Our visions miss the very things that make us human

A Google image search of future visions reveals a striking homogeneity.

The predominant images of the future depict towering, organic-shaped buildings, flying vehicles, and elevated roads. Cities are spacious, and the Earth's surface is predominantly covered by lush greenery. The air is fresh and unpolluted, everything appears clean and tidy, but they also feel strangely alienating. These architectural visions are just one example of a larger problem in strategic thinking – where are the humans, their complex social lives, and their seemingly irrational behaviour?

Courtesy Manas Bhatia (2022)
Our depictions of the future have real-world implications

As Abraham Lincoln once said: "The best way to predict the future is to create it." Our illustrations of the future are an attempt to predict and influence it, creating a first prototype that shapes our imagination and, ultimately, the world outside. Yet, these strategic visions of the future are flawed in three dangerous ways:

1) Tech over social innovation

Tech often takes centre stage in discussions about innovation, overshadowing the importance of social innovation. We favour technology because it is easy to showcase visually, and more tangible to predict and then create. Social innovation, on the contrary, is more complex and difficult not only to showcase visually, but also to predict. For us to predict social innovation, we must first question something that is perceived to be unquestionable. This can be a difficult exercise as we are bound by perceived truisms and biases which limit our imagination. Take the example of women’s participation in the labour market; only a century ago it was completely different. Today, it is impossible to imagine how our society would function without women’s participation in the labour market. It can be challenging and unsettling to predict what present commonplace practices will be questioned and overturned during the next century.

2) The focus is on what will change

When we imagine the future, we often focus on what will look different – the new technologies, the flying cars, and the futuristic buildings. But we forget that much will remain the same, like our human bodies, cognitive abilities and ways of creating meaning in the world. While technology will undoubtedly change the way we behave, it's important to remember that it is merely an enabler of human actualisation. Our primary desires, needs, and instincts have remained mostly unchanged throughout human evolution and will continue to influence our behaviour. Take mobile phones, for example – while they have changed the way we communicate and access information, our core human needs have not changed. We have simply found new ways to satisfy them - for good and bad.

3) Utopias will not and cannot be realised

The idea of a perfect, utopian society has been a topic of discussion for centuries. However, it seems that the images of the future we idealise depict a world that is devoid of cultural significance, impersonal and disconnected from history – all the things that make us human. In these idealised futures, litter, graffiti, old buildings, and creative expression are absent, along with the people who would create them. Instead, we see a sterile frictionless future with shiny surfaces and LED lights, lack of tactility and warmth. It appears the pursuit of order, balance, and harmony has erased the imperfections, complexities and struggles of life that define human nature. Instead, we should outline visions that can accommodate all the human messiness and people's desire to leave their mark on their surroundings.

The narrative shapes the future

The technology-focused narrative has been shaped by a combination of sci-fi literature, mainstream culture, and influential tech leaders, and has become the primary lens through which we view the future and create a shared belief and language about the kind of future we should strive for. In this way it frames and limits our imagination towards a certain direction.  

Therefore, I propose a different approach to creating future visions, both as they appear in fancy architectural drawings, but also as they are expressed in corporate strategies.

  • People shape our world and people will mess up the vision and must be allowed to do so. Make room for the flaws, the creativity, the chaotic and imperfect elements of humanity that make our world so rich and diverse.
  • Remember the things that will most likely stay the same. Even though we often feel the world is running at great speed, the stable things outweigh what will change.
  • Find ways to include and visualise the non tech driven parts of the vision; the social contexts, people's psychology, values and culture.

In short — if our strategic visions fail to become real, it is not because people ruined your visionary plans, it’s probably because your plans didn’t allow the messy unfolding of what it means to be human. Fix the visions, not the people. 

If you want to know more about how IIAB can help you create more credible images of the future, don't hesitate to reach out.