Harnessing the power of future predictions to help invent a better world

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McGonigal: I reached my limit of reading headlines and news stories that described world events like the pandemic and extreme weather as “unimaginable.” In the last few years we’ve had so many shocking political events in the United States, and extremism and new types of protests and social movements, and that word kept popping up. It was infuriating because we had predicted this for so long. It wasn’t that they were ‘unimaginable’ or ‘unthinkable’, we just didn’t want to think about it because it’s stressful and it makes us anxious. Or, we didn’t have the tools or information to vividly imagine what life would be like during a pandemic or how social media might fuel extremism. I wanted to write a book to help people see with confidence that no future is unthinkable because we refuse to think about it, or no future is unimaginable because we don’t believe that transformative change is possible.

One of the main ideas of the book is urgent optimism. What is urgent optimism and why should we strive for it?

McGonigal: Urgent optimism means we absolutely have to act and not sit back and wait for the future to happen. We will be take action to shape the future. Optimism comes from a sense of agency or self-efficacy where the future is shaped by the actions we take today to prepare, plan, and change the way the world works. To stay engaged with the future, we must stoke the fires of hope and creativity. We must feel that the future can be better through our own actions. Ultimately, Urgent Optimism allows mental flexibility to internalize a realistic sense of hope based on an awareness of risks and threats, but engages with new technologies, solutions, and movements that will improve lives. things.

What are some accessible futuristic techniques that could translate well to schools or other youth-focused environments?

McGonigal: There is a simple habit of collecting and sharing what we call signals of change. Anyone can pick up signals, and they would definitely work for teachers who want to bring future thinking into their classrooms. A signal for change can be a news report, a surprising post on social media, or something from the world around you. It’s something you’ve never seen before that represents a new way of doing things or a new way of being in reality. You can take a picture of it or take notes about it. It’s not a hypothetical idea or a fiction: it’s real change happening somewhere.

Every art form has its medium and signals of change are the raw material of the futurist. Writers use words, computer programmers use code, musicians use musical notes, and artists use paint or clay. We create ideas about the future from these signals of change. Examples might include a “No Drone Zone” sign in a park, a pay-per-view restaurant in Berkeley that didn’t have a price on the menu, or a story about the new virtual real estate market taking place in the metaverse. These concrete examples make you stop dead and say, “Wow! I guess things can be different. These are signs of change for me.

Schools and teachers can create a culture of investigating cues, sharing cues, responding to them, and reflecting on them. Students could discuss whether the signal makes them more optimistic or more worried. Does it make them feel powerful? Are they curious to learn how to engage in it? Where will this lead? You can even organize signal treasure hunts.

Every topic benefits from thinking about the future, and it makes learning more relevant because it’s about things happening in the world that are cool, interesting, weird, and surprising. I have a background in gaming, so I’m always looking for opportunities to generate the positive emotions that we easily get from games, but maybe not from our daily lives. Surprise, joy, curiosity inspired by signals of change are great ways to bring these positive emotions into the classroom.

What are the exciting futures for schools that have emerged from your work?

McGonigal: One of the biggest ideas for driving change in schools that I’m excited to see is the concept of a big challenge. Instead of taking traditional subjects or declaring a major in college, students could take on the challenge of solving a global issue like climate action, ending poverty, gender equality, or zero hunger. . I’m excited to see how people are using the idea of ​​connecting learning at all levels and across disciplines to grand global challenges to create more meaningful learning experiences.

In the book, you describe a future-thinking technique in which you immerse groups in large-scale scenarios and social simulations, usually set 10 years in the future. How can schools, parents, young people or community groups organize or participate in these scenarios?

McGonigal: The most practical thing to do is to take scenarios from the book, those we share publicly at the Institute of the Future, or visit the Urgent Optimists Website, which has a club you can join with new scenarios every month. Teachers, parents, community groups or anyone can adapt the scenarios to local experience. You play with it, see how people react and what comes out of it. It could be like a school newspaper or a school play, where kids are eager to roll up their sleeves and participate in creating something together. It can be a simulation club, a scenario club or a sign club, but they can also be integrated into classrooms.

Can you share a powerful or memorable experience that emerged from your work with young people?

McGonigal: We invited teenagers to a 10-year forecast conference and asked them to imagine a future rite of passage. A lot of teenagers don’t get a driver’s license anymore, and it was such a rite of passage for decades. It meant freedom and independence and growing up. Today, teenagers are less interested in driving for sustainability reasons, economic reasons or mental health reasons. We asked them, “What do you think teenagers will do as rites of passage in the future?” The rite of passage they came up with that they all agreed seemed the most plausible was the first time they would personally experience a climate catastrophe or terrible extreme weather. That was 2018, before Greta Thunberg came on the scene and really channeled that just young anger. It was certainly a clue to us that this generation was already having a pre-traumatic experience of climate change. They knew it was something they would experience personally. The old adolescent ritual was about freedom and independence, and this new rite of passage was going to be about accepting loss and trauma. When young people imagine their future, they have to be believed. What they’re saying is that they feel like there’s a lot of trauma and pain ahead, and they need ways to imagine better worlds.

Running a script seems to be as much about personal growth and building resilience as predicting the future. What are the benefits of running a scenario or simulation, even if they don’t accurately predict the future?

McGonigal: Future scenarios and simulations are all about how things could be different, so the fundamental creative skill of thinking differently is at the heart of it all. It is also a great engine of hope, especially for young people. Often it’s less about preparing for the challenges of the future than imagining the world we want to wake up to. It is about being the authors of our own worlds; use the power of the future as a place where no one has said no yet.

Learning to visualize the future more accurately can help people experience less depression and less anxiety. When we are anxious, we tend to fixate on vivid mental images of things that scare us, but we can imagine a future where we manage things effectively. We can imagine ourselves taking actions that are within our power to deal with situations. Or, we can just redirect our imagination to something that better represents our hopes and values ​​so we don’t get stuck.

In the book, you also discuss the culture of empathy for our future. Can you tell me more?

McGonigal: This stems from research done at UCLA that used neuroimaging to study how we think about our future or our far future. Our brain reacts to our future self as if it were a stranger. This explains why we often struggle to take actions today that benefit our future, whether it’s saving money for a long-term goal, exercise, of sustainability or even to vote. It even leads to procrastination. We avoid doing tasks and leave them to our future selves. The future me will be fine writing this article! But you’ll still be you when you get there.

We can build a relationship with our future selves by vividly imagining future-looking scenarios and what our life might look like in the future. It’s a bit like neurological cross-training, as it helps us develop what’s called hard empathy for our future selves, which can then translate into empathy for other strangers or other people. that we perceive as different from ourselves. Our empathy grows by thinking about differences: how the future might be different, how our future selves might be different, and how other people’s experiences of dealing with crisis or change are different. Some people are highly motivated to help others and not to help themselves.

And, finally, it’s a nice segway in the challenging concept of learned utility.

McGonigal: By imagining what we might do in the possible future, we can learn our own usefulness. It is so powerful to imagine how our own unique skills, abilities, and strengths, no matter how small, could be useful to others. We often give ourselves more creative latitude when imagining our future. We believe that “the future me can be truly powerful and capable and amazing and accomplished.” We set higher goals for our future selves, and we can more easily see ourselves taking action in the future because we’re not there yet and our imaginations have room to play. We feel the power of our agency when we imagine ourselves doing things that tend to be more ambitious, bolder. When we consider what we could do to help others in the future, we are able to realize that we could take that step today and change the future accordingly.


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