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January 2010

Chapter 1: How do you see the future?

Milenkocropped Imagination is powerful. It guides our thoughts which in turn guide our actions. Imagination is the soil in which our ideas grow. Imagination is what allows our actions to change.

Images of the future crafted by people of the past are now our reality, just as current images of the future will shape tomorrow’s reality.  If we believe that to be true, we have an obligation to articulate and examine our images of the future.

Dutch futurist Fred Polak studied the importance of the image of the future.  His conclusion: 

The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures.  As long as the society’s image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom.  Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive.

My interpretation of Polak’s words: Truly creative thinking about the future requires tension–the tension of holding both the real and the possible in our awareness at the same time. 

I believe our images of the future must be more than incremental improvements on the present; they must be daring and far-reaching. Polak called such a view the “other” future -- heretical in its newness, with the ability to broaden our thinking so that our lives are not limited by what is apparent and evident. If we can be so daring, we can willingly and eagerly participate in cultural change-making, rather than kick and scream when faced with the unfamiliar.

With disciplined imagination, an informed vision of what we, the people, want to be and do, change can be a joyful process. The American cultural philosopher William Irwin Thompson said that, like fly-fishers, “we cast images in front of ourselves and then slowly reel ourselves into them, turning them into reality.” To accomplish this, we need to examine and inform our imaginations, and share what we imagine with others. 

Our time is ripe for a thorough re-imagination of what the world will be when it grows up.  This is demanding and audacious work.  It takes courage to unpack one’s inner constructs and peer into assumptions and impulses that make us who we are. Seeing without distortion takes courage.  Every day, media and pop culture pound us with messages of who we should be and what we should do.  If we don’t contest these messages, we accept them – and consign ourselves to a lifeless repetition of the familiar.

What is my image of the future?  Here is how I described it in my recent book Multiple Victories:  

Future cities will be compacted into clearly defined neighborhoods that will be smaller and more densely populated than our sprawling suburbs and ex-urbs today.  These new cities and towns will combine the best of traditional urban design with modern mass transit and communication technologies . . . Offices, stores and restaurants, housing, parks and open spaces will all be within walking distance for the people who live there. Tentacles of restored land with healthy watersheds, river banks, ravines and hills will reach into the heart of the city, while clear boundaries will honor spaces in which farms and wild lands flourish and nurture the new metropolis.

As our resurgent cityscapes mature, architecture, cuisine and the arts will re-develop regional styles and celebrate local choices, resources and sensibilities.  

In this future, the differences between our cities become apparent and delightful. The joy of walking and the convenience of alternative transportation will diminish the need for the single-passenger automobile, reduce its infrastructure and restore a human scale to the cityscape.   

An increasingly ”walkable” environment will allow us to cluster our important civic institutions, such as, the city hall, library, and museums, shopping and work. As a result, more and more people will find themselves drawn to the middle of our new town where they will also find a beautiful, intentional space where they feel welcome to put up their feet, play games or discuss the matters of the day. This space, the community’s gathering place, is the heart for communal identity, welcome, and social rejuvenation.  Every neighborhood will build such a space where people create together something that captures their collective talents, their aspirations and their appreciation of the many community connections.

This image flows from my own imagination, shaped by an increasingly urgent imperative: Stop waste! We must stop wasting our time, creativity, learning opportunities. We must stop wasting our health, community, local democracy, our useful differences, character and identity. We must stop wasting the innocence of the young and wisdom of the elders. We must end planned obsolescence and stop wasting our natural gifts of air, water, soil and the creatures that live around us. If we can muster the strength to do this, we can bring about a speedy transformation of our urban, social and natural landscapes. With courage and commitment, we can develop solutions that address these issues coherently and solve multiple problems at once. If we can come together to create such solutions, we can reverse the current trend of multiplying problems and bring about, ultimately, a world that will not need constant remediation.

I have my own library of mental images that inform my imagination and shape this vision. What do you see? What sorts of patterns or themes? What images of the future spring from your own imagination? 

Milenko Matanovic

January 14, 2010

Issaquah, WA