Memoir

Imagining the Future

Why the cynics are wrong

by
• 2,226 words

Let me begin with an admission. I am a designer, which means I cannot afford the luxury of cynicism. Designers are called upon to come up with solutions to problems of every imaginable description, from designing a machine to provide kidney dialysis at home to creating an interface for complex critical systems like air-traffic control. No matter what the specific nature of a project — whether it’s a park or a product, a book or a business — optimism is always central to my work. It’s as important to what I do as research tools, computer systems, or a sense of colour.

Three years ago, the Vancouver Art Gallery invited me to produce a major exhibition on the future of design. They had no fixed ideas as to what that might mean, except for the scale; they wanted something that would mark a significant commitment by their museum to the design field.

My first impulse was to say no. To discover what is happening in design around the world and to explore its potential across all the disciplines seemed too daunting. Besides, I was happily working on a full slate of projects that were already very demanding and personally rewarding.

But something was irritating me. There was something floating around in our culture that I found deeply troubling. It got under my skin until it became an itch I had to scratch. There seemed to be a growing split between reality and mood, a conflict between what is actually happening in the world — what we are capable of, what we are committed to, what we are achieving — and our perception of how we’re doing. The prevailing mood feels dark, negative, harrowingly pessimistic, and tending to the cynical. Bizarrely, this kind of negativity has become the vogue even in creative fields, which are traditionally committed to vision, beauty, and pleasure, to notions of utopia — to possibility, in other words. This is especially true in design. How, I wondered, had the virus of pessimism crept into the one area of art that is charged with looking forward?

First and foremost, design is committed to a better, smarter future. It’s the art form pragmatically focused on finding solutions for how we live in the world. But it seems we have mistakenly conflated the word “critical” with the word “negative” and embraced a cynical perspective. Art speaks mostly in dystopian terms, while business is charged with envisioning our future. Today the talent to make beautiful paintings is a bus pass to the suburbs of art discourse; cranky architects scowl from magazine covers and moan, absurdly, about their powerlessness. Gloom and doom are everywhere.

These days, to express optimism in educated company suggests that you are either wilfully ignorant of the facts or simply a fool. To be serious, to be critical, to have a voice, we have to be cynical. To strive for something — something better — is a Pollyanna project for the naive.

In stark contrast to this prevailing wind of negativity, the experience of the team that worked with me on Massive Change (as the Vancouver project came to be called) was quite the opposite. In the face of global challenges — and there are many of unprecedented seriousness, from the aids disaster in Africa to the environmental impact of our growing population — we nevertheless witnessed action coming to bear on almost every significant problem. We saw new possibilities in collaboration and connectedness, which, along with the Internet, would allow designers around the world to draw on knowledge and expertise that had never before been accessible.

My experience with this project has been delightful, with one startling exception: I discovered how controversial optimism can be.

the case for optimism

Despite our collective despondency, we live in a time when more people are richer, healthier, better educated, more literate, and more productive. We live longer, travel more, and enjoy greater access to knowledge and freedom than at any other time in human history. Worldwide, we now number more than six billion people — partly because we are able, with varying degrees of success, to sustain that number. We have beaten back the Malthusians.

And there are other victories worth noting:

we have beaten back hunger

Through ongoing innovations in agriculture and the development of crops that produce a higher yield — India has become a net exporter of rice, for instance — we are feeding more people. Not the whole world, it must be said, but we have come a long way. According to a 2004 report from the United Nations, more than thirty countries reduced the number of hungry people by at least 25 percent during the 1990s.

we have beaten back disease

I don’t want to sound overly optimistic here. aids continues to ravage Africa, and until we find ways to deal with that tragedy, a deep shadow will haunt our future. However, there is a genuine commitment to finding a cure for big killers like malaria and dysentery. In the past, a disease like sars in China, Hong Kong, and Toronto would have wiped out tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. It didn’t. Because we collaborated globally to fight sars, we lost only hundreds.

we have beaten back child mortality

Since the sixties, we have halved the rates of child mortality for most of the developing world, including China, India, and Brazil, and at the same time we have increased global life expectancy by seventeen years. The average number of children per woman in most of the developing world has gone from more than five to fewer than four, while child mortality in some countries has gone from between 10 and 40 percent of the population under five to less than 10 percent. According to Gapminder.org, “Today most countries in Asia, Latin America, and the Arab world have small families and infant mortality is low. We now have a completely different world!”

Related to this shift is the changing role of women. In a conversation I had with E.O. Wilson, the author of The Future of Life, he said, “If you want to do something for the environment, educate and liberate women,” because “when women are educated and liberated, the birth rate declines.” The statistics suggest that this is exactly what is happening.

we have beaten back death

Not literally, of course. I am not that optimistic! But for most of recorded history, life expectancy hovered around thirty years. Many died in infancy. If we survived, we married young, and died young. Even by the end of the nineteenth century, life expectancy was just over thirty-two years. Today, average life expectancy worldwide is now sixty-five years.

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One way to measure global progress is through the United Nations Human Development Index. The hdi measures a basket of factors including life expectancy, school enrolment, adult literacy, and gross domestic product per capita. Taken together, these offer a useful portrait of the development of a society and its ability to meet the needs of its citizens.

Looking at human development around the world since 1975, it is striking to see that with few exceptions the trends are all positive. Not only do the United States, Canada, and other Western nations show steady improvement, but more recently countries like India, China, and Brazil are moving in the same direction. With the glaring exception of Africa, we are moving to a more developed world. Of the thirtytwo countries still classified as low development, with an hdi of less than 0.5, thirty are in Africa. But public awareness of Africa’s situation is at least on an upward swing, a dramatic change in its long and tortured history with the West.

Another way to consider progress is to look at our commitment to reach certain objectives. At the Millennium Summit in September 2000, 189 countries adopted a global to-do list. The eight goals are to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and the empowerment of women; reduce child mortality by two-thirds; improve maternal health; combat hiv/aids, malaria, and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and cultivate a global partnership for development. The fact that we have come together to articulate these goals, and committed ourselves to meeting them, gives a sense of the true nature of our human project.

Are we on target to get through the list by the deadline of 2015? No. Are some places getting worse, not better? Certainly, but very few. Are some developed countries negligent in meeting their obligations? Yes. But are we making progress? Absolutely. We may be behind schedule but we are mostly moving forward. For instance, based on current trends, child mortality rates will be 15 percent lower in 2015 than they were in 1990. If the trend continues, we won’t meet the Millennium goal until 2045. Thirty years late — but still a staggering human accomplishment, made possible by collective global collaboration.

Another way of measuring progress is to look at not only what we have defeated but what we have embraced. We have embraced wealth in all of its dimensions. In fact, one accomplishment of Massive Change was to reconfigure notions of wealth to include freedom, education, literacy, mobility, human rights, health, sanitation, communication, collaboration, science, technology, knowledge, and now, increasingly, sustainability.

To a large degree, the greatest challenge we face as a global culture — sustainability — is a consequence of our great success. We are six billion people today, not because we have failed in designing solutions to the problems we have faced, but because we have overcome many of the worst problems afflicting people around the world.

circling the wagons

In the course of our work on Massive Change, we met an extraordinary man named Stewart Brand. An innovator and entrepreneur, he was the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, a countercultural landmark in the late sixties and early seventies. He led a campaign to convince nasa to make a photograph of the Earth from space, an image that has become a defining icon of our age.

Brand is also a founder of The Long Now Foundation, an effort to expand our cultural time horizon from the next fiscal quarter to the long term. He believes that when people think things are bad and getting worse, they do the usual things people do to protect themselves: They circle their wagons, hunker down, and close the border. They move to gated communities in their cities and in their hearts. They take what they can get while they can still get it.

However, if they come to understand that things are improving — that we are working together to make things better — they will invest in their communities and their businesses, in their children and their family, in their culture and education. They will do so because once they discover that things are actually getting better, enlightened self-interest will make them want to be part of the improvement.

I think we have been missing something quite important in assessing where we really stand, and this gap limits our forward momentum. We have been missing it because the old politics of Left versus Right are no longer relevant or helpful. A more collaborative approach is emerging. Rather than seeing things in terms of Left or Right, this approach seeks indicators of social and economic progress along a continuum running from retrograde to advanced.

To grasp the approach, think of an image whose pixels have been distributed to a million citizens worldwide. It is an image of collaboration, shared problem-solving, accessibility, and collective enterprise. It is a complex and beautiful image, perhaps the most beautiful image of all time. In contrast, our understanding of the world is driven by a media culture obsessed with violence and conflict. The tenor is one of negativity and crisis, which translates into pessimism and cynicism, and from there to apathy and paralysis. This negative world view can erode human agency — and without that, we’re basically sunk.

As a global culture we are beginning to outgrow polarized and binary divisions but we still confuse the media with reality. If we were to publish a newspaper called Reality, it would be a mile thick. The first quarter-inch would arrive on your doorstep, scare the hell out of you, push the worst of human possibility into your world, make you want to lock your doors, inhibit your impulse toward community, and drive you to xenophobia, resentful and fearful of all the violent others determined to ruin your life. The rest of the mile of newspaper — the reality of our world, the part that never gets published — would be Massive Change, the story of how millions of people from every part of the world are working together to confront the dilemmas we face as a global society.

The media is our siren and our lullaby. In a neverending cycle, it shakes us up, alerts us to danger, then puts us back to sleep, reassured that someone else is taking care of things.

But what we need to be reminded of is our own potential. We have the power to make change on a global scale, to solve the problems we are facing today. We have the means to make the things we love more intelligent and more delightful. We have the imagination and the ability to invent new ways of sustainable living in advanced, courageous, and open societies.

All we need is the optimism to realize it.