Why Dystopian Narratives Fail To Inspire Positive Change

Another week, and another article on the power of dystopian stories to stop humanity from destroying itself and the world around it. The premise seems to make sense — scare people into doing the right thing — but has it ever really worked? We have a mountain of dystopian narratives and warnings in our schools, bookstores and popular media, but many of the problems they address are either escalating or not quite as dire as we’ve made them out to be. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/robasghar/2020/06/20/things-keep-getting-better-heres-why-your-brain-thinks-theyre-getting-worse/?sh=7de7a07e8725; https://medium.com/fee-org/the-world-is-getting-better-and-nobody-knows-it-johan-norberg-8ed400d2724f) Do scenarios of doom and collapse really hold the power to change our course?

The goal of practicing foresight in organizations, governments, social initiatives, consulting, and education is to create better plans, actions and outcomes — and, most importantly, better futures for all. So how do we best inspire people to create those “better futures”? First, it’s important to note that foresight practitioners develop multiple alternative narratives across a spectrum, from aspirational landscapes to dystopias (and many archetypes in-between). This approach can empower us to be more adaptive, resilient and transformative no matter what future unfolds. Leveraging this entire spectrum is critical to being future-ready, and allows us to create strategies and platforms that steer us toward preferred futures — avoiding threats, seizing opportunities, and perceiving emerging realities. For multiple reasons (i.e. threat assessment culture, short-term thinking, quantitative measuring, competitive environment, psychological anxiety, etc.) the idea that dystopias are the most powerful part of the spectrum when it comes to inspiring better futures has grown in popularity. Science Fiction has largely highlighted dystopias for decades, and scientists paint pictures of grim futures in hopes of avoiding the very real collapses their narratives presage. (Think “The Limits To Growth” by Donella Meadows; has her important work anticipating climate catastrophe — published 50 years ago — changed our overall systemic approach to ecological preservation?)

In literature, those dystopias are certainly entertaining. However, dystopias largely do not provoke imaginative and transformative futures — the very mindsets that are needed to continue breaking away from destructive and unethical pathways. Let me reiterate that dystopias are an important part of a suite of scenarios or alternative visions in foresight work. Their inclusion provides a robust spectrum of probabilities and possibilities from which strategies, plans and actions are made more adaptive, resilient and robust. However, the question remains: are dystopias the most powerful way to inspire action toward better futures? Should we dive headlong into dystopias to motivate continually needed change? Does fear and scare tactics create transformative futures? Does our world filled with dystopian stories in literature, articles and reports fuel the needed imaginations and transformations — have they? — or do their preponderance simply reinforce a zeitgeist of outrage and a feedback loop of inevitability? Again, pointing out the negative effects of certain actions and decisions is very important for obvious reasons, but does that really inspire the needed change? Most importantly, how do we create that culture of imagination and transformation?

When addressing Wicked Problems, we face two assumptive fallacies. The first is viewing complexity (“wicked”) as our enemy. (To learn more, visit https://futuristfrankspencer.medium.com/a-superhero-named-complexity-b05d51bd7a0) The second is approaching these problems from the position and environment that created that created them in the first place. As Peter Drucker used to say, “Stop doing the wrong things righter.” In other words, neither combatting complexity via simplifying, nor attempting to foster an “adystopia” — a recognizable reality that solves our present problems — will generate pathways to better futures. Those attempts will have us hanging around our dominant narratives without the needed transformation. Flooding our zeitgeist with dystopias in hopes of creating better futures is devoid of the the DNA of impactful futures literacy. As creator and advocate Riel Miller stated, “A futures literate person is better able to detect and attribute meaning to novelty and complex emergence…” Dystopias can certainly tell us what we don’t want, but they don’t really help us to create a roadmap for what we can aspire to or can perceive. (Notice that I didn’t say that dystopias don’t help us to create what we do want.)

Understanding that dystopias are defined by the context out of which they are born and from the definition of the problem in which they are rooted, we should instead focus on building a new zeitgeist of imaginative and transformative change. As Futurist Ilkka Tuomi notes in his article entitled Chronotopes of foresight: Models of time‐space in probabilistic, possibilistic and constructivist futures, “The constructivist approach to foresight starts from the common sense observation that future is not only repetition of the past. Innovation creates things that did not exist before. Social, cultural, and biological evolution and innovation therefore cannot be fully described using historical facts, concepts, or data. Although we can describe new in terms of the old, for example calling electronic messaging “e‐mail” and personal mobile devices “phones,” we struggle to describe those aspects of qualitative novelty that are essentially new. It is easy to talk about the Internet as something old and we have many words and concepts suitable for that; in contrast, it is difficult to say how it is new. As the uses of the Internet evolve and emerge, new competing interpretations and new suggestions for novel concepts and conceptual systems are constantly introduced. A remote‐access computing network becomes a global document library, collaboration infrastructure, new public sphere and “social media,” enabler for alternative finance and real‐time global production networks, and many other things (Tuomi, 2002). At the point of their introduction these proposed concepts are ambiguous, ill‐defined, badly justified, odd, confusing, and lack good factual basis. This is not because the emerging concepts would be “wrong.” It is simply because the reality they try and describe is still in the process of becoming. Whereas probabilistic forecasting and narrative scenarios adopt an epistemic focus, constructivist foresight has a distinctively ontological focus. The future is not something to be known; indeed, it cannot be known as it does not exist yet. In the constructivist approach, the future is not known or understood; instead it is something to be created. The constructivist approach, therefore, comes with a novel cut on epistemology and ontology. Whereas probabilistic and possibilistic foresight is almost always framed as a problem‐solving activity, constructivist foresight starts from the observation that “problems” are necessarily formulated with historically established concepts, terms, and anticipatory frames. To see the future as a set of problems and foresight as a process of problem solving implies that future is perceived as a continuation of the past. In such a perspective, it is difficult to perceive or appropriate the latent possibilities of the present. The constructivist approach, therefore, is closely related to the idea that we need “futures literacy” as a capability to be open to emergence (Miller, 2018a). From an ontological point of view, it is aligned with the idea that ontology “expands” and new things and phenomena become real as a result of human and natural creativity (Tuomi, 2017).” (1)

This is the vision that we need in order to overcome the problems we face in the world today — one that can never be achieved through writing just one more dystopia.

  1. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ffo2.11

About the author:

Frank W. Spencer IV

Frank is the Founding Principal and Creative Director at Kedge — a global opportunities firm that leverages its expertise in integrated thinking, foresight, innovation, and strategic design to empower organizations to seize aspirations, transformation, and growth. He also serves as a Lead Instructor at The Futures School, a world-renowned futures thinking, foresight and design futures learning ecosystem. Prior to Kedge, Frank worked for 15 years as a leadership coach and developer with entrepreneurs, social communities, networking initiatives, and SMEs, helping them in areas such as development, innovation, and networking. He holds a Master of Arts in Strategic Foresight from Regent University. With a strong background in both business and academic foresight, Frank was the creator and lead instructor of The Futures Institute: Shaping The Future Now at Duke University’s Talent identification Program Institute, teaching students to use Futures Thinking and foresight to develop transformative solutions to grand challenges (2010, 2011). He has worked on Strategic Foresight projects for companies such as Kraft, Mars, Marriott, and The Walt Disney Company. He is a prolific speaker, having delivered presentations to groups and conferences around the globe for over the last 20 years. Frank holds memberships in World Futures Society (WFS) and Association for Professional Futurists (APF).

Kedge is a global Foresight, Innovation & Strategic Design firm. www.kedgefutures.com TFS is a premiere foresight learning ecosystem. www.thefuturesschool.com