Disruptive global events of the past few years have made it more challenging than ever to feel hopeful and equipped to face the future. It feels impossible to predict what the world will be like next week, never mind next year, or next decade.
In her latest book, Imaginable, game designer and futurist Jane McGonigal explores ways to envision the future before it arrives. She draws on research in psychology and neuroscience to design provocative thought experiments and simulations that show how to think the unthinkable – and imagine the unimaginable.
When does the future start?
Though our brains have a tremendous capacity for creative thought, most of us tend to view our lives in much narrower terms. What is happening to me now? Our ability to see into the future is limited by our frame of reference.
In her book, McGonigal asks:
If the future is a time when many or most things in your life will be different than they are today, how long from now does that future start?
The answer is different for different people. If you’re getting married in June, most things will be very different after you tie the knot. Teenagers tend to think the future is something only their parents worry about. An octogenarian may prefer not to think past this week.
To spur more expansive thought, the author recommends taking a ten year trip. A ten-year timeline lifts the ceiling on your imagination, but isn’t so distant as to be inconceivable. Becoming a mental time traveller encourages a third-person perspective versus primarily looking at things from a first-person point of view. When time seems more spacious, it’s easier to imagine new possibilities.
Similarly, in every kickoff meeting with clients, I will ask: “How will we know when we’re successful?” What I am asking them to do is describe the desired future state – whether that’s three months or three years away. If the future is a time when many or most things will be better than they are today, what does that look like? And how do we get there?
Be ridiculous at first
One of the key themes of Imaginable is that by playing games – or participating in simulations – we can develop new ways of thinking and problem-solving. In one such experiment, the challenge is to come up with “one hundred ways anything can be different in the future.”
Here is how you play:
- Make a list of things that you believe cannot – will not – change in the next decade. Pick any topic – shoes, food, education, you name it.
- Next write a list of one hundred things that are true today – the simpler and more obvious the better. For example: shoes go on your feet, most Americans own more than a dozen pairs of shoes, shoes have soles to protect feet from injury, only Cinderella’s shoes are made of glass, etcetera …
- Then, rewrite the list so that ten years from now the opposite is true.
It’s less important that the list is exactly one hundred facts long. The exercise is more about quieting your inner editor, and considering alternate realities.
Spend time in this upside down world. Look for evidence that these far-fetched opposites could really happen, or may in fact already be happening today. Why did this change happen? How does this new reality work? Look for clues in the news, on social media, and in your own life that make these flipped facts seem more plausible and realistic.
Turning the world upside down can help expand your imagination – and create clarity about what you want to change in society and in your own life. As scientist and author Linus Pauling once said: “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”
Another important theme of the book is the role of imagination in fostering resilience and mental health. McGonigal argues that by imagining detailed future scenarios, we can develop the psychological resources we need to overcome adversity.
Almost ten years before the Covid pandemic, the author ran a massive simulation with more than 20,000 participants around the globe. The scenario? A highly-contagious airborne virus. Over several weeks, players were asked to modify their daily routines based on the parameters of the game, documenting what they learned and how they felt.
When she checked in with the same people in 2021, she found that they were coping much better than most under pandemic restrictions – with far fewer infections and deaths than the population at large. It was as if they had already practiced for it.
McGonigal encourages readers to regularly keep an eye out for global trends that make you worry. By acknowledging the reality of growing risks – or “future forces” – you will be more prepared to help if the hypothetical future becomes a real crisis.
Imaginable is an ambitious look at the ways we can use our imagination to address the unprecedented challenges of our times. While it loses some focus in the last third of the book, and isn’t always clear about how to turn ideas into action, McGonigal provides some useful tips and techniques.
The lasting impression is that how we frame any problem has a profound influence on our ability to generate creative solutions – and proceed with confidence and optimism.
Read another book-inspired post.
Dan Woychick is a problem solver, creative collaborator, and owner of Woychick Design. He helps purpose-driven organizations raise awareness, inspire donors, and move people to action. Connect here: Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter