October 31, 2022 / Leave a comment
What if we became the best storytellers we could possibly be? A blog for Civic Square.
I recently wrote an article, one of 15 which form the Reimagining Economics Possibilities series commissioned by the wonderful Civic Square in Birmingham. You can find the all here, there are many great pieces. Here’s mine…
I have built a time machine. It’s beautiful. Even if the technology of it doesn’t impress you, the upholstery and the house plants almost certainly will. I built it during lockdown from some plans I found online. When getting it ready for time travelling, first of all, I need to check that the disbelief suspenders are all good, and that the Cynicism Overriders and the Discombobulation Bypassing circuits are working fine. Once that’s done, it’s a remarkably powerful machine. I use it to take friends, guests on my podcast or on one memorable occasion 1500 people in a hall near Brussels, to 2030.
But it’s not just any old 2030 you understand. It’s a 2030 that’s no utopia, and it’s certainly no dystopia. Rather, the 2030 that I’ve programmed my time machine to travel to is the 2030 that could result from our having done everything we could possibly have done. When climate scientist Peter Kalmus was asked what gave him hope, he said “the fact that we’ve barely tried yet”. The 2030 I take people to is the 2030 that resulted from our having actually tried, with all our creativity, might and imagination, to implement, at scale, everything we already know would transform the world. It’s the 2030 that’s still possible, just. It’s the 2030 we could still create if we were to do everything we could to make it through what the IPCC call the “brief and rapidly-closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”. The 2030 that would mean that the years between now and then would feel like we had lived through a Revolution of the Imagination, an exhilarating time to be alive.
I’ve used my time machine many hundreds of times now. I ask people to close their eyes and to take a walk around in that world, in that 2030, using all of their senses. What does it smell like? What does it taste like, sound like, feel like? What fascinates me is how similar the answers are. Every time. “The birdsong is so much louder”. “The air smells like Spring”. “There are many less cars”. “People are much less stressed, and I feel much more part of a community”. “People work less”. The same answers every time. In spite of having done it so many times, no-one ever said “it’s great, we have a new IKEA, four times bigger than the one we had in 2022.”
“It is my belief that we will create the future we long for only because we are able to master the art of telling the most compelling stories. Stories that are delicious, irresistible, mesmerising. Stories that cultivate a deep deep longing.”
I’ve been in workshops on Doughnut Economics where people are invited to identify the “sweet spot” of the Doughnut and to then imagine the world we could build within it. What people imagine when they do that is usually the same kind of future people imagine when they travel in my time machine. It makes me wonder what happened to the idea of starting with a dream and then working backwards? Where did it go? Martin Luther King Jr did it. Bobby Kennedy did it.
But then we forgot how to do it, and for decades now the tiny-step-by-tiny-step timidity of incrementalism has taken over our politics, leaving the far right instead to fill the future with nightmares rather than visions and position themselves as the ones to protect us from their hellish visions of the future.
All great changemaking is rooted in dreaming and storytelling. Disability justice activist Shadya Kafai in her book Crip Kinship writes “dreaming is not passive. In dreaming, our communities materialise a world where, through fury and love, transformation in all its rebelliousness thrives.”
I’m telling you about my time machine because there is something about that exercise that strikes me every time I do it. What we’re actually doing is starting with dreaming, but then just as importantly, creating and sharing new stories together. Walidah Imarisha, in her introduction to Octavia’s Brood, wrote “all organising is science fiction”. It was a quote that stopped me in my tracks. How different would our new economy building activism be if we saw our work in that way, if we saw ourselves as storytellers?
Abolitionist community lawyer and organiser Talia A. Lewis says that “dreaming is among the most difficult and brave kinds of advocacy work … when we create space for ourselves and others to dream, we embody recurring hope, active love, critical resistance, and radical change. We are reminded that those who came before us dreamed of that which no one thought could exist — that their dreams are the reasons that we are now living the ‘impossible’”.
It is my belief that we will create the future we long for only because we are able to master the art of telling the most compelling stories. Stories that are delicious, irresistible, mesmerising. Stories that cultivate a deep deep longing. If we can’t do that, all our community economics work will be a waste of time and resources. For me, part of this is to recognise that when we are creating projects we are, just as importantly, creating stories. Stories that people will pass from one to another in excited tones.
When we started Transition Town Totnes, we started a project to plant nut trees and fruit trees in public spaces. Rather than just planting a few trees, we decided to call it “Totnes, the Nut Tree Capital of Britain”, an audacious bit of slightly ridiculous storytelling that spread far and wide. I’m a great believer in never being afraid of your stories and your ideas being a bit ridiculous. I love Jim Dator’s quote that “any useful statement about the future should at first appear ridiculous”. If your storytelling isn’t at least a bit ridiculous then it almost certainly isn’t ambitious enough.
“When we are talking about the deeply urgent need to reimagine everything, how might we weave this kind of multi-sensory speculative fiction approach into everything that we do?”
Real change is often preceded by speculative fiction. The stories come first. In 1865, Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon, a novel that pulled together some of the cutting-edge scientific thinking of the time about how you might actually get to the Moon. Much of it he got right in a way that spookily anticipated the actual Moon mission of just over 100 years later. Some of it wasn’t so accurate. In his book, astronauts were fired to the Moon from a 900 feet long cannon, something which we now know would instantly reduce them to something akin to passata the moment the button was pressed.
But the book inspired generations of scientists who, entranced by his story, set about trying to figure out how to make it a reality. Their science in turn inspired more authors, and then film makers, cartoonists, animators and many many others, who then inspired more scientists, and so on, until it became inevitable that we would, of course, go to the Moon. By the time Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, we’d already been there thousands of times, in songs, in Tintin books, in jazz dances. Indeed, Tintin cartoonist Hergé marked the Moon landings with a drawing of Neil Armstrong stepping out of the lunar module only to be greeted by Tintin, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus and the dog Snowy presenting him with a bunch of flowers and saying “Welcome to the Moon Mr Armstrong!”
As Michael Benson wrote in an article in the New York Times entitled Science Fiction sent Man to the Moon, “most major achievements, be they personal or collective, arrive after rehearsals. Some unfold as flights of the imagination …. an entire branch of speculative fiction — novels, short stories and also feature films — lies behind the first human footprints on another world”. When we are talking about the deeply urgent need to reimagine everything, this remarkable opportunity that the climate and ecological emergency, and the long-overdue reckoning with colonialism, white supremacy and patriarchy gives us to reimagine, how might we weave this kind of multi-sensory speculative fiction approach into everything that we do?
I recently fell in love with a t-shirt I saw from the Black Lives Matter protests in Washington in 2020. It read “I’ve been to the future. We won”. It gave me goosebumps. One example of how I try to embody this in my work is a project I’m working on at the moment called Field Recordings from the Future. I visit projects that exist now, but which represent what that 2030 would sound like, and I record the sounds I hear there. I talk to the people making them happen as if it’s 2030 and they’re describing to me what their work now looks like. Then, working with ambient electronic music artist Mr Kit, we create immersive tracks from them. It’s a beautiful way to work, and the results are mesmerising and touch people in a way that dry reports and facts and figures just can’t.
One place I visited to record was the Vauban in Freiburg in Germany. It’s Europe’s first car-free neighbourhood, home to over 3000 people. I went there because I wanted to record what a car-free future will sound like. I expected it would sound like birdsong, passing bicycles and people in conversation in the streets. But the reality was much more complex and nuanced than that. It also sounded like cutlery on plates as people eat on their balconies, like people having piano lessons in their homes, like distant passing trams, like the beeps of shop tills, like market traders setting up their stalls, like running water in lively streams dappled by the sun, like happy children chatting to each other in the back of bicycle trailers.
It sounded like people cooking together in the community centre kitchen, like crows and wood pigeons in the trees and tiny sparrows excitedly dashing around, like animated conversations on benches and in distant gardens and like bees. Now, in every talk I give, I play people the recordings from the Vauban, telling them that on a recent visit to 2030 I recorded what the cities now sound like. Shayda Kafai speaks of how unlocking the imagination in our changemaking movements requires “rousing inventiveness”. I’d like to think that Field Recordings from the Future is just one of many possible examples of that. What might the world that you dream of in your work sound like, and how might you best share that with people?
“Reimagining requires us to assemble the tools now to help people to feel that longing deep in their bones.”
While it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to go to the considerable hassle of actually building a fully functioning time machine (since I’ve started talking about it, I do actually get serious emails from people asking me to share the plans) there is much in what it does that is easy to replicate. Arundhati Roy writes “What lies ahead? Reimagining the world. Only that”. But that reimagining requires us to assemble the tools now to help people to feel that longing deep in their bones. That aching, pining, for a new economy, a new world, a thrilling new culture. I hope this piece might inspire you to set about assembling such a toolkit.
Reimagining Economics Possibilities also builds upon CIVIC SQUARE’s Department of Dreams portfolio of work, a site to imagine bold new futures that weave together the dreams of many.
Whilst understanding, investing, and unpacking the dark matter of large scale system change, we have learned quite deeply through the practice, inspirational movements, and from imagineers and pioneers that came before us that we must also invest in the dream matter — the artists, writers, designers, dreamers and creative visionaries — those who dare to dream up bold new futures for humanity, and have the capacity to stretch our imaginations further than we ever thought possible.
Thinkers, doers and makers dreaming beyond our existing systems have played, are playing and will continue to play a central role in crafting collective visions that transcend our current reality, and radically illuminate the responsibilities we hold to future generations. This is particularly driven by practices of imagination and identity, and, when woven together with dark matter findings and interventions, has the power to create a supernovae of transformation; the thinking, relating and behaving differently required to usher in a new reality that becomes irresistible, that we can all build and craft together.
Find out more by exploring the following materials from Department of Dreams 2020–2021: