Many years ago, I read a mind-expanding book called The Art of the Long View, by Peter Schwartz, an American futurist. It’s a book about telling stories – about the future, or as many futures as you can imagine. Written as a tool for strategic planners using the techniques of scenario planning, it also makes a persuasive case for us to make use of our imaginations, to create stories about our possible futures, as a way of creating new and better directions for ourselves. Yet most of us are not using our best imagination. This is hard to do. It takes discipline, creativity, diversity of perspectives and space to do well. And understandably, we are focused on the now, which feels both uncertain and urgent. Our imaginations are rusty or pessimistic.
We do hope for a “better” future in the post-pandemic world. But hope without imagination may not be realized. A better future is, for most people, a linear extrapolation of now, with less inequality, more inclusion, more evenly distributed growth, a more functional democracy, greater pluralism and social harmony. In other words, the present, but much better. What if we take some time to imagine the long view? What will the world look like ten or twenty years, a generation from now? It most likely will be very different. What are the radical changes we might imagine to: care for the elderly, health care and biogenetics, forms of media, ways of working, patterns of investment, sources of energy and types of housing or transportation? How will philanthropy itself change? Can philanthropy help its partners to anticipate some of the inevitable disruptions and to build strategies for resilience in coping with that disruption?
In my last blog, I referred to Geoff Mulgan’s powerful call for us to deploy our “collective social imaginations”. Mulgan expanded on this in a provocative longer essay, The Imaginary Crisis (and how we might quicken social and public imagination). In this essay, he argues that there is a malaise across the world today, linked to a sense of lost agency and a deepening fear of the future as we contemplate climate emergency, economic disruption, conflict over resources and human migration. We are more pessimistic than optimistic about our shared future. Yet, as Mulgan says, the scale of the challenges we face means that “we need a very major and rapid boost in our capacity to imagine and to design better social arrangements”.
So how do we do this? Mulgan cites past methods to “expand the space of the possible” and to create a sense of direction for social change: imagining fictional utopias, prefiguring spaces and ideas through model towns and communes, and political manifestos and movements, exhibiting the future (think of Expo ’67), even video games and science fiction. The best of these attempts to imagine society in fresh ways, says Mulgan, “grappled with the biggest consistent challenge of human history – how to organise cooperation at larger scale while sustaining some degree of freedom and fairness.” Looking ahead, Mulgan provides an excellent summary of methods that one could use to avoid “being trapped by the present” and to “think thoughts that don’t yet exist.”
How can philanthropy play a role in the aspirational project of quickening social imagination? We have some examples from philanthropy networks in Europe. In 2018, the Association of German Foundations launched their Next Philanthropy project as a global collaboration among philanthropy-supporting networks. The aim of the project was to provide an opportunity for thinking ahead. It was launched as a way to share data, trends, analysis and reflections about how the philanthropic landscape is changing, and how the sector can best keep up with and respond to these changes.
DAFNE (Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe) opened a European chapter of the Next Philanthropy project to explore questions such as: What society do we want to see in the future, and what role can philanthropy play? How can we connect with other sectors and learn from each other? What is disruption and who are the disruptors? How can we leverage evidence-based dialogue? How can we translate discourse into action?
At a meeting in London in February 2020 just before the pandemic forced us to lock down, a panel from the Next Philanthropy project reflected on what it was learning. The project’s first few hypotheses about the future of philanthropy had been hopeful: Philanthropy will be more global, more transparent, more participatory, more collaborative, more digital, and more entrepreneurial; and there will be larger investment. But these are hopes only, as the panel recognized. The question is how to use our social imagination to map back from these hopes to stimulate positive directions for change in the present.
It is not especially encouraging. The sector of philanthropic foundations (both in Europe and in North America) has lagged behind social trends towards transparency and accountability, diversity and inclusion, digitization and knowledge-sharing. But there are signs that would not have been so evident in London in February 2020. Many foundations have responded to the crisis of the pandemic as well as to the surging movements against racism, sexism and colonialism by transforming granting practices, reaching out to community partners, and beginning the conversation about greater diversity and inclusion in their governance. But these responses should be a trigger or catalyst for deeper reflection on the kind of society we want and what philanthropy can do to move in that direction. As Geoff Mulgan says, “we need to start planning for the peace. What new methods can be adapted from the crisis, particularly to slower burn crises like climate change? What new ways of thinking has it thrown up?” We need to start by asking more questions, and using some of the tools that Schwartz, Mulgan and others offer us to open our imaginations, taking the long view. It’s more urgent than ever.