Geoff Mulgan on Social Imagination
Hello Geoff, very welcome to the series of THE NEW INSTITUTE interviews called Work in Progress from the construction site of THE NEW INSTITUTE, the future site of THE NEW INSTITUTE in Hamburg. We expect less noise throughout the interview, but this is an ongoing construction site and we'll, we'll manage him with a little noise in the background. I'm very happy to talk to you today, you're the Senior Advisor to THE NEW INSTITUTE professor for, And I love this collective intelligence, public policy and social innovation. The former director of policy for Tony Blair Downing, St #10, currently fellow as well at the Demos Helsinki, Think Tank. You're prolific writer and inquisitive mind.
Most recently you have focused on the topic of imagination, exploring it in all sorts of exciting ways. Developing a set of ideas that is highly relevant. To what we want to do, here at THE NEW INSTITUTE because we want to reach beyond the status quo. Not only imagining but also creating a framework for a different society. So lots to talk about in the next roughly 45 minutes, and so let's dive right in with the big one.
How does change happen? Well, in lots and lots of different ways, sometimes slowly, sometimes, suddenly, and in the past I've tried to in many ways make sense of. Of patterns of change and the role of ideas and role of social dynamics. The role of technologies and how they interact. But one of the reasons I became interested in imagination recently was because perhaps there was a missing piece in in the theories of change I was finding and in the past one of the things which would allow change was people thinking ahead to a better possible society, a utopia, or imagining everyone having the vote or imagining a welfare state, or imagining universal health care. And my worry is that at the moment that kind of imagination has almost disappeared compared to 50 years ago or 100 years ago, 150 years ago.
That many people can picture a much worse world in 50 years time, particularly with climate change, ecological catastrophe, robots taking over the world, populist demagogues running every country. That's an easy thing for people to imagine. Or they can imagine technology transforming the world.
With you know Drones and Flying Taxis and AI everywhere. But in terms of a social picture, very few people can give an articulate account of how the world might be better socially, a generation or two into the future of my health care. Look like our primary schools, our libraries, our parliaments and part of the reason is that I think the institutions which should be working on this imagination have largely vacated that space. Political parties, universities, think tanks, all for slightly different reasons.
I think this is become part of almost a pathology of our time that we cannot see a desirable, plausible future to build towards and so we turn instead to fear or perhaps into our private lives or just into opposition rather than creation and so yeah, change has many many factors which allow change to happen, not just imagination, but without some sense of where you're going. It's very hard to get there. We'll dive into all these areas, the institutions, and the reasons for this lack of energy or ambitions to look beyond the status quo. But just this first answer already showed, so this quite always compelling energy, and this optimism in your approach. Can you explain that a little, your personal view on that? I mean, come from a background which is fairly institutional in some way.
Is that somehow connected to? Seeing the shortcomings or pathologies of institutions or wanting to break free. Or is it just a very personal view of how life could be lived, more fulfilled and enriched? Well, I guess it in my personal life. I've had half my career basically as an activist from the grassroots, upwards from about the age of 14. I used to organize marches and pickets and all of that sort of stuff. And I remained involved in community organizing and social entrepreneurship.
And so I'm trying to find solutions from the bottom up and I've spent the other half of my life working from the top down in in governments, around the world or the European Commission. I work with the UN now and to some extent nearly all change has to involve some alliance of the top down and the bottom up. The powerless and the powerful, I sometimes call them the bees and the trees, the bees, the people with the ideas, the trees, the big institutions with power and money. And I guess I get some optimism from having seen how often from both ends, and especially when they come together, you can transform things completely. I guess, the great lesson I've learned or relearned again and again is that we often overestimate how much can change short term.
Not many big things can change in a year or two or three years. But equally, most people underestimate how much can change over one, two or three decades, and in so many fields. I mean, I've seen far reaching transformation over the course for generation.
Much of my my PhD is in telecoms, so I've been involved in the digital world much of my life, which really has changed. How we, we, we sharpened, interact with friends and family and so on. Far more in many ways than people expected. So that's what gives me some, and obviously in bad ways as well as good ways. But that's what gives me some optimism that in a way, the fatalism. Now the sense that you can't fix these problems.
It's all too difficult. It's all going to disaster. I think it's unrealistic, and there's nothing worse than an unrealistic fatalism, 'cause it then undermines the energy. The capacity to do the practical changes, which of course won't solve climate change in 2022.
But actually over 20, 30 years. I think it's entirely plausible we will completely transform our economy and society. One of the institutions that you focus on in one of the papers that you wrote also for THE NEW INSTITUTE is the University and you make some very sweeping assumptions or claims about very long tradition, actually of sort of destroying the future in some way or murdering somehow the future that's in another paper. I think you use that drastic phrase murdering imagination, could you dive into these thought concepts that you find, I think inherently connected also in some way with the version of progress and modernity, starting with positivism and quantification and all that. So if it reaches much farther back, your criticism of of the lack of, I guess, ambition or imagination on parts of universities or in that specific paper, social science. Yeah, I mean, it's quite a complicated story and I'm mainly focused on Social Sciences because in some ways it's a very different story for engineering and and the other Sciences.
But in the Social Sciences, the fundamental question is if you are an academic and I am one now. How much of your job is to understand the present and the past and how much of your job is to try to design options for the future. Now in the 19th century, in the early days of Social Science, it was kind of assumed you did both. All the great you know thinkers try to understand the dynamics of change and of and of society and economy, but also to picture in a way the world might be heading an offer to be advocates, then of what should be done. You know to take one example, a sister institution in London, the London School of Economics was very much formed as a as a place for academics to work on designing future health systems, welfare states etc etc. Not just to write books and analyze what had gone wrong.
Now for a whole series of reasons over the last 50 or 60 years. In many ways the social science have become lopsided. They've become almost quite fearful of designing the future. It's almost career threatening to do too much of that, and as you said in your comments, some of this is about the in many ways quite welcome rise of attention to data to empirical analysis, to looking at the facts and not just purely speculative social science.
That's in many ways, being good is made for much more rigorous understanding of the present and the past, but it squeezed out creativity, for the future. There's also been, of course the disappointment with the grand ideological projects of the last century's. Which led a whole wave of intellectuals, to move into critique rather than creative construction.
And it's much safer place to be critiquing all this wrong with capitalism rather than trying to propose alternatives to it. And so we've had many, many forces converging. Now there are some Social Sciences who do work on design, but it tends to be very micro or very incremental, so there's for example, an interesting field of Mechanism Design on social problems, which is quite interesting, but it's it's tiny non systemic solutions. Rather than addressing the big structural and systemic issues of power and money and so on in the world. So I believe there is actually a need to recover a bit of that older tradition of social science, but align it to the best tools we have now.
Whether it's, you know, data and models and experiments and so on, and encourage the Social Sciences to consciously be creative and to do what I call Exploratory Social Science, which tries to do three things simultaneously. One is to really use the knowledge base, the evidence which has been gathered. To try to be logical and coherent, but also to be creative and learn methods from design and the arts and other fields which do creativity as a matter of course. Weirdly, a field like economics. As far as I can tell, and I've asked many people, has taken almost no methods from any other field, including from business in terms of its own creativity. So there's a real so intellectual, I don't know, narrow mindedness, lack of curiosity, lack of hunger in the Social Sciences.
At a time when, say, creativity methods are so widely used in everything from film and design products and services, it's a sort of, it's almost a remarkable lack of willingness to design the future, so my hope is we will see in universities centers of Exploratory Social Science which try to be as good at rigor as they aren't imagination. And a final point is one of the prompts for that paper was a weird paradox that I've again and again found the people with really deep knowledge of a topic. You know which could be forests or it could be you know how to run health services are often really scared of saying what they would like the world to be like in 20, 30, 40 years time. There are, on the other hand, there lots of people who do do sort of futurism and speculation, but they tend not to have the depth of knowledge that you need to have really useful insights into how those systems can work.
So we have this sort of paradoxical situation with the people with the deepest knowledge not doing their creativity, and vice versa and, hopefully, that can be solved. Hopefully, THE NEW INSTITUTE can be part of showing that you can be deep rigorous. You know in touch with all the disciplines like psychology, economics, sociology, have have learned but also creative at the same time. It is very surprising, as you say, that a failure of imagination or future thinking on, broadly speaking, I would say both the left and the right. And maybe we can linger a moment there. I mean,
as you say, so the left has critical theory as a tool. So if adopted as you also write in your paper as a reaction maybe to the failure of these grand narratives in some ways. So so that is not a very future oriented endeavour critique for the theory and the right, broadly speaking, is may be beholden to something that Mark Fisher that we also quote in one of your papers called capitalist realism. So living in a moment, destroying away counterintuitively any any notion of. Future or handing it over to the notion of growth, which is not future producing but something different can you, can you explore that dilemma and a bit.
Well, I think the politics of this is is is fascinating and quite complicated. So traditionally, of course the conservative right was sceptical of any designs for the future, because by definition would exist have been tried through history and therefore is thought to be superior to the, you know, the the scribblings of some intellectual, whereas the left was the opposite and you know, was believed in utopias and designs, and the idea that the future will be better than the past now for a time in a way they swapped places as you say. The left became disappointed with particularly really existing Marxism, turned to critique, and for a period, the right almost filled the left's place in the in the 80s and 90s. The times of Margaret Thatcher. Reagan, Gingrich in America. A lot of Conservatives became almost more utopian than the left.
You know, they pictured a future of everything run by markets often supported by technologies, which was also slightly crazed enthusiasm for the design of the future. Then in the last 20 years, they've essentially returned back to a much more traditional conservative positions, perhaps symbolized by, you know, Trump make America Great Again. I return to nostalgic pictures of race and community and manufacturing based economies, but the left is still in its rather sort of fearful state, and this leads to a very odd phenomenon in book publishing. Which is that if you read the books of either right or left actually or any of them which are purporting to be making recommendations on policy, they tend to be sort of 10 chapters of analysis, sometimes brilliant, and then one chapter at the end with a few proposals which tend to be banal, especially the ones from the left of the center left, there's a sort of fairly standard mix of things about their welfare and skills and so on but absolutely unimaginative, and I think this is a symptom.
Of both what I was talking about earlier that the university the academy has lost the methods for much more radical thinking ahead. And perhaps the political fear of being exposed by having genuinely novel, genuinely challenging ideas, and you're much more likely to make it as a public intellectual, reviving old ideas, then coming up with new ones. And I won't name names, but nearly all the people who have the most prominent in the last three or four years, for example, are essentially revivers of ideas from the 70s or the 50s, or the 20s, rather than anything. Anything new, which is pretty disappointing 'cause I think we need some really bold radical thinking in this century. If we're going to cope with climate change with AI, with the threats to democracy, you name it. And our intellectuals, I think are not serving us that well.
You have this wonderful quote in the paper that we live in the golden age of diagnosis, but in a dark age when it comes to imaginative prescription. So that is the age of conformity. As you also call it, and I guess that's what we're living in, and I think, as you pointed out, that ideally we at THE NEW INSTITUTE would be a place for really radical rethinking what would be the methods? You spell out some some areas. Maybe you can sort of dive into one or two of them. Experimentation, complexity, thinking. Design plays a huge role in your thinking futures field world making.
So can you explore some of the most for you fruitful? A promising pathways or tools to get that radical step further. Well, that there's some very simple methods you can use just to free up thinking, and that the ones which I've I've used for many years but I think are a good starting point. It's always quite simple ones which you can use for almost any phenomenon, and it could be imagining your local library or childcare or rural bus services. And then you go through a series of essentially so transformations to it.
So what would happen if you extend it? You know, one aspect of it. Radically in the way that, for example, we've extended ideas of rights in the last 50 years to cover everything from the biosphere and animals to transgender, etc. So extension is always a useful idea. What happens? You invert things. If you transform role so they they they they swap around in the way that they say, microcredit.
You know the farmers became bankers rather than the bankers or patients become doctors or students become learners, or grafting. Can you take an idea from a very different field? And try and apply it to your library or your child care your bus service anyway. There's a whole series of these which almost any group can can use pretty quickly to come up with other options.
Now that's just the starting point. You then, of course, this is where the deep knowledge comes in. Have to start thinking about building your world, your designs, and seeing how plausable they are. What might be an evolutionary root for them to, to spread and always once trying to find a balance between the willingness to leap ahead and jump beyond what is realistic now.
To what might be possible in 20 years time and not to fall prey to what I call unrealistic realism. And it's a striking thing that many academic disciplines are always very good at explaining why change won't happen, and then when it does come have no way of explaining why it did happen because they have their unrealistic realism. So avoiding that but also not avoiding sort of fantasy and illusion and, and designs or ideas which have absolutely no plausible prospect of ever happening.
And that's quite a difficult thing to do. But I would like to see there in universities cross disciplinary teams becoming good at creating these alternative worlds, interrogating them, seeing what you know, what their implications are, what their economic base might be, their legitimacy, and so on. And I think this is a crucial point, I think.
Every society needs some sense of where it might be headed in the future, in order to be healthy. Just as we do as individuals. You know, if you have no idea of anything better which might happen in your life in a years time, a nice holiday, a better job. I don't know.
Yeah, something great in your relationship is pretty hard to live well in the present, and I think this is the same is true of societies. Germany of course, has had you know, deep debates about how you come to terms with your past and really understand your past. In order to live better in the present, but I think there's an exact equivalent for the future that we need. some
shared pictures of where we could be headed 30, 50, 70 years into the future, which aren't only ecological disaster or sort of technological determinists triomphant That's the missing space in our I think our collective imaginaries, which we really need to address because the downside of not having it is that all sorts of other dark forces may fill that space instead. You start describing very practical aspects of how change could happen. And I think that's an interesting point that you make in in your paper, and you point to Hilary Cottam or Kate Raworth, among others. Sort of that for a lot of people who come up with transformative ideas and imaginative concepts of how to rethink. For example, economy in the case of Kate Raworth they come from a practical background. They've worked in different organizations, the UN or on the fields, and is that key and the process of creating alternative futures, practical understanding? Yeah, I guess many of the people I I most respect are the ones who have engaged in practice.
And often weirdly, there more optimistic. The ones who just still sit in an Ivory Tower observing because they will have experienced that change does happen and and it is possible. And one of the things I've become very interested in, which you mentioned earlier, is experimentalism. Which is really the idea instead of trying to come up with a perfect blueprint and then take over the state and then impose your blueprint on the whole of society, which perhaps was the Marxist dream 100 years ago. Instead, you try things out. You develop designs and concepts and possibilities and try them out and see through reality what works or what doesn't.
So the circular economy is, is a great example of that. It's an idea which has been around for several decades now. The idea of an economy, you know which is ideally zero waste and zero carbon and reuses things, and that's now being experimented in all over the world from Japan and Finland to China, where the Chinese Communist Party adopted it as a policy 15 years ago, and as a result, we've now got a much denser set of knowledge about what that might mean for plastics or glass or fashion or paper, and so on. Or take, you know, welfare reform.
Universal Basic Income has been again a fashionable idea for several decades. I was always fairly sceptical of it, but in the last few years many places have tried experimenting with it, and indeed in the last year because of the covid crisis, there have been sort of quasi experiments in UBI all over the world and a lot has been learned. And for me one of the really interesting messages of those experiments is that it doesn't seem to disincentivize work as some expected.
And as good, very strong effects on anxiety, just kind of obvious if you can feel confident you're not about to go into extreme hardship as a family, you're going to be happier, less anxious. And we know that anxiety has all sorts of physical and mental mental downside, so I've actually become rather more favorable to versions of UBI. But it's only through experiment that we find out. And so my, I've long believed that you know a good 21st century government is constantly trying things out, learning from them, improving them. Before putting them into legislation and national programs, and that is now, you know, widely accepted, at least in some parts of the world. But that's how you should do things and in many fields, practices ahead of theory is perhaps the other crucial point to make, so when that is the case, almost the role of the academic is to make sense of the practice, rather than perhaps in the 19th century model, believing that some philosophers sitting in a university will come up with a great idea, which then in a linear way goes out into society to be implemented.
I think in many fields exactly the opposite is the model we now need to understand where the innovators on the frontline in everything from software and data to things like welfare. Are often thinking in more productive, more profoundly radical ways than the theorists, and the theorists need to be a bit more humble and try and use their skills to make sense of, pull together, give coherence to what's happening on the ground, and someone like Kate Raworth. I would say you know what she's done really well is to weave together whole host of different streams of practice and turn them into a framework, very little, she wouldn't claim this very well little she's done is novel, but she's made sense of a huge range of radical practices, around the world. And that's a very, very useful thing to do. Partitions on the front lines that's something to remember.
And it's I think particularly interesting in these two fields that you find relevant or that will be, I guess, determining the 21st century, its digitalization and climate or or decompensation in in that matter. And then those are two areas. Obviously, as you say, in Technology practitioners are far, far ahead from any theory of any theory and at the same for climate change. There is basically just there's no theory for climate change, there's just just practice.
Or there is an attempt to rationalize or economically observe, model what could be done. But what's your optimism in these two fields in which you sort of clearly say these are the fields, where change does not only need to happen, but opens up and really new potentials for for alternative again or or better futures. Well, we're in a very paradoxical position at the moment. Just today the UK government committed to much faster decarbonation decarbonization plans that it had before, which is good and yet also right at the moment.
We're witnessing the most rapid increase in carbon emissions, possibly in human history, as the world bounces out of Covid, and so it's quite hard to make sense of how pessimistic or optimistic to be. 20 years ago I had to oversee the UK's first carbon reduction strategy out to 2050 when I was running the strategy units, I got very immersed in the details of, you know, different energy uses and transport and housing, and in fact we were much too modest and our ambitions then. A part of me therefore is quite glad to see how much this is part of the Zeitgeist now, but another part of me is almost horrified how much investment is still going into fossil fuels. One of the crucial missing bits, though I think is on this connection between the digital world and the climate change world.
So one relatively good thing is, at least in theory, the world of finance and investment has started taking these things much more seriously. Big investors like BlackRock, the Pope, the former governor of the Bank of England, is making this his mission to ensure that investment is much more attuned to carbon. The European Investment Bank is end all fossil fuel investment this year, at least they claim. On the other hand, the digital industry, which now dominates our economy, most of the most valuable companies in the world are digital like Apple and Amazon and Alibaba and so on.
There playing almost no role at all in in climate change and decarbonization, and one of the things I think we will need in the next 10 or 20 years in cities like London and Hamburg and Helsinki is really a radical reorganization of how we structure the data around carbon. The AI and algorithms around carbon as well as the behaviors of of home owners and drivers and businesses, and in a nutshell, I think we have to leap to creating public commons of data on carbon run and governed at a public level rather than proprietary ownership of these by electricity companies or say housing providers or transport companies. And we need a much more systematic organization than knowledge, needed to introduce heat pumps into homes or neighbors, energy systems and so on. And it's there's a weird divide at the moment between the digital world and the kind of ecological climate change world.
Well, they don't really talk to each other very much, and if you look at the strategies at a city level or national level, that is not joined up at all. And this, I think, is a soluble problem, but it's one we really need to get to work on pretty quickly, and perhaps if there isn't change, start shaming the companies like Facebook and Google and Amazon for just how little they are contributing now to the world's biggest challenge because many of the methods they use as a matter of course in their businesses are exactly what we need to achieve dramatically faster reduction of emissions in our homes and our industries. There's actually one of the most promising programs, I think here at THE NEW INSTITUTE, that you're also involved in. This exact that that's on the local level, city level, data driven sustainability effort.
I think that's very promising. The New Hanse program here at the Institute, and is that also somehow connected, sort of this thinking of how to implement change or how to form alliances around change to this term that I found so fascinating, this dialectical imagination. So if you said there is some flow with the with so you go with the grain or against the grain, or both, with the grain and against the grain, which would be the dialectical approach.
Can you unpack that? Yeah, so we're not looking back at the last 150 years. I guess that social imagination I was very struck in a way, you have three options of how you imagine - where option one you, as you say you go with the grain of the dominant technologies, the dominant power. So a good example of that now would be classic smart city ideas of the kind Google and others promote it just goes with the grain. It doesn't challenge them at all, you just have more data, more AI, more sensors, more of everything. The second option is the opposite.
You resist you try to promote perhaps you know just blocking them or crushing them, perhaps going back to the land back to a much more traditional ecological lifestyle. You see all of that as evil, and the dialectical the third option. It always in some ways goes with the grain while also challenging it. Now Marx did that definitely in the 19th century was some ways, you know, infused by the new technologies of industrial capitalism, but also wanted to completely transform them. I think much modern green thinking is dialectical in that sense to it wants to make the most of using technological innovation, but directed to renewable energy or or sort of new kinds of transport.
And that dialectical spirit, I think, needs to misinform everything we do to to see in the emergent tools of the world, as it is now extraordinary possibility, but not to take them for granted to challenge him, especially where they're creating new concentrations of power and new kinds of predatory power. Or of course, creating harms like ecological harms. And so that's why, yeah, I advocate this dialectical spirit as something we should run through everything we do with., and against the grain simultaneously. You mentioned what power, which is, I guess relative in every concept of change, but also how knowledge is formed in some way and you're professor for collective intelligence and you talk about the Hive mind.
I guess few decade or two ago you would have said with the wisdom of the crowd, that's something that's no longer so so fashionable 'cause the also the folly of the crowd has been rediscovered, which was never, I think, far from reality anyway. So so could you sort of explore that as you say, the importance of shared imagination. So to create new and shared realities? And how is that connected to your your work at the UCL. So that my interest in collective intelligence emerged about 15 years ago. I guess I come from a digital background and then was observing how the Internet was making it possible to organize huge numbers of people on projects of intelligence.
Citizen Science is a good example. You know, finding new stars or tracking what's happening in nature, making it possible to reorganize democracy so that through online platforms far more people could take part in proposing ideas, commenting, improving on them and so on. And within business companies like Lego or Siemens in Germany using what are called collective intelligence methods to involve their consumers or their workers in decision making in a way completely unlike you know centuries old hierarchical management.
So I think what's been interesting in the last few years. It's his whole field has become much more developed and much more sophisticated. It certainly doesn't believe that crowds are automatically wise.
Of course they're not. They can be utterly stupid or deluded, or crazed. It all depends on how you organize them and the detail of the structures.
But I think we are seeing, you know, a beginnings of a realization this is part of was any both practical but also political program for the future. The last year has been extraordinary in this respect. What happened globally in the global science system around Covid is a perfect expression of collective intelligence. 100,000 plus science papers written nearly all of them collaborations. These sophisticated networks of collaboration between on vaccines or on treatments, or on PPE or on social solutions, and I'm I'm involved in running, run one part of this. We're trying to help the world's mind be connected and organized in ways which were unthinkable a generation ago. In democracy
places like Taiwan or applying that to everyday decision making and again showing you can open up decision making to the expertise as well as the views and opinions of your people. And if you do that in the right way, you get the opposite effect to Twitter and Facebook. You don't get polarization, you don't empower the loudest. The most extrovert you get more thoughtful, more deliberation, more more high quality decision making. And in cities were beginning to see.
You know, fascinating use of collective intelligence methods by city leaders to help them solve problems. There's one of the Mayors of one of the biggest cities in Italy. I'm tomorrow helping you launch his reelection campaign around collective intelligence, and many others are realizing that's the greatest resource of any city is not just its buildings and its railways.
It's how you tap into the brain power of your million, five million, ten million people, and in the last few years we've been obsessed with the AI. In some ways for good reasons, and I've been pretty involved in artificial intelligence. But I hope as much effort in the next 10 years goes into the human sort of version of that which is human collective intelligence because most complex tasks we face.
Cannot be fixed on their own by algorithms. They will always, always, nearly always be some combination of large scale human intelligence and algorithmic intelligence. And I think for radicals this needs to be part of really a political story for the future that the future doesn't just lie in technocratic leaders making decisions for the people and expecting them to be grateful it has to be governance with the people all the time, tapping into their knowledge, their experience, their expertise. And in a very systematic way, looping that into how decisions are made rather than just every few years, once there's an election. And I think a lot of the smarter young politicians get this and realize just how radical an idea that it can be if you take it seriously.
No, it's fascinating. Fascinating potential. I think to reinvent all sorts of Democratic processes. What's the role of Art in all of that? I mean, you have another really interesting paper that says so if you need.
The combination, or the combination of science and art is necessary or leads to a change in how you see things, and that quote from Ursula Le Guin. The great Speculative Fiction writer. To get a Revolution, you first need, you need to be the revolution. It's in your spirit or it's nowhere, so I think that's the quote from her great novel, The Dispossessed can you? Can you, you also said, so if this word collaboration already? So your your paper about arts? Reimagining our societies is quite nuanced and open and complex and because you say it's not the God like position of the artist, but more how they, how they work and that maybe also it's related to this work work, collaboration continue.
Sort of unpack your ideas of your thinking about Art's role in changing or reimagining our societies. Yeah, well, I mean I I I love arts and I spend a lot of time with artists so. But I found myself troubled by a sort of odd question, so often artists talk about themselves as the Trail Blazers of Future Imagination, and they say we are the people who can see the future and can unlock the evils of the present. And part of me is sympathetic to that.
And then you look in detail and say, well, actually are they doing that? Where in the last 50 years has any artwork whether visual art or a novel or a film actually portrayed a desirable future society 20, 40, 60 years into the future? And it turns out they've been almost none. Ursula Le Guin's book The Dispossessed is one of the very last that did, back in the 60s and in the 70s there were few. But since then Art is almost vacated.
Again, vacated that space of positive imagination. There are a few exceptions, but they tend to be pretty small audiences, and it's been much better at describing dystopia's, ecological catastrophes again, or technology out of control. Then it has a serving sort of social thought. Now of course, arts can play a very powerful role in challenging and bearing witness and undermining you know what happened this last few months with the Robert E Lee statue in in Virginia is a great example of that and about many things around the Black Lives Matter movement have been great examples. Art with a social movement but is not aren't imagining something which doesn't exist into the future.
So in this paper I try and explore this in some detail and try to be a bit nuanced 'cause it is a complicated picture and I guess I end up by saying actually artist shouldn't pretend they are the prophets of the future. They shouldn't pretend as the poet Shelley did 200 years ago that they are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. That slightly pompous view of this sort of God like artist seeing into the future, I think is a bit anachronistic. What they can do is help us to see things in a very different way and and in the paper I go through lots of examples of this around ecology or data and artificial intelligence where amazing artists are helping us observe transform our perceptions and they can challenge and they can bear witness but is then for someone else to do the job of thinking through.
Okay, but what does that possibly mean for how we look after children or or how we organize our energy or how we? We organize our democracy. We shouldn't expect the artist to do that, and that's why I say they should try and be prophets at a tangent as soon as they become too prescriptive or too didactic, they become a bit banal or boring or very interesting or not very good either, as art or as social commentary. So I suspect my argument will annoy lots of people both in the arts, in another field.
But it's I just had so many times these slightly spurious claims about their role in future imagination. But I just wanted to dig a little bit and see if it was really as convincing as all that. But clearly your heart is in it, or I would be interested in where your heart is. I mean you, you mentioned the Romantics of the late 18th, early 19th century and there are, as you say, the world of energy and flux.
Is that where you are? Is that where you want to be? Well, in this paper I point out that one of the fantastic things art can do is almost through its methods, allow us to see a different kind of world. So the very best you know music of the last 150 years doesn't tell us how to design our health system, but it may show us new ways of combining dissonance and consonance, for example, or order and chaos, and seeing that allows us to imagine perhaps an equivalent in our society where there might be radically greater diversity and what appears at first glance, like chaos and disorder, but actually makes sense in a larger picture of orders. That sort of metaphor, metaphorical thinking, which only art can do actually, and which I think is really powerful and really useful.
And at the moment, the way in which art is exploring both the various or micro world, you know, getting into into cells or understanding of genes and the sort of macro world of the cosmos, they're gonna explodes our senses and allows us to see our own world in. Radically fresh ways, which then are the spark for social imagination. But they're not the social imagination itself, and so that's the sense in which I really would encourage everyone to immerse themselves in the leading edges of art. I I love seeing collaborations of artists working with people involved in social change, or activists and innovators and so on.
All I'm saying is that they shouldn't believe they can do things in those projects which they can't do. It is not their job too visualize probably the welfare state of Germany in 2070, and if they do will be boring, but their job is to help us see other human beings and technologies and our and our systems in fresh ways, which then break us free from the tyranny of the present, which makes us always see things as more fixed, less plastic than they really are. In that spirit. I think I'll just go out now and revolutionize what I can. It was a pleasure,
as always, to talk to you and can't wait for this pandemic to be over and get to work in Hamburg and other other places. And thank you so much. I think the atmosphere was already constructive in the quite physical way here, on the construction side, so I hope the quality was as good as the conversation. Thank you, Geoff. Let's get to work. Thank you.
Thank you again. Look like I think there's a famous quote by Brecht when he said all great works of art are never completed. So you will probably be on a uncompleted work site for the next few decades. I hope I hope so too. Thank you.