humanity. Wanting it isn’t the problem. Nor can we tweak that to say they “don’t want it enough.” That’s the same thing — I am sure most people who think about it at all want the best future more than they want anything else.

The problem instead, is a lack of personal connection with that future. Part of it is that sense of “it’s just too hard.” But it’s not that simple. There are elements of connection to the future that people need to feel if they are going to engage with it, try to bring it about. Your job as an activist, communicator, public policy maker, or anyone trying to drive change is not just to make people want the change you want. It’s to connect them to the process of bringing it about. There are three parts to that, all of them important.

  • For someone to believe they can create a better future, first of all they have to be able to imagine it. That means it must be similar enough to the present to be conceivable but different enough that it feels like it has yet to be reached.

For now, I want to focus on the first of these, because it is the least understood by people trying to shape the future.

I want more than anything else to help build a better future.

But really think about that. What does it mean? I’m writing this at 8.34 in the evening. I’m hungry and I have some ripe, really succulent looking pears sitting on my desk. Probably in a paragraph or so’s time, I will take a bite of one of them. That’s an action that will make the future better. But it’s not what I mean by making a better future. It’s, well, trivial. But why?

On the other hand, from wherever we stand, as Professor Brian Cox would remind us, at some point all movement, all actions will cease — whatever happens to “stuff” along the way, eventually there will just be the heat death of the universe. I can’t do anything about it. My actions, from that perspective, are inconsequential. So why does it still feel like it makes sense to talk about making a better future?

This turns out to be a question that has always intrigued and perplexed me — what is it that gives us an emotional connection (a desire to bring something about), and a purposive connection (a feeling that there is something we can do to bring it about) to some things, and at some times, but not others? What is it, between the pear (which is now half eaten) and the heat death of the universe that is the “goldilocks” combination of time and consequence that we mean by “the future” when we say “I want to make a better future?”

Thinking about this brings me back to my training in theology. Specifically to the concept of “salvation history” as it was called. That is, the part of history that is really meaningful for humans because it is the part of history that deals with our ultimate destiny. Thinking about how many of the authors in the Bible speaks about time, it struck me that you could maybe break time down into about 5 units, and that maybe these are the same units that underpin the way we still think about the future.

At one end of the scale there is the day. This is the kind of timeframe that’s the same as my thoughts about the pear (now finished). Actions and consequences over this time feel trivial. At the other end is the aeon (technically 10,000 years but by extension “a really really long period”). On this scale, it makes no sense to feel that what you do has any bearing. My actions, measured by the aeon, are inconsequential. But between those we have the seasons (seasonal decisions such as the planting of crops and the movement of cattle matter, they affect survival); the generation (generational decisions matter because they affect the kind of society we live in, the laws we live by, who are our allies, who our enemies); and the millennium, at which level decisions can shape the fates of empires and civilizations, the history of peoples, the shape of the land we live in.

Broadly speaking, as these periods increase, the meaning of the decisions we take with reference to them move from the tactical to the strategic to the visionary.

This feels like a promising start to thinking about why some kinds of “future” have more meaning than others — they are part of a longstanding scheme of reference that has to do with how complex, how important, how thorough-going, and how directly related to us the consequences of our actions over various time periods can be.

But there is another axis that matters, and it relates to another theme that has always fascinated me — taxonomy. Taxonomy is simply the method by which we decide where things “belong”. When I say “poodle”, for example, that belongs in the category “dog” among other things.

The question that matters in this context is where “I” belong. And it matters because where I consider my position in the world to be affects how much influence I can have over the future. The more I believe my actions can change things, the more meaningful my choices about them are. Again, if I believe all my choices are either trivial (red wallpaper or orange wallpaper — note, this is for illustration only: as someone who has, and is married to someone who has, a very keen interest in interior colour, I am not personally convinced of the trivialness, but you get the point) or inconsequential (a single vote in a first past the post election where one party has a huge majority), I will not feel connected to them.

There is, again, a sweet spot. And that sweet spot is connected to the concept of the imagination. What can I imagine myself doing? Where can I imagine my actions leading? If the answer is “nowhere” I will find it hard to care about them. And my sense is that the extent of my imagination depends on how I see my place in the world. If I believe I am a tiny fixed cog in a vastly complex machine, I will think very differently from if I believe I am a free agent able to shape destiny.

Importantly, my perception of my place may not affect what I can do, but it will affect what I believe I can do. And that in turn affects how invested I become in thinking about the future. What we need is what I would call “imaginative space”. And to have imaginative space, somewhere our imaginations can play and experiment and come up with ideas that might then influence the world on a tactical, strategic, or visionary level, means believing that our place in the world is not fixed, not tied to a particular, tightly-defined category.

So when I say “I want a better future” I am saying something that carries a lot of baggage with it. Indeed I can only say I am interested in the future because I have a very particular way of thinking about time and my place in the world.

Most importantly, when I say I want more people to engage with the future, I am saying something very specific. I am not saying I want them to decide whether to have apples or pears for tea. I am saying I want them to consider a particular timeframe — personally, I think we err as a society too much to the seasonal, somewhat too much to the generational, not enough to the visionary, and one of the things I want to do is to move our position on the timeline. And I am saying I want people to be able to imagine themselves bringing about the change they imagine. But I firmly believe that is not just about expanding their creative abilities — it is about creating a world and institutions that allow people to imagine themselves creating change. If we want people to care about, and engage with, the future, that is our big challenge.

I have been Creative Thinking World Champion 3 Times, and am the founder of the Oxford University spinout company Rogue Interrobang. I have been teaching people how to be more creative for years — from events in Museums with the public to workshops with the Cabinet Office’s intelligence analysts. If you’d like me to coach, consult, give a motivational talk, or come and run a fun away day, get in touch at rogueinterrbang@gmail.com

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