Thinking about the future is full of questions. What are the jobs of the future? What skills will we need? What will be the true impact of climate change on our daily lives, economies, and society?
It is overwhelming, and it is hard to even know where to start!
Why is that? Due to the rate of accelerating change. We are innovating new technologies, industries, and jobs. Our impact on the planet is creating environmental conditions we have never encountered before. The interdependence of global economies is adding new layers of complexity to business.
But this is not why is conceptualising what our lives will be like in the future is difficult. The wiring of our brains leads us to be bad at it. We evolved to think day by day. To survive situations as they occurred in weeks and months. And for hundreds of thousands of years, this has served us well.
According to recent research by the Institute For The Future, most people don’t think about the future. And when we do think about 20 to 30 years from now, our brain behaves as if it is thinking about a stranger rather than ourselves.
This is because of a neurological mismatch between present you and future you. According to an article by Jane Mcgonigal published on Slate.com FMRI studies suggest that when you imagine your future self, your brain stops behaving as if you’re thinking about you. Instead, it starts acting as if you’re thinking about a complete stranger.
When someone thinks about themselves, a region of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex, or MPFC, activates. When thinking about other people, it deactivates. When participants in these studies were asked to imagine themselves in 10 or more years their MPFC shut down. Their brain behaved as if they were thinking about a person they did not know at all.
There are people working to create better futures who are struggling to get their message out. And now research is telling us it is because our brains won’t allow us to imagine our future? How do you get people to invest or take part in the future that they can’t even see themselves in? How do we circumnavigate the short term thinking that our brains are programmed to do? How do we fight back against our well-meaning but troublesome MPFC?
*stop reading for a moment to do a drumroll with your fingers on the desk and then read the next sentence with gusto*
By changing the way we tell stories about the future.
We know our brains have a hard time imagining ourselves in the future. But we don’t have problems with empathically connecting with characters in stories set in the future. Any of you who have seen Black Mirror or Years and Years have watched good examples of this. When we see characters in a story affected by the world around them, we understand how it feels to be in their situation. This brain phenomenon is called ‘neuro-mirroring’. There is hope. We can fight our brain’s problem with projecting a future, with our brain’s ability to connect with others.
Fictional stories can be used as a tool to help people understand the possibilities of the future. By placing characters in a new future state, we can experience what a possible future feels like and means to us.
A believable future narrative must contain these components:
1. It Must Be Relatable
The fictional reality should feel familiar. Presenting a future full of extraneous and distracting details is hard to relate to. It should feel like the present, except for the details necessary to show how your solution works. For example, if you are creating a solar-powered car then the car and its benefits must be central to the story. Do not add flying robots or anything else for the sake of being cool. It will make your vision seem far fetched and less believable.
2. It Must Be Balanced
Your story must be balanced. We are experiencing a crisis of plausible future narratives. They are either dystopian or utopian and both have disbelief embedded into each state. We disbelieve utopias because nothing is perfect. If sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Or if it’s all doom and gloom it is hard to imagine things getting that bad. It is important to create a balanced view of what you’re actually proposing. Highlight the good, and mention the drawbacks. This creates a sense of trust in the information that your story shares.
3. It Must Be Emotional
All stories of what we hope to achieve in the future are emotional. If you are unsure about this let’s look at vacation planning as an example. You may dream of lounging by a pool, thumbing through a list of cocktails. Or imagine strolling down a white sandy beach, the weight of the world leaves your shoulders as you watch a red sun slip into the ocean. You start thinking about how it would feel to be that free, relaxed and happy.
Planning for a future moment in time like a holiday feels achievable because you can imagine how it will feel to be there. A projected future based on statics and market projections feels distant and disconnected. This is because there is nothing to emotionally connect with.
Facts and figures are critical to educating and informing. But if there’s nothing to emotionally connect with it is difficult to understand how it will affect you now and in the future.
4: It Must Evolve, Not End
The basic story structure is simple, beginning, middle and an end. As soon as a story ends or concludes the audience sits back and thinks, oh well, that was nice. It is all over now, what should I focus my attention on next. This structure for future narrative development can be problematic. Stories about the future it should never end, the audience should ask, what’s next?
If you are trying to activate people or create change it is important that they feel like the end is yet to be written. All great storytellers who have impacted the future worked with open-ended narratives. Martin Luther King Jr told a story of a dream that he had for his four children. He dreamed they would not be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. He invites the audience to become active in achieving that dream. There is no end, only the next story to add to the ongoing narrative of the civil rights movement. This created movement and momentum as more people joined and believed in ‘the dream’.
If the story is open-ended, then we must work towards the ending. Martin Luther King Jr had a dream and that dream is still evolving today. Have we reached a utopian ideal of equality? No, our work is not done, but we will face each new challenge as it comes.
Stories of the future must work in the same way. They should be open-ended. They should evolve as we work on the solutions together. The future never arrives, but we write each chapter as we work towards a new goal together.
And finally – Be Ethical
Remember: It is very important if you are creating a fictionalised story of a future make sure it is clear that it has not happened yet. Stories are powerful and when listening to them people suspend their disbelief. To ensure you are building trust, this must be clear. This is a fictionalised representation of what is possible.
What’s The Way Forward?
Put your faith in stories. Show how your future feels to get people involved as voters, investors, clients or customers. Ask yourself, what is the emotional impact of the message I am delivering? And if there isn’t one, find one. Create an emotional story that supports the facts you are sharing. Invite people into a story that illustrations not only how your solution works, but how it will feel once it does.
Want to chat more about how the future is built with stories? Please reach out, I would love to hear your vision for our future.