Let’s Talk About The Future We Want

by Bill Becker

Here are some questions for the Occupiers, the Tea Party demonstrators, the people engaged in the Arab Spring and those around the world who are too hungry, too tired, too discouraged or too occupied with basic survival to protest.

These are questions, too, for the young people who will inherit the future we are setting in motion today, and the elders who are concerned about the world they are leaving their grandchildren.

Most of us want things to be better.  We don’t want the kind of world we’ll get if we allow global climate change, resource conflicts, resource constraints, environmental degradation, overwhelming population growth, helter-skelter urbanization, war, social injustice and other looming problems to go unaddressed.

We have a pretty good idea what we should avoid. But what should we build?

We have incredible technologies and tools today – arguably all we need to create communities that are resource efficient, resilient, safe and prosperous while treading lightly on the environment.  How would our lives be improved if we deployed the best sustainable development technologies and practices? How would it impact future generations?

Those questions are at the heart of a campaign called “The Future We Want,” announced this week by Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations.  The UN has chosen “The Future We Want” as  the tagline of Rio+20, its  international conference next June on sustainable development.  Coming on the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit, the conference has symbolic importance. We hope it will have concrete significance, too.

I am part of a group of  visual artists, policy wonks, technology experts, urban designers, civil society leaders and former public officials who have been working on a Future We Want campaign the past three years.  We brought the idea to the UN and it embraced the theme.  We have volunteered to support the campaign over the next several months.  We are not part of the United Nations.  Our part of the campaign is supported by private donations from philanthropists, foundations and corporations interested in producing what we need for greater sustainability.

First, we have launched a global conversation to learn what people want their communities to be like in 2030.  We want everyone – all ages, cultures, religions, genders and countries – in the conversation.  If we finally confront head-on the economic, social and environmental challenges we face, and if we get busy building more just, peaceful, and sustainable communities, what would ours look like?

We’re starting with a simple tool to gather comments on our web site. Over the winter, we’ll add more dynamic ways for people to share their ideas, including a crowd sourcing exercise next February.

“Look” is the operative word in this campaign.  At the conference where “The Future We Want” idea was born three years ago, we asked: What’s missing in the dialogue about change? Why aren’t more people excited about sustainable development? Why isn’t everyone insisting that our leaders, neighbors and families take action?

One answer, we decided, is that people need to see sustainability,  to experience it.  Dry policy documents, esoteric science and abstract concepts don’t stir everybody’s blood.  So,  The Future We Want is all about vision.

Second,  based on the ideas you submit and the comments they receive, a team of world-class visual artists and subject-matter experts will select the most promising ideas for sustainable communities in a variety of cultures. We will turn those ideas into life-like, high-definition videos and computer animations.

Third, we’ll unveil the visualizations in an exhibit at Rio+20, and broadcast them worldwide on the Internet and with social media.

Fourth, after Rio we will put up links to the latest tools to help urban planners, architects, local officials and citizens build more sustainable communities around the world.

A demonstration of vision-power took place 70 years ago at the New York Worlds Fair.  During the Great Depression, with World War II looming, General Motors sponsored its “Futurama” pavilion, in which hundreds of thousands of visitors were submersed in an exhibit of  what life would be like 20 years later in a highly mobile, car-centered society. At a time people needed to know there was a path out of despair, GM used the best communications techniques available to show a dynamic future.

There are a few things we’d like people to understand as the conversation begins.

  • The Future We Want will grow into an exercise that uses many of the amazing technologies today that permit a global conversation.  But we’ll also reach out to people not connected to the Internet and invite them to send us letters, essays, drawings, videos and photographs.
  • We are not looking for utopian fantasies, or life with the Jetsons. We want you to base your visions on the technologies and information available today.  How can we use them to build the communities we want our families to live in 20 years from now? We want visions that show us we can get there from here.
  • Some will wonder why we’re having a conversation at a time we need so much more than talk.  We do indeed need concrete action by national and international policy makers.  We believe that to motivate our leaders, we must motivate the people; to help motivate the people, we need the power of vision — the same power that informs, entertains, shocks and inspires us in the media and that sells ideas and products in the marketplace.

Clear vision is a precursor to coherent action. As one good book has put it, without vision we perish.  I’ve argued before that in this latest time of trouble, we have come to another teachable moment. We see evidence nearly every day that the old vision of prosperity and progress isn’t working. We need a new one.

It starts with a global grassroots brainstorming session. That session is just getting underway at, at  at @futurewewant on Twitter, and at the UN’s web site. .

We want everybody in this conversation. Spread the word and jump in.

Bill Becker is a senior associate at the London-based sustainability think tank E3G (Third Generation Environmentalist) and at Natural Capitalism Solutions in Colorado.  The co-director of The Future We Want project is Jonathan Arnold, an urban design expert who uses computer animations and videos to help developers conceive and build projects that achieve the principles of green design and smart growth.

11 Responses to Let’s Talk About The Future We Want

  1. Henry says:

    Here’s a place to start to stand up for the future by protesting the Canadian government’s plan to officially pull out of the Kyoto program.

  2. Count me in. I’ll have a post up on my blog about what I see as the future I want this afternoon some time.

    Look for it here:

    This is my kind of discussion.

    The “BIG MISTAKE™” that most revolutionary movements make is not having a very clear vision in advance of what and how they are going to do after they win. We need to avoid letting that happen by becoming clear now on what our agenda actually is nad how we’re going to put it into action once we win. Remember, at some point, winning consists of the opposition saying “Okay, you win. We’ll all do it your way” and then you have this question you have to answer, which is, “Well, what exactly IS our way?” Answer it now, and you’ll know what to do then.

  3. Leif says:

    I do not feel that most Revolutions do not have a clear agenda, especially the OWS crowd in spite of what the media spins. The difficulty is that it is impossible to get people to visualize a new paradigm who have been indoctrinated from childhood to embrace another. One can only say so much in a sound bite and once so stated it can easily be twisted by spin artists to mean something completely different, thus requiring a new sound bite to counter.

    Great endeavor and I am in as well. I am passing this on to First Nations friends post haste.

  4. Greg Moschetti says:

    This is precisely the conversation we need. The fear and the sense of powerlessness are so great that strong stories of realistically possible futures are needed to overcome them. Bravo!

  5. EDpeak says:

    We do need a positive vision, I agree.

    but it should not be taken to the extreme of “unless you have a super detailed blueprint, then no revolution”

    Think about it: would it make sense for people trying to move away from Feudalism to say to them, “unless you can give me an ultra-detailed map of what representative democracy looks like, then don’t try to change the system” That would not make sense.

    We should have values, and outlines of institutions and how they may behave..but not expect super detailed written in stone prescriptions.

    Also not to confuse movements versus political parties

  6. Theodore says:

    Every child in school should write an essay every year that explains the world as it should become – and as we shall cause it to become. There once was a time when we were the product of nature. Now, we are the makers of ourselves, whether we choose to accept that role or not. Our quest for knowledge has made it so. We must prepare for the new role. Our collective consciousness requires contributing authors and editors.

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Any future would be nice, but if I had my druthers it would be based on ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ and the principle of ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’.

  8. Alan Larkman says:

    MM – that, or something a bit close to it, has got to be right. So many people (even some here) just want to preserve, or return to, things as they were in about 2006. Things may have seemed perfect for some middle Americans and Europeans, but for millions (probably billions) of others life is tougher than most of us can begin to imagine.
    Someone on an earlier thread put it well – ‘Why should he live a life of squalor and need so that I can enjoy my luxuries and play with my expensive gadgets?’ If we can’t muster a bit of idealism without feeling embarrassed about it, then consumerism really has eaten into our hearts and souls.

  9. Raul M. says:

    isn’t being able to adapt to a changing world and a changing society inclusive of mitigation? Shouldn’t we say so? Shouldn’t we do so?

  10. Jenny Nazak says:

    THANK YOU Mr. Becker for this. Let’s get moving!

  11. That’s exactly what I mean. We all need to articulate a clear vision of what we want to see, then work out, in increasing detail as we go, how to get there from here. I just started writing an essay on this. You can find it here. The thing that made me abandon everything in my previous life, more or less, and enlist in this crazy thing for the duration, is not the slogans on the signs, the coverage on tv, or even the change in our debate, it was nutsy-boltsy doingness of it. We bget our generator confiscated, a day later we have four bicycles hooked up to a dynamo and a near endless stream of volunteers taking turns pedaling. can you imagine what would happen if every spinning salon in manhattan were hooked up to dynamos and plugged in to the grid?

    We solve the problems of living together as they arise. New ones arise as fast we solve the old ones, and then we solve those. the solutions become our reality, the process employed in solving them our new paradigm of living.

    Someday soon, as #Occupy continues (and it WILL continue, I swear it), an increasing number of people will say “Okay, I’m done doing things the corporate states way, let’s do it your way” and we have to evolve an answer to the subsequent question, “So, what exactly IS your way?” that’s what I meant by articulating a vision. By the time the reins of power pass from the 1 percent to the 99%, we have to know that answer off the tops of our heads. It’s not a thing, it’s way. #Occupy, after all, is a verb.