Think of the last time you visited a museum. What kind of experience was it for you? Did it lead you to interrogate ideas we hold of the past, present, or future, or push you to imagine new ideas altogether? As is the case with many social institutions, the purpose of museums is now up for debate, as evidenced by ongoing proposals from the International Council of Museums to update the official definition of a museum. (The current definition “is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”) However, I hope we can all agree that museum exhibits, whether they center on a painter’s artwork or an historical era, try to tell the public a story—and museum exhibits about the future are no different.

The Great Imagination. Histories of the Future is a free futures exhibit currently on display at the Espacio Fundación Telefónica museum in Madrid, Spain until April 17, 2022, and I had the great privilege of Zooming with three brilliant futurist minds who had roles in crafting the pieces to tell the story behind the exhibit. These minds belonged to the curator Dr. Jorge Camacho, lecturer at CENTRO in Mexico City and IFTF Research Affiliate, as well as IFTF Research Fellow Jacques Barcia and IFTF Research Director Dr. Jake Dungan who together created one of the alternative futures scenarios in the exhibit. The latter two are also IFTF faculty who designed and currently teach IFTF Design Futures, which teaches foresight practitioners how to make the future come alive in the present through artifacts and experiences. Since they all have roles at IFTF, I’m lucky enough to call them colleagues and had convenient access to write the following piece.

What’s the Story? History is a Feedback Loop

Visitors to the exhibit can expect to be taken on a journey through 250 years of humans envisioning the future. Through architecture, literature, comics, film, and other artifacts, one can explore the history of futures imagination, see how it’s evolved, and reflect on the feedback loop that moves history forward, meaning that how we imagine the future impacts future circumstances socially, politically technologically, etc., which in turn influences how we continue to imagine other possible futures. Or as writer Rebecca Solnit puts it, “The future is determined in part by the stories we tell in the present.”

The Great Imagination. Histories of the Future exhibit in Madrid, Spain shows 250 years' worth of objects, books, films, and more to show how peoples' futures imaginations have evolved, and accelerated during the world's period of rapid social progression. (Image provided by Jorge Camacho.)

“What Comes Next?”

The Great Imagination has an unconventional approach. A big part of the exhibit, Camacho reveals, is the sense of urgency it tries to communicate, especially around climate change and the Anthropocene, which some dub the current geological era in which humans are the dominant force impacting Earth. Camacho explains that the exhibit’s name is a nod to “The Great Acceleration,” which is the historical period beginning in the 18th century when the world experienced a huge explosion in growth and related social changes. Interestingly, this period also coincides with an explosion in futures imagination. (According to Paul Alkon in his book Origins of Futuristic Fiction, the first futuristic novels appear in the second half of the 18th century, and one such novel, The Year 2440, a French book published in 1771 by Louis-Sébastien Mercier, is an artifact in the museum exhibit.) The exhibit’s underlying probing question to its viewers, as the curator Camacho posits, is “After these two and a half centuries of acceleration and imagination, what comes next?” Or put a different way by the exhibit’s brochure, “In a century beset by multiple crises whose future may be crucial for the history of our planet, is it still valid to speculate about idealised futures such as those imagined in the past?” How can we change the way we’ve been imagining and, consequently, impacting the future? Considering the deeply entrenched problems we have today—a capitalist system, which many of our ancestors idealized, supported by patriarchy, racism, inequality, and environmental degradation—one could argue we need to improve how we imagine the future.

One Path Forward: Regenerative Growth

Espacio Fundación Telefónica is located in the vibrant downtown of Madrid where there’s lots of foot traffic. The Great Imagination exhibit has been a remarkably unique opportunity in how public-facing and prominent it is at such a popular site of a major non-futures thinking city. While many other museums are doing futures work, they’ve mostly been private, corporate exhibits in locations that are already futures focused (i.e. Dubai); and, as Barcia and Dungan point out, they also tend to be cliché and naïvely positive. Barcia and Dunagan, on the other hand, set out to help convey a vision of growth that was optimistic and hopeful while also grounded in realism and the urgency underlying the entire exhibit. Working from Jim Dator’s well-established Alternative Futures framework, which depicts the four archetype scenarios of Growth, Constraint, Collapse, and Transformation, and the guidance of Carlota Pérez, Honorary Professor at the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, the team created a Growth scenario (different designers and scholars created the other three scenarios) taking place in 2050 that shows a better future but which doesn’t materialize out of thin air. In order for that brighter future to come true, people must develop new behaviors, types of governance, businesses, and social contracts.

Keeping in mind the exhibit’s location and audience, Barcia, Dunagan, and Pérez wanted to design a Growth scenario scene that would attract the general public to imagine radical futures, so they used one of the most popular mediums in that part of the world—soccer (aka football). At the scenario’s center is a beloved soccer team who is the shining hero, and their progress serves as an analogy to the progress of humankind. The team members, wearing the colors of green and gold, are workers in carbon sequestration factories who, propelled forward in the league by their fanbase, rise through the ranks to eventually win the championship cup. The soccer championship, called the “Regeneration Cup,” is also an event to celebrate how the world stopped global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But as mentioned, this isn’t a naively positive story. If society wants to be prosperous and “win,” there must be sacrifices. Worked into the futures scenario is the idea that in order to ensure people live sustainably, they’ll have to give up some personal freedom as algorithms and AI will dictate countless aspects of the fictional society (for instance, the team’s coach is an AI that coordinates strategy in addition to where spectators sit in the stadium, what they cheer and when).

To provoke the public to reconsider growth in our society, Jacques Barcia and Jake Dunagan designed an alternative futures scenario centered around a soccer team and its AI coach. (Image provided by Jorge Camacho.)

“We managed to portray a future that is plausible, it's compelling and provocative, and in spite of its dilemmas, it's a very desirable one,” says Barica. “I think one of the things that we wanted to do was to portray an image of the future that people wanted to live in. But on top of that, we wanted to say, ‘Okay, you want to live in this future? There are certain things that you might want consider.’”

One such thing is that growth as we’ve been doing it shouldn’t be the default scenario. Camacho states “the image of growth, which to some extent, could be tied to the image of progress, has been, and is very often considered to be, the official image of the future. And I have the feeling that that role of the Growth futures is starting to dwindle.”

How Futures Thinking is Shifting

Thinking freely about the future is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. As mentioned earlier, the explosion in futures imagination arrived not long after humankind demonstrated its capacity to orchestrate rapid change. Prior to the Great Acceleration, humans believed our futures were preordained by a divine being or that our lives inevitably moved in unbreakable cycles, just like the seasons. As the exhibit’s curator, Camacho wanted to interrogate the concept of “Homo prospectus,” originating from psychologist Martin Seligman, who argues that humans’ defining characteristic is our foresight and power of prospection. “It's interesting that when you look back, it's actually hard to find examples of people imagining the future in the way that we do it now,” says Camacho. Dunagan agrees that compared to the past, we have more space for freedom and creativity when thinking about our futures, which comes from our societal progress and moving in “the direction of our own making.”

Behind the historical images and objects about the future is an urgent message. If we want to live better futures, it needs to start in our imagination. (Image provided by Jorge Camacho.)

If thinking about the future has shifted from prophecy to agency, how will the way we imagine the future continue to shift? Barcia believes that we're experiencing a shift in even longer-term futures so that we take greater responsibility in being better ancestors for future generations. Camacho wants to think that the Homo prospectus is widening its imagination to encompass greater possibilities. He thinks people will start to realize what’s already widespread in futures thinking circles. “This idea that the future doesn't exist, that there is a space of possibilities that we can imagine different futures and act in the present based on those different futures. I don't think that attitude, that conception of future and history and the existential attitude that comes with it, has permeated in a culturally-wide way. I don't think that people out there, who are not involved with futures thinking, yet consider this idea of seeing the future as an open space of possibilities, with many good things and many bad things. I think most people still fall into very optimistic or very pessimistic, but just one future.”

Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel stated “World history is the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” Maybe, rather, world history is the progress of our imagination. Hopefully, more public forums like The Great Imagination museum exhibit or the Smithsonian exhibit, Futures, where we can discuss, debate, and interrogate the future will help us imagine better possible futures for all.