Futures Friday: Understanding Change Part 1

Turn and Face the Strange

“Future Idea Strange Houston” — created by AI Night Cafe

How does change begin? What instigates it? Is change simply a response to the world around us? How are we active agents of change? What does it even mean to be an active agent of change?

As members of the human species, we have the ability to actively and knowingly create change. The results of our efforts for change most often have unforeseen consequences (oops moments), but we do have the ability to consciously make decisions and to take actions that alter our environment and systems. This ability to use our minds to affect outcomes starts with one seemingly simple activity, thinking.

What If

This phrase is can be followed by a range of outcomes, from a bout of inspiration to a desperate grasping of straws. In one situation, there is “needs thinking”, a need to find a solution to a problem — a trial and error form of ideation. On the other side of the idea spectrum is “dream thinking”, a spark of imagination, something that flows almost naturally as if provided by a divine muse. And in some cases, you get a little bit of both happening at the same time. Those are usually the gems that have the greatest impact.

Scale of “What if” thinking and change

The Power of Imagination

It is a powerful question, “what if?” It allows us to open our minds to new ideas and think outside that proverbial box. If we are problem solvers, we may ask this question as a tactic, as a means of getting past an immediate hurdle. Take an example of a critical situation where someone is trapped under a collapsed building beam. A group of bystanders trying to rescue the person may look around and say “what if we use that metal pipe and leverage it on that block to lift this beam?” Thinking through a situation for a solution often requires this type of ideation. By doing so, we can imagine through the scenario and change the outcome.

If we are daydreamers we probably ask this question all the time, but from a different perspective. It is often the way a five-year old will think, and it is how daydreamers respond to the wonders that surround us. It allows us to take the seemingly mundane and give it new life, to add color to a faded idea. It is the opposite of needs thinking. It is not tactical, there is no immediate problem to be solved. Ponderers with their “head in the clouds” may not seem grounded to facts and reality, but this form of imagination is an important part of critical thinking. It allows us to create a mental sandbox, where our ideas can be formed and played with like sandcastles.

Both forms of thinking allow us to be agents of the future. When we think in what ifs, the phrase “I don’t know” disappears from our lexicon. We forget there is a concept of the unknowable. Every problem becomes solvable and every idea has merit at its conception. Socializing and experimenting with the idea may quickly reveal a dead end or broken logic, but then a new idea is born, much like waves crashing on the beach.

Necessity as the Mother of Invention

In needs based imagination, we start with the problem which brings with it various constraints. Resource availability, time to solve, active opposing forces… all of these constraints have to be assessed in real-time when problem solving. The sole purpose to thinking in this way is to find a solution.

Needs thinking can be stressful and brings with it a high level of analysis and scrutiny. In needs thinking, we often place imagination constraints on ourselves in addition to the external constraints of the problem at hand. We start from within our comfort and try to stick with what we know. We quickly see if any simple combination of known solutions are viable. When we exhaust those possibilities, we start to ask more and more imaginative questions, each being tested. These ideas are iterative and come like waves breaking on the shore.

In the situation above with the person trapped under a building beam, the bystanders may start with a line of thinking and analysis similar to the following:

  1. Are there any rescue workers around?
  2. What if we use that steel pipe and try to move the beam?
  3. What if we tie a rope around the beam and the other end to that truck and pull?
  4. What if we steal that construction crane over there and lift the beam out?

These questions start to get more imaginative as we exhaust the known solutions, but they are all grounded in the resources available in the current situation. No one is going to say, “what if we used an ‘accio beam’ summoning charm?” or “what if we go to school and get training as a first responder?”

As these ideas get more creative, they start to look a little… strange. Seeing a person trapped under a beam is something we could imagine we might see in an earthquake. Seeing a group of bystanders hot-wire a construction crane and to rescue someone, well, that is not something that our minds would expect to experience. It approaches the realm of odd and strange. Yet, is is in those moments of strangeness that we find innovation and seeds of change.

Daydream Believer

While needs thinking may be partially grounded and constrained by resources available, dream thinking has no constraints except our own imagination. It is how we create stories like Harry Potter in the first place, “What if a boy one day found out he had magical powers and was at the center of a wizarding war of good and evil?” Even these fantastical ideas have the ability to inspire and change the way we see the world.

As powerful as the impossible world of dreams is, there is also within this way of thinking a method to bring the ideas to a plausible outcome. As we ponder in this fashion, we begin to change the question from “what if” to “I wonder if”, allowing our minds the freedom to speculate and flow. If ideas from “what if” are like waves, then the thoughts from “wonder if” are more like currents in a stream. The ideas meander in very unexpected directions, and on that rare occasion of ingenuity, find the shore and become something plausible and achievable. The journey down the stream of imagination is very strange, even unrecognizable at times. And it is treacherous. An idea may be lost, not because of implausibility, but because of an inability to express the thought in a way that is tangible. It can also be lost by fear.

Fear is the Mind Killer

Fear is the killer of dreams. It places unneeded constraints on the conception of ideas, it is the birth control of the imagination. How many great ideas have been tossed aside before having a change to grow? How many imaginators have been stifled or even abandoned dreaming? We fear rejection or ridicule of others for our ideas, and in some cases we may fear our actual lives and safety. This is especially true in dream thinking.

We often have a negative reaction to the strange. We like to work within our comfort zones. The known, even when it is bad, is often preferable to the unknown. So it is natural to fear the strange and to bottle it up or reject it outright. Perhaps this is why having your “head in the clouds” is often seen as a negative quality, one to be corrected.

Turn and Face the Strange

The only limit to our imagination is us. It is not easy to expose our strange with the fear of rejection. However, great ideas, inspiration, and muse often come from very strange places and take on even stranger forms.

David Bowie said it best — or at least sung it best.

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re goin’ through

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-changes
Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it

Change is happening whether we like it or not. In order to embrace change, we have to embrace the strange. We have to allow that five-year old inside all of us to ask “What if…”

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JT Mudge

JT Mudge

I am an innovator, storyteller, futurist, and problem solver. I have a passion for sustainability and social justice. https://www.linkedin.com/in/jtmudge/