I recently attended an unconference in Peekskill, New York at a maker space. With the help of a very astute curator, we did indeed plan an interesting day where I learned about fusion, getting the most reluctant people to vote, and participating in the circular economy where we figure out how to reuse everything and throw nothing away.
While there, I met a fantastic duo Steve Lambert and Rebecca Bray from the Center for Artistic Activism. They offered advice that still sticks with me a few months later. They said it was “motorcycle wisdom.” When you are turning on a motorcycle, look where you are going, and go where you look. They went on to say that this is really important because otherwise we get distracted. Say we are coming up to a hairpin turn and right in front of us is a big boulder. If we keep looking at the boulder, we will run right into it. But if we turn our heads to look where we are going – voila – we make the turn.
“Look where you are going, and go where you look.”
And that is an important concept: making the turn and getting where you are going. In storytelling, master strategists talk about the different types of stories we need. One of the hardest to tell is the “where we are going story.” The same is true when we are communicating the need for organizational change or systems change. We have to get people to imagine what it looks like when they’ve achieved the bold change they seek.
“We have to get people to imagine what it looks like when they’ve achieved the bold change they seek.”
Imagine a world where global warming is below 1.5 degrees. Imagine a world where every young person can live up to their full potential. Imagine a world where your zip code doesn’t define your health prospects. While I say imagine this, you are likely drawing a blank in your head.
If you can’t see change, it is hard to go all in for it. It is easy to get discouraged, and this mental barrier turns into a physical one keeping people from diving into the pursuit of a big audacious vision. If you want to build movements, momentum and the will for big audacious change, you have to get people to not only understand what’s around the corner, but to be willing to look away from the boulder so they can make the turn and arrive at a better future.
The more effort we put into making the future something that people can start to plan around, like a trip they really want to go on, the more willing they’ll be to join us on the journey.
While there are no hard and fast rules for how to get people to envision a better future, here are 10 insights from experts and behavioral scientists you might want to try.
1. Show the change.
If we can’t see it, we’ll focus on the boulder. The Met did this brilliantly on World Refugee Day. It covered up Chagall’s famous painting “The Lovers” to give a sense of what the future would look like for art if we don’t welcome refugees. This powerful visual makes us “see” immediately what we would miss in the future and inspires us to value the contributions of refugees today.
Stuart Candy also masters this through immersive experiences that involve creating tangible artifacts from possible futures. He and his teams go into neighborhoods and install them in the streets for the residents to encounter and truly see what the future might look like. He says, “our collective ability to realize a positive future depends on our collective ability to imagine it.”
“Our collective ability to realize a positive future depends on our collective ability to imagine it.”
Remember if you can’t describe it, they can’t see it. Imagine if you took your recommendations from a report and actually showed how these would manifest in society.
2. Communicate why.
Tie the change not to just a problem you might be solving, but to a universal value that we can achieve by making the change. Emma Marris, author of “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World made the case in a NYTimes op-ed to know what you are fighting for not just against.
“As we fight, it is important for our mental health and motivation to have an image in mind of our goal: a realistically good future. Imagine dense but livable cities veined with public transit and leafy parks, infrastructure humming away to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, fake meat that tastes better than the real thing, species recovering and rewilding the world, the rivers silver with fish, the skies musical with flocking birds. This is a future where the economic inequality, racism and colonialism that made decades of inaction on climate change possible has been acknowledged and is being addressed. It is a time of healing. Many ecosystems have changed, but natural resilience and thoughtful human assistance is preventing most species from going extinct. This is a future in which children don’t need to take to the streets in protest and alarm, because their parents and grandparents took action. Instead, they are climbing trees.”
“Imagine dense but livable cities veined with public transit and leafy parks, infrastructure humming away to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, fake meat that tastes better than the real thing, species recovering and rewilding the world, the rivers silver with fish, the skies musical with flocking birds.”
3. Make the future tangible.
In her book, The Optimist’s Telescope, Bina Venkataraman talks about the power of writing “Dear Tomorrow” letters where people connect how their actions today are affecting the future. In this Wired piece she says, “It actually creates what I think of as imaginative empathy—a response in which you feel something towards the future that is more than just a cognitive response.” This makes people more personally invested in knowing that they can take actions today to improve life tomorrow. If you ask people to say what they hope for the young ones in their life, they’ll think about whether or not they are doing what’s needed to realize this vision.
4. Make the future something people crave.
James Clear in Atomic Habits discusses how we create habits through a four-step process: cue, craving, response, reward. The second step is cravings and Clear says “Without some level of motivation or desire—without craving a change—we have no reason to act.”
“Without craving a change—we have no reason to act.”
5. Encourage agency.
Remind people not only that we’ve done this before, but that they have the power to create a future they want to live in. Move away from generating “buy-in” for the path forward but actual ownership by getting people to put their own mark on the vision. We’ve seen this with the movement to end fossil fuel use that gives people and organizations a way to realize a 100% renewable future by defunding a dirty one. By seeing that they own this decision, it is more than thinking it is a good idea. They have an active role in creating the fossil-free future they want.
6. Use the brain in your favor.
Brain science tells us that we do many things to remain in our chosen “groups.” This piece in Open Global Rights explains why it may backfire if we use examples of human rights abuses to motivate people, and it encourages us to instead role model how we will treat people in the future when we are honoring everyone’s rights:
“Capitalizing on the brain’s capacity to mentalize and simulate events, messages of positive behavior could lead to the changes we wish to see in the world.”
7. Explain the change in easy-to-understand, relatable terms.
We often talk about the dangers of A.I. adopting the same biases that exist in the world. This New York Times piece brings this idea to life by drawing a parallel between bias in A.I. and the way a child mimics the bad behavior of his parents. This is an understandable and easily relatable way to describe what we are up against and why we need A.I. systems built in more equitable ways.
8. Offer the chance to experience the change.
When we are talking about the future, humans have cognitive gaps. These need to be filled in for audiences to actually experience what you want them to clamor for. This can happen via virtual reality where you could see a civil justice system that treats people humanely with their well-being at the center, rather than an unfeeling bureaucracy.
9. Put these experiences into stories.
Studies have shown that when people read character-based stories set in the future, they really connect with those characters, even more so than they do when they think of themselves or their children in the future.
10. Rather than minimize small steps, connect how they will culminate into significant progress.
When I am looking to see what all the good efforts in the world are coming to, I find myself exploring Beautiful News Daily. Here they show us what commitment and persistence are bringing into the world, such as more children growing up healthy.
It is easy for people to get discouraged thinking about the future, particularly with so many painting it as a bleak picture. We don’t want people to fear the future, we want them to shape it. This means we need to get them envisioning exactly what they want to see, not get distracted by the many obstacles we’ll face to get there, and have complete confidence in our ability to get there
“We don’t want people to fear the future, we want them to shape it.”