Protopia: creating the future that works for all?
Grand visions for the 21st century: a panel that (almost) went wrong
A few weeks ago at the Learning Planet Festival I facilitated a conversation on the long-term future of humanity. The list of panelists was quite impressive, and included the OECD head of education, the founder of the world’s largest futurologists’ network, the partner of a large VC fund, and even an educator that was voted by NY Times as the ‘most influential women after Hillary Clinton’ in 2015.
The key question of the panel matched the collective capacity of discussants: can we (collectively) govern the long-term future of humanity, and how? How can we avoid ‘dark’ future scenarios of global catastrophes and dystopias — and how can we create a ‘future that works for all’?
I have invited participants to share the inspirational images of the future that they commit their own life to. It was evident that all panelists, remarkable experts and world change leaders, are moved by the ideals of peace and prosperity for the humankind and the planet. My secret hope was that we would begin discovering the consensual ‘core’ of shared ideals that inspired all of us — and that we would spend most of our time talking about possible ways of supporting each other’s work of making the world a better place.
I could not be more wrong.
Soon after the conversation started, one of the participants said to her (male) colleagues who by that time were sharing inspirational and vivid dreams of the technology-enhanced future civilization:
“All your dreams about new technologies, robots and space are irresponsible fantasies of boys playing with their toys. While you work on your projects, our planet is dying. Whatever you think is irrelevant.”
And so the discussion began to slide into an argument about the importance and the relevance of every scenario presented — with every participant defending their own desired image of the future. Instead of finding a consensus, instead of uncovering a unity of our intentions and ideas — we have discovered ourselves in a rapidly polarizing space where some ideas about the future were ‘right’ and other ideas were ‘wrong’.
This situation is not a deviation or an unhappy occurrence. In fact, it is a perfect reflection of the Zeitgeist, an ongoing combat between technocrats and environmentalists, between businessmen and humanists, between defenders of ‘old’ and ‘new’ norms. I can side with the argument of the above-mentioned participants: indeed, our planetary processes were disrupted by the industrial civilization, and unless we change the course of our action in the next few decades, the humanity may not have any future at all. The stakes are high, and so it is clear why people can get emotional when discussing long-term future scenarios. We have to take the collective responsibility for the situation happening. Still, I believe that other participants of the dialogue were also right — we need to endorse human inventiveness and engage advanced science into solving our most pressing problems, we need to change ways in which we design, use, and govern technologies so that humanity’s challenges become addressed. The global risks that we face also invite us to modify the ‘rules of the game’, to make the economy and technologies a part of the solution and not a problem — as, for example, in the ‘regenerative economy’ paradigm.
But I also offer you to see this conversation from the meta position. What kind of dynamics does it reflect? Why does such a dynamics emerge even in a conversation between people who presumingly have very strong disposition towards collaboration and mutual support?
An angel spitting in rage
How often do we witness a dialogue, a mutual learning space, turning into a ‘combat’ driven by the desire to establish one’s own point of view? How often do we see how educated and responsible people commit their energy to intellectually nullify and destroy each other to prove themselves right?
A new and widely spreading idea suggests that this ‘compete and destroy’ pattern is programmed into us by the culture that dominated our civilization in the last few centuries — but it is not ‘hardwired’ in the human nature. For a certain historical period, this civilization of ‘dominance’ promoted the ‘ideals’ of hierarchy governed by old ‘fathers’ (patriarchs). The self proclaimed superiority validated the suppression of other genders (e.g. limit the rights of women), other cultures (e.g. exploit and destroy indigenous population of colonies), and other species (e.g. kill whales and cut down pristine forests). This world order was based on the authority of God (often depicted as an old man), it suppressed the diversity, limited opportunities, and established ‘right’ point of views.
The fact that we are able to admit and discuss this situation shows that the world began to change. New generations do not accept the racial, gender, ecological and economic injustice. Large social movements demand to change fundamental social structures such as the police and the army in order to eradicate systemic oppression. The new world needs to become more just, more open and inclusive, more loving and full of care.
But where does this new world begin? — it begins with ideas and images that capture the collective imagination, it begins with generative dialogues on possible futures. And it is there that we see competing and equally strong images of the future clashing — exactly as they did in civil wars and revolutions of the last few centuries.
How can we design a conversation that invites us to cocreate the world of harmony, justice, and mutual support? How could the above mentioned dialogue be designed, to enable every participant to be a cocreator of the shared future that works for all?
Cocreation is a relatively new and rare skill that is mastered only by a handful of people. The modern world still endorses authors, shining personalities, individual creators — and it does not encourage collaborations where individual authorship ‘melts down’. But we know that any great creation or major social change is a result of a successful collaboration between many people who join their creative impulses in a shared effort. If we want to create the future — then the first thing we need to admit that the future does not belong to any of us individually, but only to all of us collectively.
Why do I believe that the cocreation, the organic ‘gardening’ of the future is a better path than building the future according to a ‘master plan’ by the Grand Architect?
Five year plans were seen as a way of turning Russia from an ‘obsolete’ agricultural country into an ‘advanced’ industrial one
My native country, Russia, is a rare example of a territory that lived according to the paradigm of ‘purposeful future building’ according to a ‘masterplan’. The Soviet Union managed to win the Second World War and to send the first man into space — but it has also created one of the most remarkable systems of suppression of alternative ideas and grassroot democracies. We know that the belief in utopia brought immeasurable sufferings to citizens of Russia and other countries of the ‘Soviet bloc’. It was no accident that the Soviet Union collapsed 30 years ago. But the dissidents who helped to destroy USSR were the same breed of fanatics: they wanted to destroy all things Soviet at any cost, even at the expense of suffering of millions of their fellow citizens. The decade after the collapse of the USSR was one of the darkest in the history of Russia, the decade of famine, poverty, and crime. (It is no surprise that many ideals of those dissidents — such as democracy, free speech, and entrepreneurial effort, — were abandoned in modern Russia, and that the country has reverted to a ‘light’ version of the Soviet Union with its high level of autocracy and state governed capitalism).
Back in the 1970s, when the collapse of Soviet Union was a matter of highly improbable future, dissidents have often conducted harsh (underground) discussions to prove that their future scenario becomes the most important one. Philosopher Grigory Pomerants, whom I was lucky to meet in the last years of his life, saw these discussions as a ghost of future tragedies:
The devil is born from an angel spitting in rage… People and systems crumble to dust, but the spirit of hate, bred by the champions of good, is immortal and thus evil on Earth knows no end. In the debates of the 1970s I stubbornly went against all my instincts and impulses to spit in rage, and in this struggle, I found another truth — the manner of the debate is more important that the object of the debate. Objects come and go, while manners form the building blocks of civilizations.
The style of our debate about the future is as important as its topic. The future is born when we conceive it as an idea — and by discussing our ideas we invite the future into the present. If we believe that the ‘right cause’ justifies the hatred and destruction — we bring the world of hatred. If we maintain the dialogue that allows for openness, novelty, mutual learning and evolutionary growth — we begin to create the future that works for all.
I believe that throughout 2020 the world has entered into a bifurcation point. The COVID-19 pandemics has put the world on hold — and many leaders started to contemplate if we really want to carry our civilization forward in the same old way. The future opened up, it became uncertain and full of possibilities, it invited creatives and innovators. This is the time when our collectives efforts can help us cocreate a most inspiring future — or help establish a most threatening one.
Cocreating our complex future
The future is undetermined — and so our debates about possible 2050 future scenarios can be fairly abstract. But we certainly should not follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union. ‘Engineering’ our future — and suppressing or destroying those who do not agree with it — will only breed more violence and hatred. Was there any way for USSR to succeed, if one of its main principles was to suppress and kill older generations that disagreed with the happy Communist future? Can we hope today that any form of suppression of communities, movements or generations will produce the new happy future? Is it possible to enforce any kind of future in a complex world that we are living in? What is the way to create a truly harmonious world that works for all — is by establishing ways of thinking and governing that allow multidimensional and diverse future?
George Hart’s puzzle: a shape that can will fit through a circular, triangular and square hole.
Let us imagine three flat two-dimensional characters from an old Victorian book ‘Flatland’. They vigorously argue whether the thing they see is a circle, a triangle, or a square. These two-dimensional beings are unaware of the fact that the object they are exploring is three-dimensional, and it actually matches all three descriptions at the same time.
Our collective future is somewhat similar to this object. It is larger and more complex than anyone can imagine. It has a greater variety of forms of relations, governance systems, organizations, families and cultures than anyone can accept. It can fit multiple scenarios that we currently would see as mutually exclusive, because our own ‘flatter’ perspective does not allow us to see the synthesis. It is possible to envisage the future where technologies serve humans and do not enslave them — or the future where corporations restore the Earth instead of destroying it. We can imagine cultures that encourage various people, communities and organizations to cocreate the future that works for all even despite massive differences in values and worldviews.
Such a future is more complex than the world we are used to. It is more complex than any utopias or dystopias of the past — communism or liberal capitalism, ecologism or industrialism, etc. This future does not have any names, but it can really work for all.
Such a future begins with a new model of dialogue and collaborative learning. We need to open to each other, to see each other as partners in collective action & research, to recognize each other as fellow travellers in a lifelong learning journey.
I believe that ways of ‘creating the future that works for all’ only begin to emerge. The journey will not be an easy one — our instincts and cultural programming provoke us to fight each other for limited resources and dominant opinions. But our aspiration for evolutionary development calls us to trust love and dialogue.
In March 2021 we launch the collaborative online learning course that will become our collective journey in cocreating the future. We invite you to explore Protopia and learn to grow your future with evolutionary impact.