CONNECTING TO AN IMAGE OF THE FUTURE
Let’s define purpose as “the reason for which we exist.” As humans, we have the ability to choose our purpose. In my 2011 book Consumershift: How Changing Values Are Reshaping the Consumer Landscape, I outlined a few common purposes people have based on the way they orient their values, this included:
/ Service to God or others. The traditional approach cites service to God or a higher power as a purpose. Religions have long advocated this as the proper purpose for an individual to have.
/ Happiness (also known as wellbeing). The modern view of purpose is captured in the US Declaration of Independence, which cites the pursuit of happiness as an “unalienable right.”
/ Creative expression. In this postmodern approach, individuals are driven by their desire to create, express, and share with others.
/ Making a difference. Individuals often cite the desire to “make the world a better place” as one of their primary motivators.
While these purposes are all noble and good, most of them are too vague to be really helpful (with the exception of service to God or others facilitated through organized religions). These ambiguous purposes still leave many broad questions open: What is happiness? What does a world of creatively expressive people look like? What is the “better place?” With this in mind, it becomes clear that we need more than purpose: We need purpose connected to vision. In other words, we need an image of a preferred future.
I initially became interested in the future after reading Fred Polak’s 1973 classic, The Image of the Future. It is a grand, sweeping exploration of the role played by people’s image of the future in the great and not-so-great Western civilizations of the past. While the great civilizations were guided by a positive, compelling image of the future, the not-so-great ones lacked such an image. Polak was concerned about society’s lack of a future image in the 1970s – and I dare say that the situation has not improved much in 2017.
So, the problem is not that we lack purpose, but that our purpose lacks a positive and compelling future vision. In today’s capitalist world, the pursuit of happiness is the dominant purpose. This is best illustrated by the US. In this capitalist context, there are two clear keys to happiness: economic growth and individual wealth. Thus, we currently have a system organized around markets and competition. There are more losers than winners in this economic game, and even those who win often come up short of achieving their goal of happiness; there is some fairly persuasive data to indicate that once we achieve a fairly basic level of economic security, more money does not equal more happiness.
Let’s give capitalism and the pursuit of happiness via economic growth its due and declare victory. Capitalism has achieved its purpose of growing the economy. It has transformed the world from one characterized by the subsistence and scarcity of the agricultural era to one of incredible abundance. This transition is truly astounding – centuries of essentially no economic growth, and then boom, the Industrial Revolution comes along and economic growth takes off. Capitalism has enabled truly monumental advances across all aspects of life, from improved health and increased life expectancy, to unimaginable advances in mobility, dramatic increases in technological capability, and so on.
However, now the problem is this: The context of the world has changed, and capitalism no longer serves a useful purpose. This mismatch is becoming more and more evident. There are three major existential challenges that have accompanied the growth of capitalism:
/ Our increasing environmental footprint is threatening to overload Earth’s ecosystem in a variety of ways, with the major threat being climate change.
/ With our exponential technological progress has come the possibility of weapons of mass destruction, as well as other threats, including a potential AI takeover, gray goo (i.e. self-replicating robots causing the end of the world), and new biotech dangers.
/ Growing inequality is threatening the political and social order, creating tensions ranging from class conflict to global terror.
I’m not using the term “existential challenge” lightly – these are very big problems. But because we’re not sure yet what’s going on, we’re not really mobilizing; instead, we are trying to ignore the problems or hoping they will go away. The future is becoming something to be dreaded, feared, or – at the very least – avoided. So, we approach purpose while firmly oriented in the present, but with no clear vision of where we want to go in the future.
This is where we futurists, designers, and visionaries need to come in. We need to develop a compelling image and vision of what life after capitalism could look like in order to guide our various purposes, be they spiritual, economic, creative, or social in nature. Over the last few years, I’ve uncovered many ideas about new economic approaches during my research for a new book on life after capitalism (I have about 40 concepts at last count). Yet I’ve found that these new ideas suffer from a lack of future vision. Once I dug deeper into them, I found that few really got at purpose or vision; instead, they mostly suggested tweaks to existing approaches. However, I did find three ideas worthy of further exploration:
/ Sustainability and moral (purpose).
Many of the 40 concepts focused on sustainability and suggested a vision of what a sustainable future could look like. While the need to protect the environment was typically the key driver, for some concepts, a systemic view was taken which recognized the inter-related economic, political, social, and technological aspects of sustainability. The strong moral thread running through many of these concepts indicates a shared sense of purpose. Some concepts seek to use the capitalist system to achieve sustainable ends. While this is a sensible transition strategy, it’s the vision guiding this purpose that we really need. What does a sustainable world really look like?
/ Abundance and the singularity.
This is the high-tech future. On the one hand, proponents suggest tremendous capabilities and wonders, which are described in detail by many scholars. See, for example, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Diamandis and Kotler. On the other hand, the transformative change that will be brought on by the singularity is such that we can’t know what’s on “the other side” of it.
/ The “non-worker’s paradise.”
Lately, I’ve been struck by a growing volume of works written by a group that could be identified as the “new” or “reformed” left. They’ve been looking at what went wrong the first time around with Marxism and are searching for a more compelling vision and strategy.
Each of these three potential visions demonstrates ways of working toward an image of the future, although there is much work to be done. These perspectives suggest targets for the purposes of recrafting happiness, enabling creative expression, making a difference, or making the world a better place.
To sum up: The world of homo economicus is dying; the pursuit of happiness via economic growth and individual wealth is fading. But demonizing capitalism isn’t going to help; instead, we need to incorporate the interests of the established capitalist order into our future plans. Let’s acknowledge that capitalism did its job of moving us from scarcity to abundance, even if it did create a new set of existential challenges to deal with. Any vision we create for the future will have to deal with inequality, mind-blowingly powerful technologies, and an ecosystem under duress. That sure does present us with a purpose: We are literally trying to save life on earth. To do that, we need a compelling vision of the future to connect that purpose to. Let’s get to work!