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Few can be in any doubt that we are in a time of accumulating crises – financial, ecological, political, and military. But there is also a less visible crisis: a crisis of imagination that makes it harder to navigate our way out and has left us with too few good options, roadmaps and routes to the future.
The symptoms of this crisis are all around us. Large majorities in most OECD countries expect their children to be worse off than them. Pessimism can be found at all levels. I have interviewed hundreds of activists, and leaders of all kinds. Most find it easy to picture ecological apocalypse or climate catastrophe, and easy to picture a technological future - a world dominated by robots or drones. But they struggle to get beyond the fuzziest blur in describing what society might be like, our social future as opposed to our technological future.
Any society needs options, a menu of possibilities from which to draw, particularly when facing mounting crises
Fascinating recent research surveyed the patterns of sentiment in all books published in English, German and Spanish over the last 150 years (as gathered on Google) which showed symptoms of a collective depression, on a scale greater than during the world wars, in recent decades. The authors wrote of an upsurge of ‘cognitive distortions’ since around 2000. What they call ‘catastrophising’ ways of thinking have risen sharply as utopias have been displaced by distopias in our collective mind.
This matters. Any society needs options, a menu of possibilities from which to draw, particularly when facing mounting crises, and every society needs some sense of the road ahead, a map of the future that doesn’t just take us to ecological ruin or to being enslaved by robots.
So how might we collectively do better? One starting point is social science. For many of the greatest social scientists, diagnosis and prescription were tightly interwoven, from Adam Smith, Condorcet and Comte to Jeremy Bentham and Marx whose grave is inscribed with his famous comment that ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it'. But this tradition has partly disappeared. There are pockets of work on mechanism design or societal transformation. But overall this kind of work has become harder. Search out well informed proposals for how welfare, democracy, tax could be a generation or two from now and you’ll find surprisingly little. There are many reasons for this. Healthy pressures to attend to hard data and evidence have had the unintended consequence of squeezing out attention to the future since by definition evidence and data refer to the past and present. An equally healthy commitment to rigour has made it hard or even career threatening to be creative, since any genuinely new idea risks sounding flaky, vague or half-baked (as any radical idea will be in its infancy).
This is why we need more of what I call ‘exploratory social science’ – combining deep knowledge with imagination to flesh out pictures of what our societies could be like a generation or two into the future. The goal should be to generate not finalised blueprints but rather generative ideas and prototypes that can be adapted, expanded and experimented with. We need this work both within disciplines and across them, and to draw on the many traditions of forecasting, scenarios, foresight, sci-fi, counterfactual history and utopian writing.
The goal should be to generate not finalised blueprints but rather generative ideas and prototypes that can be adapted, expanded and experimented with.
Another starting point is politics: I would like to see our political parties, Prime Ministers and Mayors initiate national conversations about the big challenges of the future, and the roadmaps for getting there. Again, there are many tools and examples to draw on which show how this can be done well.
Also on the Forum Network: Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future, by Margaret Heffernan, Professor of Practice, University of Bath; Lead Faculty, Forward Institute Responsible Leadership Programme
Margaret Heffernan explores approaches to digesting complexity in a world increasingly defined by the need and ability to offer predictions.
A third starting point is R&D, and shifting it from focusing solely on hardware. Many countries continue to increase the share of GDP spent on research and there are some interesting attempts in Canada and Australia to grow a more systematic approach to social R&D but they remain tiny compared with R&D for hardware, and while we have thousands of labs for new materials, drugs, we have very few for new ways of living, caring, learning or cooperating. Better social R&D also provides an answer to the justified fear of ill-conceived utopias being imposed on helpless populations. Experimentation has long been normal in health (particularly for new drugs) and is now mainstream in business with companies like Amazon and Google AB testing on new services of all kinds. With social R&D, too, every promising idea gets tested in practice. Other examples to build on include the spread of Social Science Parks that bring together academics, thinktanks, civil society in a single space, the new museums of the future (as in Dubai) and philanthropic support for community-based collective imagination.
All of these can help to widen our menu of options and liberate us from what Roberto Unger called the ‘dictatorship of no alternatives’. The film ‘The Mystery of Picasso’ is a good prompt. The film shows the painter at work through a glass screen, painting a picture, then obliterating, shifting and mutating it. As a viewer you slowly realise that his creative process was endlessly fertile, trying things out and then keeping the best ones. Biology suggests that evolution does much the same, with endless differentiation and variation and then selection.
Yet these processes are much rarer in social science and rarer still in policy which both prefer a much less creative, linear process from analysis to proposition.
Add these all together and it's possible to see how imagination could be reignited – to the benefit of us all. After all, it is precisely at times like these, times of crisis, that we need to look ahead, just as in dark days of 1930s and WW2 some worked hard to think about what could come after, from designing welfare states to macroeconomics, decolonisation to human rights and the creation of the UN, which a decade before it was founded seemed utterly utopian.
2000 years ago Seneca warned that there are no fair winds for those who don’t know where they want to go. That is as true for societies as it is for individuals.
Strategic foresight is a structured and systematic way of using ideas about the future to anticipate and better prepare for change. It is about exploring different plausible futures that could arise, and the opportunities and challenges they could present. We then use those ideas to make better decisions and act now. To learn more, find out about the work of the OECD Strategic Foresight Unit!
Sir Geoff Mulgan spoke in the OECD high-level conference 'Inspiration, innovation and inclusion: Shaping our future with the social and solidarity economy', which took place on 20-21 March 2023. Watch the session replays!