Monday, July 02, 2018

Imagining transitions

An interview by Transition Network founder Rob Hopkins for his upcoming book on imagination.

This yew tree in the grounds at Dartington in Devon, England, a stone's throw from where Rob Hopkins and I had our conversation, is thought to be around 2000 years old (Photo: Stuart Candy)

The week before last I was in Devon, England, to deliver the closing keynote for the Transition Together Symposium co-hosted by Schumacher College and Carnegie Mellon School of Design.

I was thrilled that the first evening's invited speaker was Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition movement, which was well represented at the symposium. I'd first learned about transition towns many years earlier, attending the London premiere of a future documentary called The Age of Stupid where Rob's collaborator Shaun Chamberlin had launched a book about the movement. So I was well aware of Rob's work on transition towns, but he and I had never met before.

In his talk Rob had shared a few words about his exciting book in progress on the subject of imagination, and afterwards he asked if we could do an interview as part of that project. So the next morning, on a gorgeous summer's day at Dartington, we got together to explore our shared interest in the cultivation of public imagination.

The interview appears below, slightly abridged. A full transcript, together with the audio recording, can be found at Rob's website.


RH: What is a professional futurist?

SC: Someone who helps people think about things that haven’t happened yet. Usually on a longer timescale than tomorrow morning or next week or next year. More the systems that we’re embedded in, the industries, the organisations, the communities, the countries, the planet.

How would you evaluate the state of health of our collective ability to think positively and constructively about the future?

From my point of view, futures literacy is distressingly low. But the good news is that it’s learnable. The capacity to imagine, the capacity to narrate, and from there to live into alternatives, is actually very high.  Because we’re very plastic, humans are. But you have to put effort into it, and I don’t think that’s really what our institutions have been geared at. It’s not really what our schooling has been geared towards.

It’s not just in education. Our political conversations are paradoxically on the one hand very results oriented – like, “How do we know that this policy is working, or is going to work in order for us to want to pass it?” – then, on the other hand, extremely rhetorical, and gestural and not particularly evidence-based but more affinity-based. We tend to vote for the people who seem to be on our wavelength, rather than evaluating them on the quality of their ideas, or their ability to convincingly show us that those ideas might lead us in collective directions that we want to go. So, in short, there’s a lot of room for improvement!

[Related post: Quality in futures thinking]

One of the people that I interviewed was Henry Giroux, who uses the term, the ‘Trump dis-imagination machine’. He talks about the various ways from his perspective the Trump administration directly sets out to undermine and erode that sense of imagination. One of the ways he talks about it is about the past. He says that actually when you rewrite the past, and say well, the slaves all came here in pursuit of the American Dream, and you twist and change the past, you then change how we’re able to think about the future. What do you see that connection between the past and the future?

Orwell nailed it in 1984, that who controls the present controls the past, and who controls the past controls the future. That essentially the horizons that we’re able to imagine for ourselves in times to come correspond in a way to the ways that we read the present and the past that we’ve come from. So the manipulation of historical understandings, and the legislation, or the propagation of certain types of media who say, “there is no problem with racial inequality. That’s in the minds of the leftie malcontents.”

That has as a corollary a certain disdain – not just disdain, I need a stronger word than that – for progressive agendas that are looking to right past wrongs as a prelude to a future of equality and justice, and co-creative thriving.

[Related post: Foresight is a right]

If we want to bring a sense of the future as a delicious, nourishing, thriving, happy, connected, nurturing, beautiful possibility… If we want to give people a flavour of that in a world where that doesn’t even seem to be considered, certainly not in the mainstream media that people encounter… If we want to give people sips or a good drink or a feast of that …

A smorgasbord.

A smorgasbord of possibilities. From your thinking and research, where do we start?

The tradition I work in operates on the future as a plural space. So the fact that it hasn’t happened yet means that it could be many different things. And the opportunity that that affords us is the chance to imagine multiple alternative futures. Not just the delightful ones that you’ve referred to, but fearful ones, and concerning ones, and things we want to avoid as well.

But in a sense it’s a practice of mapping narrative alternatives in order to be able to navigate with them so that we have a vocabulary for the kinds of societal possibility that we seem to be moving towards or away from. So the way that this traditionally has been done is writing and discussing alternative scenarios. What kind of London, what kind of United States, might there be 20 or 50 years from now? And what are the kind of prospective historical logics, scenaric pathways that could unfold around us? And then in light in those alternatives, what can be done today to make more likely the things that we like, and less likely the things that we don’t?

The more recent addition to that perspective is the activation of the arts, of design, of theatre and performance, and in a way of materiality beyond the page in front of you, and the words on the page, to bring those futures to life.

So what my practice has been about, and the reason I’ve found my way to being a design professor, is bringing futures to life in the present, as a way of creating higher resolution mental models to think and feel with that inform our action today.

Could you give us a flavour of some of those?

This area of practice we call ‘experiential futures’ to highlight the addition of these dimensions of experience on top of the cognitive and intellectual engagement of a well-wrought thought experiment. One of the first projects that my colleagues and I did in this vein was for the state of Hawaii where I was a graduate student at the time. We put 550 people into four different versions of Hawaii in the year 2050.

[Related post: Ghosts of futures past]

So the rooms were created like a theatre set, almost?

That’s right. What I’ve been doing with my collaborators, and clients, and students for the last dozen years is designing and staging experiences of possible futures for all sorts of different contexts, and then also creating tools that help people do this for themselves, so that it isn’t just an expert undertaking. It’s democratising it.

[Related post: The Experiential Turn]

Once people had gone through the four scenarios, how did they then digest and reflect on what they’d experienced?

Great question, because the digestion and reflection part is as important as the experience itself. When one begins doing this type of thing it can be tempting to imagine that if you stage a sufficiently compelling and well thought out and polished and excitingly performed, etc., etc. immersion, that that somehow works its magic on people automatically and they’ll leave transformed.

And that’s not necessarily untrue. We’ve all been to plays or films where there isn’t a debriefing session afterwards but it still worked some kind of magic or some kind of change on us. Maybe we’ll process that with our friends or family members, or in the ambient cultural discussion around that cultural artefact later, but for these kinds of more localised interventions, where the people in the room – there may be 20 of them or there may be a couple of hundred – having a conversation which helps people process what’s just happened and notice some of the details that they missed and understand what was going on in the minds and in the bodies of the people next to them, as well as themselves, that becomes really important.

The project I describe was a prototype. In retrospect, it turns out to have been a prototype for a sort of modular design brief which I’ve been running with my students in various places around the world for the last six years or so, called ‘The Time Machine’. So the Time Machine is not a device. It’s a room that you turn into a future time. And the design task is to make the room feel like a seamless experience of the future that you’re trying to have a conversation about.

[Related post: A Time Traveller's Story]

So that’s just one single future?

One at a time, yeah, that’s right. You visit and spend time and immerse and, if you like, bathe in a particular future, and then you come back to the present and talk about it. So to answer your question about how do you debrief on this, half of the challenge is to create the experience that feels like you are time travelling, and then the other half is to have a high quality conversation about it where you surface the things that people were alarmed or excited by, where you ask them to cash out the lessons, whatever those might be, for action in the present.

That’s a facilitated conversation, and of course facilitating a quality conversation where you draw out the quiet ones and try not to have the loud ones dominate the room, that’s an art in itself but it’s a fairly well established art, whereas experiential futures are a bit more of a recent addition. But they pair well.

[Related post: NaturePod]

In the Transition movement it’s one of the things that really interests people, that question of how you bring the future out.  Is it something that requires extensive training or are there elements of it that actually anybody could do anywhere with a bit of thinking and a few people?

More the latter. Creating good immersive experiences does take a bit of practice, but it’s not necessarily expensive or that difficult. The first time we ran the Time Machine activity for a class was at the National University of Singapore. It was a week-long intensive course that I ran with some friends of mine, Aaron Maniam and Noah Raford, and we only had five days with the students and the first three days we spent orienting them in futures thinking and tools, including scenario creation, generating four alternative scenarios for whichever domain they were dealing with.

There were different groups. One dealt with the futures of love, sex and marriage in Singapore. One dealt with the futures of education. One dealt with the futures of – I want to say the judicial system – so they all had different domains, but we were providing the pedagogy, the underlying tools, and then the last day and a half, they had to take one of the stories they’d created during that week and turn it into an experience in the classroom. This is one of the reasons why the Time Machine, as a kind of modularisation, has been educational. Not just for the students doing it but for me and my co-instructors and so on, seeing dozens of these things being made, often in really short order.

[Related post: Introduction to Experiential Futures in The Economist]

They may have two or three weeks, if they’re lucky, of lead time, but if it’s a class, they’re only meeting once a week, and then however much they’re meeting outside of that, and then the scale of the experience is usually between twenty and thirty people. But what is interesting there is that twenty or thirty people multiplied by a couple of times a night … I’m jumping ahead a little bit here, but I want to tie this to the Transition discussion, I think basically in order to normalise the high resolution performance and materialisation of possible futures, we tend to think of doing this at multiplexes, or through cinema, but of course you can reach a lot of people through a theatrical mode.

If you have four or five Time Machines running simultaneously and people move from one to the next, then in an evening they’ve experienced four or five versions of their community. Let’s say they visit four or five versions of Totnes, set in 2040, and then they have a conversation about what this all means. In pretty short order you could get – particular at the scale of a place like Totnes – you could get a decent proportion of the population that has those as shared mental models. And they’re not drawing them from Hollywood or generic imaginaries that have been devised a long way away just for the purpose of entertaining them.

It’s rooted here.

Yeah, it’s rooted in those places based on the histories and cultures, and even the specific location where the Time Machine takes place. That’s the kind of futures thinking I think we need. So anyway, that’s a little bit of a glimpse of how I think something like this might scale, as a community based design practice.

[Related post: Ethnographic Experiential Futures]

But for a first step, well, I mentioned the projects that we work on that are about tools for others. So there’s a game that my colleague Jeff Watson at the University of Southern California and I designed a few years ago when we were both in Toronto, and it’s called ‘The Thing from the Future’. It’s a card game which is basically scaffolding for the imagination to enable and invite people to generate very diverse, but very specific ideas for things that could exist in possible futures. And they can tell stories about them, or if you have …


Yes. Objects, or cultural fragments, actually. I’ll show you, I’ve got some cards here. But the first edition of the card deck was made as the ideation engine for a design jam, which we ran in Toronto for forty people or so. And for the first hour and a half they played a bunch of rounds of the game. Came up with hundreds of ideas for things from the future that could exist, and then spent the second chunk of time physically prototyping these things and then we filled up a vending machine with artefacts from the future all created in one day by the participants at this event. Some of whom had design backgrounds and many of whom did not.

So that’s a pointer towards a kind of practice that doesn’t have to be highly elaborate or resource intensive, but can lower the barrier to building a relationship. A non-fearful relationship with concrete alternative futures.

[Related post: The Thing From The Future, First Edition]

It’s a bit like what you do in improv.  There’s a lot of that sort of, ‘Yes, and’ about this.

Yeah, I heard a story recently about the jazz great Charles Mingus working on a film with psychonaut Timothy Leary. Mingus said, “You can’t improvise on nothing”. And this is an important point when we reflect on what our imaginations are doing, they are improvising on the materials that we feed them. And improvising often not particularly well on fairly worn and clich├ęd materials.

When we start to attend to imagination as something that can be cultivated and improved, like a muscle that we can get into shape by using it, that begins to suggest ways of working together, not just individually, to create more imaginative spaces, more imaginative conversations.

Limits are essential, and they’re always present even if we don’t realise they are. That’s where recognising that when we reach into our minds for an image of the future, particularly an image of the future that is different from what comes most readily, or what seems to be most likely, that we need to provide ourselves with the materials that let us create those images.

[Related article: Gaming Futures Literacy: The Thing From The Future]

A question I’ve asked everybody is if it had been you, and not the current incumbent who had been elected the President in the US a year and a half ago, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make America Imaginative Again’ and you had felt that actually what was needed was, rather than having an national innovation strategy, we needed a National Imagination Strategy, which said we need imagination to run through schools, through public life, through policy making, through everything, what might President Candy do in your first 100 days in the Oval office?

I think the instilling of imagination throughout a society doesn’t come from intervening in one spot. But the three main sites where things seem to be most lacking to me are in politics, media and education. Those are the three institutional areas of deficit. I think probably education is one of the most readily addressable because the whole point of education is to programme and prepare, instil in your emerging citizens the capabilities you think they’ll need.

I would probably start with an educational initiative that would put the ‘A’…  You will have heard of STEM, ‘Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths’, to STEAM, putting Arts in their rightful place right in the middle of that combination. But specifically, or more specifically than that, futures as a capability is learnable. I came across it myself first when I was 16 years old, in high school, and it wasn’t too late. But it would have been handy to have been exposed to it even earlier I think.

That is an education level intervention, requiring futures education, that could make a significant difference quite quickly. We’re doing it organically, on an opportunistic basis, at the moment. One of my jobs at Carnegie Mellon at the School of Design is to integrate futures into the design curriculum, with the underlying premise there being that if you’re going to be designing things, you should be capable of thinking well about the kinds of futures that you’re designing for, and against.

And those layers of temporal and systems context need to be fluidly navigable by a good designer at this moment in history, and perhaps in general. Maybe this is a sort of maturation. A growing into of the implications of our plasticity as a species as we realise that we are shaping the world around us, so let’s do it knowledgeably, and knowingly. That’s the first thing, the education.

Then the other two fronts, the media and politics, it might be tricky to do in the first 100 days, but requiring and encouraging – maybe modelling this – political candidates to demonstrate the futures that they are intending to bring about. Rather than hitting the campaign trail with just slogans and appealing to personality and identity, they have to create let’s say documentaries from the future that show how their policies would play out. That would be incredibly interesting and provide a much richer basis for evaluating the quality of the imagination and the systems thinking of the people who are appealing to us for our votes.

Then the media thing, well, that’s harder to intervene in and I’m not sure that legislating is the way to do that, but creating instances of the kind we were talking about earlier, the community level experiences of possible futures for the places where we live, that would be worth investing in. If it were the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts, which of course has been gutted and devalued systemically for quite a while. Investment in people’s ability to bring futures to life in the present to experience I think would be effort well spent.

[Related article: Dreaming Together: Experiential Futures as a Platform for Public Imagination]

Do you have any last thoughts around imagination and the future and anything you wanted to say on that that I haven’t asked you the question to set you off on?

My motivation is about encouraging and enabling a social capacity for foresight. I didn’t dream that up out of nowhere –– like I said, I work in a tradition that for over half a century has been specifically focused on how we can use the future, or use plural futures to make change more effectively. But also, I would add, more humanely and more justly, in a more enlightened fashion.

If we look at the terrain of intervention as being what Gregory Bateson called ‘a mental ecology’ – an ecology of mind – how do you create situations, which might be at a room scale, or might be at a city scale, how do you create situations that elevate people’s capacity and willingness and ability to be imaginative? And further, to deploy those towards imagining particular futures?  Alternative futures.

Not just the hopeful ones, because I don’t think we can live on a diet of hope alone. A healthy mental ecology, like other kinds of ecology, the index of that is its diversity. You need a diversity of alternative futures to be present and available to people as the materials with which to navigate their options. That’s a critical part of transforming governance in our lifetimes.


Thanks again to Rob Hopkins; and we'll be sure to keep up with news of the book as it progresses.

Rob's interview with another keynote speaker from the Transition Together Symposium, commons researcher and P2P Foundation founder Michel Bauwens, is here.

See also:
> The Futures of Everyday Life (PhD dissertation)
Syrian refugee girls imagine their futures
Designing Futures (Interview)
The technology of public imagination
Design is Storytelling
Death of a President (Essay on future documentary)
The act of imagination

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