I have been taken lately by a phrase from Stephen Duncombe’s writing about the value of utopian imagination, where he speaks of the “tyranny of the possible,” suggesting that our solutions to problems get limited when we are thinking only within the constraints of what we currently accept as reality. What are some of the tools you have discovered that people are using to think beyond “the tyranny of the possible”? How do we address the concern that unfettered imagination is by definition impractical if we are to achieve that mix of imagination and practice you advocate throughout the book?
I love this phrase – “the tyranny of the possible”! Similar to it is one by Erik Olin Wright from Envisioning Utopias where he writes, “the actual limits of what is achievable depend in part on the beliefs people hold about what sorts of alternatives are viable.” The problem that I see with holding too tightly to only the viable and the possible is that one often ends up being purely tactical in nature – going after solutions to pieces of problems based upon one’s own biases and expertise – optimizing for what one thinks is most important and/or what one can ‘realistically’ do. This is fine for simple or complicated problems (think bicycle or Tesla) but will not work for complex problems that need real work at a dynamic systems level (think rainforest) where breaking apart the problem or operating tactically often causes negative versus positive outcomes. These are the problems that require a pragmatic imagination for reasons already touched upon.
Complex problems require thinking forward more than solving for the present. Imagining a better state and then working towards it. The “tyranny of the possible” when it looks forward only sees trends of today playing out. It is stuck in only what is known. It assumes that the future is a version of today playing out. But if you think about it, the future – in any domain, any piece of it – is an unknown. More importantly, it is an unknown that we are constructing, whether consciously or not, with every decision or action we take, small or large. In fact, I would suggest that it will be only a default construction if we wrestle in real time with problems and opportunities constrained by both the tyranny of the possible and the tyranny of time.
Utopian thinking, or imagining utopian states/societies, is liberating precisely because utopias are fictional no-places. But what if you want to think about real places and especially new possibilities, new possible states of existing conditions, problems even, how do you ‘land’ utopian thinking. How do you make it useful? How do you avoid the rejection of its results as being (tautologically) ‘utopian’? Historically, utopian thinking has acted as an invaluable critique of existing society, existing realities. As such, its role has been as an agent to prod others to act. So I come back to the question of how do you land it? In fact, how do you start it in a way that it is valuable and then how do you land it?
As you know, I have been interested in, and involved with world building for several years now. I am fascinated by its two-sided nature. It helps us escape the “tyranny of the possible” by giving us permission to imagine and then build a world based upon a larger construct, whether that construct is utopian or not. And then, because we engage in building out that world, with texture, across a wide range of domains, from those that are material (geography, climate, architecture, clothing), social domains (family structure, politics, markets and advertising, crime), mental domains (language, culture, memes), and technology, we create something so vivid that one can actually imagine inhabiting it.
At the 2014 TED conference (its thirtieth anniversary), the rock musician Sting gave a presentation in which he spoke about his rise to stardom and a period in which he was unable to write. After years of silence, he discovered a new muse in reflecting on his childhood. David Brooks wrote about this saying that “most TED talks are about the future, but Sting’s was about going into the past. (TED conference speakers generally live in hope and have the audacity of the technologist. And there’s a certain suspension of disbelief as audiences get swept up in the fervor and feel themselves delightedly on the cutting edge.) The difference between the two modes of thinking stood in stark contrast. In the first place, it was clear how much richer historical consciousness is than future vision. When we think about the future, we don’t think about the texture and the tensions, the particular smells, shapes, conflicts – the dents in the floorboards. Historical consciousness has a fullness of paradox that future imagination cannot match.”
What is interesting and so valuable about world building is that you are after imagining, and then creating through text, images, games, film, books, artifacts, “the dents in the floorboards,” So much so that one can actually imagine inhabiting that world. And even desiring to do so. In world building, one is making a whole range of viable and not so viable possibilities actually tangible enough that we are willing to consider them. We are willing to consider them because, as strange as the individual details might be, the world is coherent and therefore credible. And most world building starts in some aspect of reality that draws us in. The coherence keeps us involved until we begin to suspend our disbelief and run with the proposition in all of its detail and texture. And in capturing the “fullness of paradox” or paradoxes that one finds in real life, one is not only entertaining possibilities that escape the tyranny of the possible, you are also wrestling with conflicts and paradoxes that might belong to the present – but now in the way they may play out in the future (The Matrix or Hunger Games) – and/or actually discovering new paradoxes that are specifically related to what might happen if you place different imaged scenarios into the same world building container and let them bump up against each other through story (Minority Report).
There are different purposes for world building in cinema, literature and games. One might aim to create an intensified experience – frightening, delightful, fantastic or humorous; or, to immerse us in an historical period; or critique the present. World building can help us play out hopes and fears. But it can also be used to prototype a future: playing out trends to see where they might go; interrogating conflicts and paradoxes; but also to imagine, or hypothesize, a future based upon an idea or desired outcome – to imagine an ideal state, an ideal response, or a better world, and then build the world around it in the world building space so that one can build towards it in reality.
The value of this for real world situations and problems is just this: to imagine a desired future state, with texture, detail, and coherence, and then build towards it, as opposed to trying to solve for present problems – the kind that, in fact, cannot really be solved – in a fractured way. This can be done at the scale of a world situation, but it can also be valuable at the scale of an organization, or even an individual. I have engaged in world building my future and am actually doing a course this term for the students at Ohio State on exactly this. But I have also worked with organizations to world build the future of their institution in a way that has created something completely unforeseeable and catalytic. I have worked with students and faculty in three institutions to world build the future of the university. And I have worked on world building projects that have generated insight about the future. In these kinds of projects, one of the greatest contributions is that world building uncovers unforeseen questions, paradoxes, conflicts and even opportunities in the process of thinking big.
I was immensely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Alex McDowell, the production designer for Steven Spielberg on Minority Report, probably the best example of world building that aimed to prototype the future by bringing together the most advanced thinking, trends and inventions on the horizon to intersect with each other. Alex was recruited to a faculty appointment at the School of Cinema at USC and we worked on his first world building studio together. The project was a wonderful conceit. He was interested in working with either Rio or LA as a beginning point. I had been fascinated by a book of José Saramago’s called The Stone Raft in which a seemingly benign incident causes the Iberian Peninsula to break off from the continent and float out to sea. Saramago plays out the political, social and personal repercussions based upon the historical and contemporary relationship of Portugal to Spain. This influenced the generative idea for the studio: a portion of Rio had experienced a cataclysmic event, sending it out to sea, as did a portion of LA. They had collided in the ocean, somewhere non-specific and far from civilization, creating a new city-island-state called RiLao. As the students picked this up, they added more to the history including a major plague that had isolated the island from the contemporary world for a period of time, trapped a series of visiting scientists and technologists who developed a parallel, but different from any mainland society, science and technology – one that was very biologically oriented and highly constrained by resources. There was also a foundational mythology and economy.
The catalytic beginning point of Rio and LA collided together allowed us to look at the city as a site of major economic and cultural divides – both Rio and LA have this in common – multiple city islands within the city (we also read China Miéville’s 2009 novel The City & the City). It also allowed us to play with similarities of cultural exuberance and other themes. We found many similarities that underlie global trends and differences that characterized different expressions and possible future trajectories of these trends. World building worked off of the original premise of the collision of the two cities and themes that came from there, but also from student preoccupations as they mapped their own interests onto this world.
There was a fascinating oscillation between playing out reality with permission to let go of the ‘tyranny of the possible’, and the overlay of large ideas and questions that came from the students’ own preoccupations and obsessions about the future. It was fascinating! The responsible irresponsibility led us to find and wrestle with some hard questions. Not in the abstract, but in terms of how they might play out in a world – or a future world. In world building, coherence is the magical mechanism because, while you have permission to imagine beyond, or other-than, reality, the fact that you are building a world, demands coherence. It demands that all of the parts stick together in some sort of mesh of imaginative calculus. This is why and how one discovers paradoxes, conflicts, questions and opportunities.
For example, we had students interested in the plague and biological mutations that occurred because of it. Others were interested in the relationship of the plague doctors to the evolution of medical science on the island, while others were interested in how these plague doctors intersected with mythology and religious/cultural constructs. Some students played with the role of memory and identity associated with the plague generation, and how this conflicted with younger generations. The size of the island and its increasing population led to terra-forming, drones for construction, drones for cleaning and repairing buildings that were no longer accessible by infrastructure . . . the increasing divide between the dense lower income city and the new terra-formed neighborhoods . . . artistic traditions from both LA and Rio lent a surreal aspect to much of this . . . all of these contributed. Everything new folded back in to recalibrate the rest of the world.
One of the many memorable projects – just to show you the way things bumped up against each other – was the project of a Media Arts and Practices doctoral student, Behnaz Farahi, who was interested in how the densification of the city and the biological overlay intersected with issues of privacy, identity, fashion, architecture and expression. She was playing with the trend of machine-augmented humans with the assumption that the isolation of the island had allowed and demanded an accelerated level of development of biomechotronic parts. But concurrently, she was also deeply interested in how other life forms both protected and expressed themselves through camouflage, defensive adaptations, dramatic coloration and plumage. And then, of course, this resonated with the exuberant artistic cultural heritages of Rio and LA.
Her project resulted in a ‘wearable’ device of feathers/armament that was controlled electronically through connections to the electrical output of the skin. Although it was prototyped as a wearable, there was always the assumption that it might actually be a permanent addition to a body. Featherlike in appearance, making reference to the elaborate costumes of Carnival, it could open and close providing privacy, defense and possibly shelter in a hyper-dense environment. The questions the project raised relative to future forms of humans, cybernetics, mutations, identity, space etc were fascinating, and deeply provocative – real questions that we should be entertaining with more rigor and imagination. In assuming the existence, and not the denial, of these trends, Behnaz allowed us to see something that might be as magnificent and useful as it might also be frightening. I have touched on this only briefly but it gives you an idea.
A second world building studio that I had the opportunity to witness the results of stands in productive contrast to the RiLao studio. Sometimes, one world builds around responsible and important questions. I was able to sit in on the final review of a world building studio that took on looking at solutions for a highly marginalized community in Lagos. The work was very responsible to the problem and beautifully produced. But wanting to be viable so that the results might be implementable, it got stuck in the tyranny of the possible. Specifically, many of the projects were evocative manifestations of assumed ‘solutions’ around education and health – solutions that others involved with these communities have already identified as necessary. The world building part added certain new technologies to the mix. Not to deny that these are important assumptions, but they are partial solutions that, while viable, have not yet gotten enough traction because the system – the world – around them (lack of funding, lack of government participation, community belief structures, etc) remains intact and immovable.
Going back to the RiLao example, the one project I cited – one of several very successful projects of the first studio – allowed one to see further and more critically – to use one’s imagination to interrogate the present in an exaggerated situation and to look for possible alternate paths of emerging trends. This is not to say that the fearful issues go away, just that one is willing to entertain possibilities that escape from normative biases. And entertain them in a way that lets you see them in a more complex context, technologically, socially and even culturally.
The RiLao studio spread after its first semester into a much larger group of participants. When it finished its ‘run’ after two years, 9 other schools in 7 countries had participated in building and interrogating this world with tremendous richness and imagination. Some of the work was pure fantasy but much of it provided windows into how to think about the future and real prototypes for projects that can actually be built today. This is another aspect of world building – that, if successful, the world is so evocative, that others can, and will, begin to build upon it, adding new content to the world and new stories that play in that world.
In world building for real world impact, we can target a future date that is far out enough to allow us to break with the present, yet close enough to avoid the seduction of fantasy. Far out enough gives us permission to imagine more than if we stay fixed in the problems, opportunities and solutions on our doorstep. Over the past three years, I have done a series of three studios with a colleague of mine at Georgetown University and one on my own at Ohio State to world build the future of the university for 2033. The first studio at Georgetown was in 2013. Our students were (mostly) twenty years old and so adding 20 years to 2013 meant that we were adding a ‘lifetime’ to the present year.
This created enough of a ‘too far out’ to escape fixed views of what is viable. They were still students that had emotional and epistemological attachment to their university, and so that, by default, provided responsibility. Sometimes too much so, but we persevered in pushing them. At the moment, there are two camps in both thinking and action around innovation in higher education. One looks at the problems to resolve, usually picking one to three of them to optimize for, and then creates mechanisms to do so. The other comes from the ‘let the new technologies disrupt’ side and promotes new technology rich methods for learning. Both of these are valuable, but partial, carving off a piece of the problem to work on when the university of today is actually the legacy of an era that is so distinctly different than our own that a new model is required. The digital hyper connected age could not be further from the industrial age, structurally, socially, epistemologically, emotionally, in terms of identity, and in terms of the functioning of the world. Therefore, we focused on what the ‘university/higher ed’ would look like if one world built it for the world of 2033. In world building a new model, the students worked to create integrated, rich, textured and coherent systems/models where conflicts and paradoxes are taken into account and held (not resolved) by the world.
The question then becomes: if one world builds a future, which we have said is not necessarily viable today, how practical is that? How can you ‘land it’? How can you create concrete things and actions that lead to change? How do you close the gap between the world that you have imagined/built and where we are now?
If we accept that the future is not known, that it emerges out of actions taken in the present, based upon actions in the past, then one has to work to shape the emergence. This means that you cannot create strategic plans in the traditional top-down five-year-prescriptive sense. In Design Unbound, we present a meta-tool that is a System of Action which works both in and on the context to shape change – to close the gap between a new imagined context/world or condition and the present reality.
Unfettered imagination should not be seen as impractical. The issue is that it is often seen as not actionable for anything but individual artistic expression. But pragmatic means being able to accomplish something. The pragmatic imagination means being able to marry imagination to action that has purpose and agency.
World building helps one do that. It helps you imagine beyond what you know to see more than you knew. Systems of action or any mechanism that instrumentalizes the imagination helps to put it to pragmatic purpose.
But I also want to be careful. One of JSB’s colleagues, who is an artist and website creator, was offended at even the term pragmatic imagination. He felt that it was demeaning or demoralizing to think of the imagination as pragmatic. As a person, myself, who is very thankful for having a practice that traffics in imagination, I’m not sure I understand completely his concern, but I can imagine that if one thinks that pragmatic means only practical, or that one has to even start purposefully, then I have the same problem. But the concept of the pragmatic imagination is actually the opposite of that. It is the fact that we use the imagination for everything to different degrees. Our point is that it needs to be understood more, valued for more, scaffolded – developing practices that set it in motion – and instrumentalized – both it and its products.
Sometimes the imagination just happens, but too often, especially as one matures if one is not in a discipline that specifically traffics in imagination, the imagination is illusive. The pragmatic imagination recognizes this. It looks at ways that others use to set it in motion all along the spectrum. Some of these just happen covertly, while others intentionally provoke its emergence. Pragmatic imagination consciously avoids the rhetoric around ‘we all just need to use our imaginations more’. Instead, it pragmatically sets out to talk about how, why, when, and where we can make more use of it as a cognitive muscle that releases us from the tyranny of the possible!