The Power of Collective Imagination

A few months ago, I started a practice called Probing Utopia with a group of friends. In it, we imagine a future where things are a little different from today – a future that all of us would like to live in.

The proposal wasn’t to discuss action plans or the steps we need to take to get there. In our practice, we transport ourselves into the future. We are living there already. The practice consists of describing that world. Our daily routines. What work, food, family, housing, entertainment, transportation, government and many other aspects of our lives look like in our future. 

Here is a sample of the brainstorming ideas we have been open to imagining:

  • Private cars are banned from cities
  • Universal basic income for all
  • Schools don’t exist
  • Cell phones cease to exist
  • Post-secondary education is free
  • Death is not avoided at all costs
  • We all have time and desire to be in nature daily
  • Nobody works for money
  • Nature has the same rights as humans in our legal system
  • There is a maximum cap on wealth
  • There is a farm in every neighbourhood 
  • Corporations don’t exist
  • Families eat three meals a day together
  • Public transportation is free
  • Cooperatives are the norm

It is interesting to note that we started this in February 2020 – pre-COVID times! None of us thought that part of our imagination would become our very reality in such a short time. I am not claiming that we were responsible for materializing what happened. But it is clear that the practice aligns with an emerging future and it provides us with the much-needed workout for our creative muscles to envision sustainable alternatives.

My original plan was to refine the process and hone the group’s ability to facilitate the sessions, then we would share a solid practice with the world. Like many other things, the pandemic has pushed me to share it before reaching that stage. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Building the Probing Utopia practice collectively might create an even richer practice.

So here we are! If you want to embark on this journey, this series has three parts:

  1. The motivation – explains why exercising our collective imagination is more than a healthy practice, it is an essential one. This is particularly true during disruptive times like right now.
  2. The practice – a description of what we actually do. A quick step-by-step guide of the process and how to set it up.
  3. References – additional information about some of the theories, frameworks and tools used to create the practice.

This post is about:

The Motivation

“Many of the problems facing our society today, whether it be identifying solutions to address climate change or working with others who may have different political views, are essentially challenges that require distal thinking. They demand that you get outside of your present point of view and try to think about how things could be different from your immediate experience.” Meghan Meyer

Let me start with the why before I describe the practice of Probing Utopia itself. There are three basic principles that support this practice:

  • Our minds shape reality
  • What we feed grows, what we starve dies
  • There are realities we can’t access or understand

Principle 1: Our minds shape reality

That happens in two different ways: inputs and outputs. 

a) Shaping reality from inputs

Our perception of reality is subjective. For most people, this is a statement that is easy to accept. Our senses are limited, so our perception of reality is limited, and each one of us has a unique perception of things. What’s more, there are colours, tastes, smells, and sounds that we can’t perceive at all. There is scientific evidence that we never evolved to see absolute reality. Those species who did went extinct. We evolve to create fictions (filters) that are useful for our survival.

We have other filters too. Our inner state: mood, values also shape our experiences in the world. Events, actions and words are perceived differently if we believe that we deserve love, if we slept well at night or if we are in pain. 

Some of us will argue that reality itself remains unaltered. Others can say that if perception is all we have, then nothing else matters. This is a deeper discussion. I won’t go there. Instead, I want to show another way our mind also shapes reality.

b) Shaping reality from outputs

The built world as we know it existed previously in people’s imagination: buildings, vaccines, social contracts, clothes, institutions, art, machines, languages. Many things were created “by accident” or through intuition but they still came from our minds. Shaping reality from outputs is very powerful. Our minds literally shape most of our physical world and a significant portion of our non-physical world. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer has an indigenous heritage and she is an Associate Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, she expressed her concerns about our capacity to shape our reality. When asking about the negative impacts of human action on the environment, students can quickly come up with many examples but they usually have a hard time thinking of positive interactions. Dr. Kimmerer adds “We need to understand the problem but we need to move past that.”

And, remember, inputs and outputs are not two separate streams. Our mind, when it is shaping reality, is fed by our inputs. And our creations affect our senses.

Principle 2: What we feed grows, what we starve dies

You probably heard that phrase before. This is very tangible. Every single thing we do is an example of it. If we water a plant, it will grow. If we spend time with certain people, our relationships evolve. If we play the piano every day, we become pianists. If we eat a lot, our bellies grow. If we watch TV every night, we become TV experts. If we think about money all the time, money becomes very important to us.

This second principle builds directly from the first one. When we understand that our mind shapes reality, it becomes evident that we need to cultivate good ideas because energy follows attention. Whatever is at the forefront of our minds will make its way into the world. In other words, as Otto Scharmer from Theory U said: form follows consciousness.

That is why a video like The Great Realisation is so brilliant. Thinking and talking about a future where we live locally, grow our own food, ride our bikes, help each other, have meaningful work and put people and planet first. Exercising this ability is not only a nice-to-have. It is an essential step to get there. Doing it collectively increases its power exponentially!

Principle 3: Our senses are limited, there are hidden realities

For many, including the video author, it was a pleasant surprise to see The Great Realization go viral and reach 4 million views in less than a week. Part of the reason why it went viral is the deep knowledge that it is important to imagine and create a better reality in our minds.

‘I think the magic is that if you choose to believe that some good can come out of something really bad, the probability of that happening increases,’ he added.

Probably Tomfoolery

There are many machines and systems that have complicated mechanisms that we don’t understand, but we use them anyway. We just need to know how to operate them. In this case, the operation is simple: cultivate your thoughts – imagine your best self and future.

A good example of that is nurturing the soil before growing plants. Every gardener or farmer understands this. They don’t have to see what is happening underground. But they know that we need good soil for a good yield. In fact, overcontrolling the complex ecosystem might demand too many resources and decrease our chances of success.

Our future lies in the power of our imagination. We can choose what to imagine without fully comprehending how to implement it.

Luis Patricio

What does your best future look like?

Only because something doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

Neil Gaiman

This is one of my favourite quotes from my favourite author. There are a lot of real things that we can bring into existence, and we start with imagination. Think about it. Today. Every day. Talk to your friends. Write a story. Make a video. Compose a song. Draw it. Podcast it. Start shaping it within you!

In Probing Utopia we are trying to do this as a group. The process is simple but meaningful and intentional. I want to share our practice with you in a future blog post. Anyone interested?

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