Creating Progress Stories (Practical and Motivating Visions)
As we’ve said, finding weeble, wildcard, faulty, and experimental stories only covers the bottom two thirds of the Three Ps of foresight work. We also have to envision preferable futures. We and our clients must find visions that inspire us, and tell stories around those visions. These stories must motivate us to make them real. We call these progress stories, as they contain implicit ideas of personal, organizational, global, or universal progress within them. The “p-word” has different meanings for each of us, yet we each have some concept of what that word means, and what is a better place than the place we live in today.
All of us need visions that inspire us to reach the best futures we can. These visions must be aware of the probable futures that universe has in store for us, places where the world is likely going tomorrow whether we want it to or not. 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 and deserve are the central determinants of our individual and collective behavior.
Economist and sociologist Kenneth Boulding’s lovely little book The Image (1956) offers another version of Polak’s image-centric perspective on the future. According to Boulding “Decision(making) involves images in the mind of alternative futures, with varying degrees of probability, related to certain acts or behaviors of the decision maker, which are then ordered in terms of preference. Behavior then consists of acting in a way that is expected to realize the image of the most preferred future.” In this view, finding and sharing the most useful and motivating visions we can find is one of our top professional responsibilities. Kenneth and his sociologist wife Elise Boulding met Fred Polak in 1954, living for a year in the same house with Fred and his wife Louise at Stanford University.
A decade and a half later, Elise Boulding published an abridged English-language version of Polak’s The Image of the Future in 1973. A PDF can be found here. As Polak and Boulding would each tell us, aside from universal developmental forces, the futures we humans build for ourselves are those we can both clearly imagine and believe we deserve. So do the best imagining you can, and believe you and society deserve great things.
More specifically, they would tell us 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 we can’t figure which fraction that will be in advance.
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 lovely 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. He 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 not part of this world (versus reincarnation) to placate that fear. These are deep insights, yet Watts understanding of social and technical progress was, in my view, also underdeveloped. He saw progress as a questionable value, as do many Eastern religious thinkers, focused on the denial of self and its desires. The idea 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, seems to have escaped him. Yet we will argue in Chapters 2 and 3 that this is a more evidence-based view. Our world is progressing, whether we like it or not. The better students we are of this progress, 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.