Oh, how we used to love the future. We dreamed of flying cars, back yard nuclear reactors and even colonies in space. It was all going to be just so wonderful, we could hardly wait for tomorrow to get here.
So what happened? Why did we fall out of love with the opportunities that were just over the horizon? When did the future go from being a great big beautiful tomorrow to a looming nightmare of cataclysmic proportions?
To be honest, the end of the love affair had a lot to do with reality. Tomorrow got here and it turned out not to be quite as beautiful as we had imagined. Sure, the last century saw some incredible advances in technology; Advances that profoundly improved life for the vast majority of the world. There was a lot of unexpected baggage that showed up along with those improvements. By now, we know all the stories. Energy for everyone meant pollution everywhere. An explosion of cheap consumer goods led to landfills spreading across the countryside. And the list of unexpected byproducts of that optimistic future goes on and on.
It seems that the lesson we have taken from our excesses is that we must fear the future. We have come to accept as absolute truth that the worse possible scenarios are the most likely to occur. I’m pretty sure that’s neither an accurate, nor more importantly, useful lesson.
The great big beautiful tomorrow of the 20th century failed because of tunnel vision. Optimistic futurism was focused almost completely on the promise of new big technology. In hindsight it’s easy enough to see that we were one dimensional in our visions of better tomorrows. But, to be fair, at the turn of the last century technology was producing some amazing revolutions. Imagine just how the widespread introduction of electricity, for example, must have felt at the time. As the world literally moved out of the dark ages, in just a few years, how could we have not been enraptured by the power of technology?
Now, we seem to have gone to the other extreme. Any optimistic vision of the future, whether technology fueled or not, is often dismissed as naïve or worse. We assume that anyone who promotes these positive visions must have some hidden agenda they are trying to sell us. But our postmodern cynicism is robbing us of the key element of those earlier visions – the power of optimism.
Quite simply, better tomorrows are never created out of fear. Creating change is difficult, even when we are guided by the most positive vision. Confronted with a choice of selecting the lesser evil, most people simply give up and wait for the Armageddon to arrive. The only hope we have of making substantive changes is when we believe the end result will make the world better off than it is today. Positive visions are necessary to inspire people to do the hard work to build better tomorrows.
How do we create positive visions of the future without being intellectually naive? We must be able to combine our optimistic outlook with a systems view of the world. If we can avoid tunnel vision then we can create compelling, and realistic, visions that have the possibility of creating positive change.
Creating such balanced optimistic visions is difficult and time consuming. But it is the essential first step if you’re going to have any chance of building better tomorrows. And that first step begins with understanding the limitations of our own worldview. Start today by taking a look at the stories that already define your vision of tomorrow. Are they nightmares or dreams of a better world?