Creating Progress Stories (Practical and Motivating Visions)
Finding weeble, wildcard, faulty, and experimental stories covers the bottom two thirds of the Three Ps of foresight work. Those efforts prepare the ground for the most high-profile and highly-valued task: envisioning preferable futures. We and our clients must find ethical and adaptive visions that inspire us, and tell motivating stories around those visions, to recruit others to help us make them a reality.
We call these progress stories, because all good visions contain implicit or explicit ideas of personal, organizational, global, or universal progress within them. The “p-word” isn’t very popular with some intellectuals, some old folks, manipulative politicians, fearmongering news vendors, pessimists, conspiracy theorists, and others who are happy believing we live in a world that has no implicit arrow of improvement that we can find, or is even “getting steadily worse” or “falling apart.” But as we’ll see in Chapters 2 and 3, antiprogress world views are intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt. Sure, there are always a host of negative trends, like our growing bureacracy and plutocracy. But most of the problems we have we’ve created for ourselves, with our stunning scientific and economic successes these last few centuries. More broadly, we’ve seen an awesome arc of accelerating complexification and resiliency from life and intelligence on Earth, these last five billion years.
As we’ll see in the next chapters, we don’t yet have a science of progress, but rather a bunch of beliefs and philosophies. But good philosophers are always looking to a future where science can validate and improve our imperfect models. Even though the p-word has different meanings for each of us, we each have some concept of what progress word means, and what directions will take us to a better set of places than the places we live in today.
The futurist Fred Polak in his masterwork The Image of the Future (Elsevier Scientific, 1955) may have been the first to claim that our images of how the world works, and the futures that we believe we can have as a result of those images, are the most important determinants of our behavior, as individuals and in our cultures. Economist and sociologist Kenneth Boulding’s little book The Image (1956) offers another version of this vision-driven perspective on the future. The two books share similar titles because Kenneth and his sociologist wife Elise Boulding lived for a year in the same house with Fred and his wife Louise at Stanford University in 1954 (These three souls were each well-read polymaths. I bet their dinner conversation was fun!). Elise Boulding published a briefer English version of Polak’s The Image of the Future in 1973. A PDF can be found here.
In Polak and the Boulding’s views, finding and sharing the most useful and motivating visions we can find is one of our top responsibilities, as foresight professionals and as individuals. Aside from universal developmental forces that we don’t control, the futures we humans build for ourselves are flow directly from our image-inations. So do the best visioning that you can, on a regular basis, and choose to believe that you and humanity really deserve great things, now.
These folks would also say that all our science, technology, economics, politics, and social memes are, at root, mental constructions. Only a small fraction of these mental constructions will end up being universal truths, and beyond a small subset, we can’t figure which fraction of those images will survive the test of time.
Therefore, to have the greatest positive impact on our futures, we must recognize that the quality of our personal, organizational, and social visions is often our greatest lever for personal and social change. Other scholars in cognitive science, psychology, sociology, and philosophy have since said these things, but the clarity and scope of Polak and Boulding on this point have not yet been surpassed, to my knowledge.
On The Taboo Against Seeing Progress
At the height of the 1960’s counterculture, psychologist, theologian, and philosopher Alan Watts wrote a neat little book, called The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (PDF here), (1966). Popularizing Hindu philosophy, he argued that it is an illusion to think of ourselves as disconnected from our environment and culture, which are the dominant inputs to who we are. He challenged us to imagine ourselves not as isolated egos, but as aspects of, and windows into, one universal self.
Watts observed that the more disconnected we imagine ourselves to be from the universe, the more we fear personal death, leading us to imagine Western afterlife as a place that is not part of this world to placate that fear. Watts argued that reincarnation of at least some informational aspects of ourselves in some future form in this existing universe, as Eastern mystics proposed, was a much more evidence-based view. These were valuable insights yet Watts understanding of social and technical progress was itself underdeveloped. No one is perfect, and everyone has holes in their world view, most certainly including your humble author.
Watts saw social progress as a questionable value, as do many Eastern religious thinkers, which are overly focused on the denial of self and its desires, as a path to personal progress (“enlightenment”). Focused on the image of humans as an inseparable aspect of the universe, Watts wasn’t ready for the image of the universe itself progressing, at an ever accelerating pace, with humans as conscious or unconscious catalysts of that acceleration.
But Chapters 2 and 3 will advance the idea, and early evidence for it, that progress is built into the dynamics of the universe, and that it will occur with or without human complicity, in better or worse ways depending on our relation to it. Our world is progressing, whether we like it or not. We have a taboo against seeing this progress, as others will criticize us as being naive, or inattentive to all the problems that currently exist.
Progress at all levels (Universal, Personal, Global, and Organizational) is very real, and the better students we are of it, the better our personal plans and visions can be. Our key choice is to see progress, and to aid it along, or not. If we don’t see it, it is easy to imagine disasters ahead, based on our actions or inactions, as Watts did in his writing, social and environmental disasters he assumed would result from our “unchecked egos.” Not seeing progress, it is also easy to imagine that this world is the best there is.
But the present is never the best there is, and we humans have a lot less influence over the nature of progress than we think. We are catalysts, not controllers, of the better futures that the universe continually produces. We can delay or hasten those better futures, and we can make the transitions to them nasty or sublime, based on our actions. But it is the paths we take, much less than the destinations, that are our key moral and social choices. So be sure you overcome not only the taboo of seeing yourself as part of the universe, but also the taboo against seeing and imagining progress, in every natural system that you encounter.
As committed future thinkers, we must ask: Are we able to imagine that our present reality could be significantly better? If so, what is the quality of our personal, organizational, and social visions? Have we carefully imagined what must come next? Have we diligently worked to foresee what may come? What each of us truly wants? Can we help others to find better images, even when we begin with doubt, uncertainty, and poor articulation of what we desire and can realistically attain? Once we each have our motivating yet practical images, can we share them, and get them constructively critiqued? Can we find great consensus visions?
This is only a starter list of questions about vision, but hopefully they inspire you to realize that developing the quality of your visions, for what you want to happen today, tomorrow, over your life, and over the lifetimes of your children’s childen, and helping others develop their own competing and cooperating visions, may be the greatest gift you can share with the world.
Our visions may start out poorly developed, but the more and smarter our foresight practice, the better we will get. Don’t skimp on daily visioning, for yourself and for your clients, and have regular social contact with others who will help you improve the quality of those visions, and continue to develop the kinds of talent, experiences, and intelligences that will best support and grow ability to image the future. A nice intro to personal visioning and daily journaling is Lucia Cappachioni’s Visioning, 2000.
Every futurist and foresighter who thinks they see a little bit more of the future than others, can use that gift to help others to craft better progress stories. The late leadership author Stephen Covey calls this the opportunity to “Find your Voice, and Inspire Others to Find Theirs.” He explores it in The Eighth Habit (2005), a sequel to the equally valuable The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989/2013). As Covey says, finding our voice and vision, and helping others to find theirs, is a habit that can move us from effectiveness to greatness in influencing others.