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Imagine the future we want

I remember my first day on the job in the field of regenerative economics like it was yesterday. In fact, it was August 2004. My new boss at Canadian Business for Social Responsibility (CBSR) took me out for lunch. As she told me more about what we would be working on I asked, “How long until we’re done?”

I understand now why she laughed in response. But I think it’s time I asked the question again, only now I would add: “… and what will it feel like?”

A lot has changed since 2004. For starters, back then, we generally called the field “corporate social responsibility” – hence the name of CBSR (on whose board I now proudly sit). But these days I like to call out the full scope of the need – i.e. a new economic model – right in the labeling of the work, so I prefer to call it regenerative economics. I don’t mind clarifying if people need more time with the concept, and fortunately others offer more clarity including Kate Raworth’s instructive Doughnut Economics and Marjorie Kelly’s seminal Divine Right of Capital.

Although the field has evolved and applicable strategies, frameworks and thinking exist, there is a lack of vision regarding how we will feel in this "future we want" as proposed by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The desired future state is often described either as problems solved and/or as financial potential. Elements of a vision are sometimes present, yet it's more typically about what it isn’t – poverty, climate catastrophe, etc. – than what it is. But, to paraphrase Chris Coulter of GlobeScan as he channels the wisdom gleaned over years of measuring corporate leadership, we need to sell the beach, not the airport security line.

And so I am pushing myself and others to put time and effort into imagining what it will look and feel like when we arrive at different points along the successful journey. I'm asking us to imagine as if we are in that new present time, and it is a generous and just society within a thriving biosphere.

Some might observe that I am a bit slow to the imagination party. For example, John Lennon’s 1971 song Imagine, serves as a heartfelt reminder of the power of our imaginations to bring about positive change. Lennon had a clear intention as he explained during an interview years after the song was released: “If you can imagine a world at peace […] then it can be true”.

It would be easy to dismiss the sentiment as a bit fluffy – you might even say he was a dreamer – but the more I dig around, the more I find this thinking has a long history with a lot of legs, from the spiritual teachings of Neville Godard, to the mainstreaming of mindfulness, to the emergence of a whole new scholarship known as positive psychology. While it isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do (although Lennon suggests it’s easy if we try), if we can’t even imagine what we’re striving for then the likelihood of achieving it is slim.

I'm not talking about nailing a presentation or scoring a goal in the championship game. I'm talking about the big stuff, such as imagining reversing global warming, which I explored in a recent Volans article, Imaginings of the Commons.

Specifically, what will it feel like to be on a better path? One approach could be to take the 169 targets of the SDGs and think of them like a string of worry beads, visualizing a positive restatement of each target as if it is true now. Those targets are not the most imaginatively worded phrases (!) but they could serve as worthy ingredients to get one started. That's where our imaginations come in.

Another way to do this is to imagine what it feels like to have achieved success on a so-called “wicked problem”. For example, if you are working on ocean plastics, instead of picturing all the garbage, dead sea turtles and poor waste management infrastructure, what do you see when this issue has truly been addressed? Can you picture it? Can you believe it? Can you imagine walking along a beautiful beach, seeing only clean sand and water, aware of a thriving marine ecosystem just beyond those breakers?

What about if you are collaborating across sectors to create new financial incentives to reverse global warming – instead of thinking about how complex it is, about how many people are pushing for one agenda or another, can you imagine a world where we have effectively priced carbon and turned the ship around? How are people engaging with one another? How are you engaging with businesses, or even with your own finances?

I find it easy to see problems, to call out what’s not working, and to anticipate pending doom all around. Yet I find it much more compelling to imagine things going well, to build on a present that is rich with inspired examples, expanding these ideas into a desirable future where I am surrounded by the wonderful reality that is the future I want.

“Imagine.” I used to think this was a lament. I now realize it’s a simple and necessary call to action.

(Photos: reflections in wetlands at Toronto's Brickworks; evening surfing on Long Island; turtle in wetlands at Toronto's Brickworks; by Christopher Foss.)

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