Explaining Possitopia

By Bridget McKenzie

I’ve been talking about Possitopian approaches to the future for a few years now. However, it is sometimes misinterpreted, for example with people mispronouncing it ‘Positopia’, assuming it means positive thinking. It’s become one of our six principles of Climate Museum UK, but as our team of members grows, there’s a need for us all to have a sense of ownership of the concept, allowing our own personal interpretations to shape Possitopian practice. I’m happy for it to evolve but also felt it important to clearly explain my own thinking.

We decided to make an explainer video for the Cosmia Festival of science fiction & speculative arts. This blogpost is to help prepare for that, while sharing my thinking. CMUK team member, Beckie Leach, asked me some questions that I’ve responded to, and Lucy Carruthers and James Aldridge also made useful provocations.

The Possitopian approach to future thinking expands the cone of the possible future, draws on geophysical realities and data, and also applies imagination to help you imagine future scenarios which are potentially worse or better than you might allow yourself to think.

It’s definitively not being ‘Positopian’ i.e. only positive about the future. Because catastrophic climate impacts are already coming 20-80 years earlier than modelled, the Voros ‘cone of futures’ is far too narrow and linear.  

The cone is wide open, from now, with events happening beyond our imagining and requiring imagination beyond our norms.

The Probable scenarios are extremely bad. The Preferable scenarios are extremely ideal, and this causes conflict between different visions, just like Leave and Remain positions have hardened. There is also conflict between the few people whose habit is mostly to imagine the Probable (or who have experienced it) and those who imagine the Preferable.

Possitopian methods aim to braid the two, to close the gap, to create a viable path for humanity (or for communities) amidst the shifting and uncertain realm of the Possible. This requires more frequent and sustained imagining of scenarios, bringing together people with different views, combining the imagination with hard evidence or existing solutions, and more design of safe and creative ways to lay down the stepping stones to forge the viable path.

To add more detail, here are my responses to Beckie’s questions:

What led you to choose possible as the lead word for possitopia?

It was a response to the ‘cone of the future’ diagram where the ‘possible’ is the widest range of scenarios that you can imagine, including those you can’t or don’t want to imagine. It’s possible in the sense of ‘anything could happen’. Both the Preferable future and the Probable future lie inside this wide cone. The less linear and uncertain our world becomes, the wider that cone of possibility grows. We need a new diagram that shows it wide open.

Why do we need to focus on the future?

We don’t need to focus more on the future. We can’t help it. We just need to do it better. We need to widen our thinking when we do it. There’s already a movement for long-term thinking but I think we need wider thinking of possibilities, as much if not more.

All actions and decisions are conceived in relationship to what you’ve experienced or learned already (past), how you’re feeling now and what you anticipate (future). People can get stuck. If you only remember the dark aspects of the past and anticipate the future only to be bright, your decision-making will be skewed. And vice versa. Political and business progress is based on the myth that the future can only get better. When people have experienced or anticipate trauma, they may feel that the future can only get worse. Either way, fixed narratives about the future – whether it’s gloomy or rosy – are not helpful because they stop you from seeing possibilities, or seeing how other people might see things.

Why is imagining possitopian futures important?

There isn’t really such a thing as a ‘possitopian future’ because a possitopian approach generates multiple and shifting possibilities. A future vision is a temporary object to think with, and we need to practice holding two or more at once. What is important is creating opportunities for people (e.g. organisations) to be anticipatory, or to imagine the future, in possitopian ways, which means expanding the cone of possibility beyond what is desirable or thought to be likely, and enabling people to imagine fractal or multiple scenarios. Anticipatory practice, done in a possitopian way, applies as much to planning tomorrow as it does to planning 10 years or more. Above all, we need to practice, to make time for conversation so that when unexpected events occur, or we need to look further ahead, we are more in accord or prepared.

Can you discuss the problems of utopian and dystopian thinking?

What are the common patterns of thought in these areas and why/how does possitopian thinking offer a different path?

Possitopian thinking maybe offers a field rather than a path. It helps you resist predefined or hackneyed visions. We already know images of dystopia and utopian from movies and advertising. There may well be utopian and dystopian patterns which form out of cultural tropes (e.g. tech will save us) and psychological states. Possitopian approaches don’t try to create a third trope but to overcome fixed, limited and binary ways of thinking. Many people might flip from dystopian to utopian visions – drawing on what culture has offered them – depending on their feelings at any moment. Possitopian practice allows us to imagine new possibilities by talking and weaving together rather than flipping helplessly.

It seems as though the world is collapsing around us – is it useful to face this?

Thinking about linearity and moving beyond binaries

Yes, it is useful to face this, I think. Life of sorts will still go on. Collapse is complex, unpredictable, and has already been happening in many places. Recoveries also happen, but the collapses are getting increasingly bigger and harder to bounce back from. Collapse is not one single thing, not like a total blackout disaster. Possitopian thinking is essentially non-binary, as it allows possible scenarios to be explored within an assumption that we ARE in a context of collapse, and also that the biosphere and its lifeforms hold potential of regenerative recovery. It’s moving from dystopia and utopia as black and white, towards an intertwining of decay and regrowth.

How do we balance thinking of possitopian futures with the need to be present, embodied, living our best now?

‘Possitopian thinking of futures’ is more helpful than ‘thinking of possitopian futures’. Possitopian thinking of futures should in itself enable you to be more present or embodied, and to live our best now. To give a simple example: If I feel ill today and I anticipate having a disastrous work day tomorrow, I don’t have to succumb to misery. I can imagine all the ways I can use the day off to recover my wellbeing, and I will be more present by choosing to have a ‘wellbeing day’. What if we extended the same approach to thinking about 5, 10 or 20 years hence?

How do we balance thinking of possitopian futures with the need to learn from the past?

This is a perennial problem, balancing our attention between the past and the future. However, it’s a question of quality. Making more space for possitopian future thinking could also make more space for considered and reparative thinking about the past, and to achieve that balance. Cultures that fail to remember or honour the past are doomed to make mistakes. Cultures that are obsessed with preserving the past as they imagine it – in a rosy way – are doomed always to feel disappointed with how life is turning out. Cultures that obsess about avoiding risks in the future are doomed never to innovate or deviate. Cultures that live in a dream of a wished-for future are doomed to experience harsh reality. A Possitopian approach opens space for meditation on the possibilities that things in the past or the future might be worse or better than you typically imagine.

How do we create spaces for possitopian thinking?

Yes, that’s a good question that needs some possitopian thinking applied to it! How, in a time of Earth crisis, which is throwing us Covid-19, extreme weather, austerity and more, do we manage this? How, if we’re too isolated, underpaid, anxious? The answers lie somewhere in valuing the arts and imagination, using technology, creating artful and playful gatherings.

There are some classic methods for speculative futures. The default mode we mostly fall into, without facilitation, is to flip between two poles of ‘hopes’ and ‘fears’ or dystopia and utopia. Business management methods lay a matrix onto a future time e.g. the diagram here, and invite people to imagine what each quartile looks like and which is the most desirable and achievable. This is called Scenario Planning.

Example of quartiles used in scenario planning

I’m suggesting that a Possitopian approach lays a much more fractal or complex grid over a slice of the future cone. To help make this more graspable, it might also root this imaginative work in a specific place, with solid understanding of its geography. It also acknowledges and listens to where people are stuck – and these usually correspond to being stuck in positions where they either lack hope or are thinking too wishfully.

What are the capacities people need to imagine possitopian futures?

What literacies are required?

Imagination is the core capacity for imagining futures! We can break down this into different aspects. For example:

  • Being able to project beyond one’s immediate experience while drawing on it.
  • Being able to project from your own felt emotions to imagine others’ feelings.
  • Being able to imagine how a new kind of process or tool might work, how a series of decisions might pan out.
  • Being able to imagine how things might be radically different from how they have been, to see how trends can explode and change the course of history.
  • Being able to imagine whole new ways of relating to the world (e.g. that we might listen to food before we eat it, or that we might have to live on a boat, or anything.)
  • Being able to hold multiple and oppositional ideas in your head at once, and imagine them combining in a dynamic flow. (e.g. that a place might be extremely dry and then extremely flooded, and knowing that the drought conditions still apply.)

To investigate further, you can see the Jamboard I’ve been using to pull together examples of Possitopian practice, and other thoughts.

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