Alex Steffen, Core77 friend, longtime environmental advocate, and founder of the beloved Worldchanging, has recently launched a Kickstarter campaign—The Heroic Future—to fund an a live documentary series about “reimagining the world of tomorrow, in order to rebuild the world today.” Core77’s Allan Chochinov sat down with Alex to talk about the project and the critical role that designers have in envisioning the future.
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Allan Chochinov: We’re very excited about this new campaign. Can you bring us quickly up to speed on the mission of The Heroic Future?
Alex Steffen: The Heroic Future is about using our creativity to make it possible to change the world in a time of planetary crisis. It poses the challenge: “If it’s true that we can’t build what we can’t imagine, how do we imagine the radically better world that we need?”
We’ll explore the answers on stage, in three “live documentaries” we’ll be performing in September and shooting as films. We’re raising money on Kickstarter now to make this happen.
Imagination carves the shape of the possible in our minds. We can't build what we can't imagine.
AC: Why is imagining the future important to you at this stage in your career?
AS: I came to this work because after the end Worldchanging in 2010, I was left with some big unanswered questions. One question in particular had gotten a grip on me. That was wondering why—when we had so many amazing solutions available to us—was humanity doing so little to change in the face of planetary crisis? I didn’t know it at the time, but that question would sink its teeth in and refuse to let go for the next five years.
Imagination—that was the answer I came to—imagination carves the shape of the possible in our minds. We can’t build what we can’t imagine.
These times feel exceedingly bleak to many people. A lot of us can’t see a future ahead that feels worth fighting for. Without that, no amount of innovation or invention can save us. I decided I wanted to spend my creative energy helping people understand that we can realistically imagine the world of tomorrow being profoundly better than the world around us today—understand that, in fact, envisioning and sharing successful futures is one of our most powerful tools for changing the world, now.
People ask me why I shifted my focus from sustainability solutions to futurism, but the way I see it, in this crisis, better visions of the future are the sustainability solution we most need. I decided trying to help people find those visions made more sense than anything else I could do with my life.
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AC: Alex, you’ve been one of the most positive, optimistic voices for the future that I’ve ever met, and your framing around this new initiative is no different. But of course there IS a new urgency to the mess that we’re in, and I’m wondering if you’ve modified your overall framing around the message you’ll need to make a difference in the immediate and near-term future?
AS: Well, I’m not sure I’ve altered my framing—I still think that optimism is a powerful political choice, that cynicism is obedience to power and that creative, engaged people can accomplish world changing things.
That said, the clock’s running out. Scientists tell us we’re approaching catastrophic tipping points, and from climate change to ocean acidification to mass extinctions, we’re seeing the signs that the ecological crisis is accelerating. Our lack of progress solving human problems has led to a similar strain in our cities and societies. A billion people still live in abject poverty, and as many as a billion more are now at risk from resource conflict, climate change and sea level rise. We have a global city-building crisis. We need to build hundreds of millions of new homes in the next 30-odd years, as well as the infrastructure and government services to support the people who live in them.
Success now is all about transformative systems solutions, but we're not good at talking compellingly about systems or telling stories about their transformation. In fact, we suck at it, and that makes positive futures feel impossible.
The sheer scope, scale and speed of the problems we face means that the solutions we need today can no longer be incremental, small step ideas. Success now is all about transformative systems solutions, but we’re not good at talking compellingly about systems or telling stories about their transformation. In fact, we suck at it, and that makes positive futures feel impossible.
AC: Well, I think we’d like to hope that design might come to the rescue here (acknowledging, of course, that they are the people who have been complicit in creating much of the problem). Talk to us about the “design brief,” since that’s generally the starting point for most designers.
AS: Well, here’s the design brief for humanity, as I see it now: We’ll soon have 10 billion people on Earth. Every one of us deserves a reasonable amount of prosperity, security and joy in our lives, and we know that societies (including our now global society) work best when the greatest number of people benefit from the wealth we create. So we have to design a prosperity that can be shared by 10 billion people.
Our planet is finite, though. The way we’ve delivered human prosperity so far has already destroyed much of our planet’s capacity to sustain humanity. Now our old model of growth threatens to plunge us into incredibly catastrophic climate chaos and ecological collapse. We know that we can deliver material prosperity with a tiny fraction of the ecological damage we now do, but our best designs and approaches are scattered, disconnected and limited to small scales. So we need to design ways to integrate our best ideas together and scale that sustainable prosperity up to include the entire economy.
A huge challenge here is that is that we need change on a massive scale, but we need solutions that come in a variety of shapes and sizes. We’ve learned the hard way that monumental programs administered by elites always go awry, for many reasons—most especially because the diverse design contexts of human cultures and local environments means no answer ever works for everyone everywhere. We need an ecology of solutions. We need to become people who can both keep focused on big targets and design with and for particular people and their needs. In that sense, the scope of the design challenge is almost as difficult as its scale.
What was a good enough solution twenty years ago is now woefully insufficient. Today's solutions will soon be too timid. The need to design and implement quickly itself changes the brief.
We’re also, as I mentioned, fast running out of time. This is the trickiest part for us to get our heads around. Our entire lives, we’ve been told that the solutions we design have to fit with the world we’ve already built—that global sustainability is a matter of incremental improvement and behavior change. But the nature of limits is that they impose timelines, and failure to act escalates the amount of change we need. What was a good enough solution twenty years ago is now woefully insufficient. Today’s solutions will soon be too timid. The need to design and implement quickly itself changes the brief.
Despite all this, we have real reasons for optimism—not least, that great constraints can produce extraordinary design. The pressure the need for huge changes puts on our thinking can lead to breakthrough ideas. Dire necessity can generate beautiful work.
For that to happen, though, designers must focus their creativity not on what we appear to need now (to fit the outdated systems around us), but what we can anticipate needing in the near future. As we come to grips with planetary realities our design needs will evolve. And to incorporate those realities into our creativity usually demands an intuitive grasp of their nature.
That’s why stories about the future are so important. Most of us grasp the reality of change through stories about the effects of change on people. Stories are the best way we have to illuminate possibilities we haven’t yet experienced.
I spent the last years pondering this problem of “futurecraft.” At first, the challenge of finding great stories within the complex, abstract insights of foresight and systems thinking seemed pretty daunting to me. But as I went about my exploration I had the realization that these insights didn’t spring from the air: real people did concrete work that lead them to insight. That work includes some amazing stories. And sharing the stories of how gained insight into the planetary realities around us actually leads really smoothly into telling new stories about how we might reimagine what lies ahead.
We have real reasons for optimism—not least, that great constraints can produce extraordinary design. The pressure the need for huge changes puts on our thinking can lead to breakthrough ideas. Dire necessity can generate beautiful work.
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AC: Let’s get to specifics. What are a few of the stories you’ll be featuring in the documentary?
AS: Well, a major narrative thread is one that we seldom think of as a set of stories—science. The stories of humans coming to understand the world around us through science and exploration are fascinating, as is the growing realization that our planet doesn’t work the ways we once assumed it did.
Science hinges, after all, on the crafting of stories—theories—that better explain physical reality. Charles Darwin, for instance, unlocking the process of evolution, an awareness that shattered all our earlier stories about the origin of life on Earth. Svante Arrhenius, the first Nobel prize winner in Chemistry, discovering in 1896 that burning fossil fuels could heat the entire world—that human actions actually had impacts at a planetary scale. Or, more recently, the gathering together of tens of thousands of working scientists in bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which seek to both grasp the magnitude of the crisis we’ve created and help explain the need to act quickly. So science itself is part of the story we need to tell.
Another main strand involves the history of the future—we have a whole section, Where We Aren’t, that’s about the tropes of science fiction and futurist stories that still influence how we think about the act of looking ahead, even though the people who imagined them are long dead, and we live in a completely different world than they did. One deep example is the idea that Space is an escape hatch for humanity if we render our own planet unlivable. We now know that idea is fairly insane—that for the foreseeable future, preserving the Earth is our only real option for human survival—but the myth of escape to the stars still resonates in our ideas about the future.
Design—in the grand sense, of intentional creation of our environment, tools and culture—sits at the very core of the crisis....We designed our planetary emergency.
The most important narrative, though, focuses on design itself. Design—in the grand sense, of intentional creation of our environment, tools and culture—sits at the very core of the crisis. Our 20th century design choices—industrial design and engineering that turned nature into energy and objects without regard for the cost; the rise of suburban life and the culture of overconsumption; the design of information services and an information industry that elides the most important facts about our existence—literally made the crisis around us. We designed our planetary emergency.
The awkward fact is that many of these design choices originated in idealistic, even utopian impulses. When you look at the original Futurama exhibit from the 1939 World’s Fair—or Le Corbusier’s ideas, or really any of the Modernist visions of the future—their optimism and idealism strike us as almost embarrassing today, and their unintended catastrophic consequences should strike us as a caution. The story of the invention and spread of the automobile alone is a powerful reminder of this: a technology once seen as a vehicle for progress and personal freedom has become a main driver of planetary destruction.
Is success still possible? How do we reinvent our material world without simply designing the next crisis? How do we get better at futurecraft? What future do I believe in? Those are the questions we want our audience to be asking themselves.
AC: So, how will you tell these stories on stage and in the documentaries?
AS: Well, the whole idea of a “live documentary” is to use heighten the storytelling power of both the event and the films at the same time. The experience the audience has in the theater will be rich in the same way as a good documentary film—live, on-stage spoken word narration with great imagery, visual design, sound and music—while the viewers at home get films with the immediacy and vitality of a live performance. This will be an extraordinary experience for everyone involved.
AC: How can Core77 readers be a part of these events?
AS: Whether people want to come be part of the live events in September or get access to the subsequent sneak preview video release, tickets are being offered as rewards in our Kickstarter campaign. That financial support, in turn, will help us put the completed series itself in front of millions of people.
(We’re also looking for design volunteers to help us make the series amazing, and for a series sponsor: if some great firm our there would like to reach a large audience of design-focused people and get credit for being heroic, drop us a line!)
The live events run September 20th, 21st and 22nd, and the campaign to fund them ends March 17th.
You can help fund The Heroic Future on Kickstarter right here.