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Sustainable Futures

Why sustainability leaders need better imaginations

Sustainability leaders have a difficult balancing act to achieve: Act quickly and decisively, while at the same time advocate for an idea of what a more sustainable future might actually be like.

But because the sustainable future doesn’t yet exist, it is a product of the imagination. We spend a lot of time building the skills to act and implement, but do we spend enough time cultivating the imagination?

I think there are three ways in which having a powerful imagination is critical for sustainability leaders

Imagination as the route to perception

Firstly, a powerful imagination is the basis for knowledge and perception, and we need those to solve complex sustainability challenges. English poet Ted Hughes wrote that "the imagination, with its delicate wiring of perceptions, is our most valuable piece of practical equipment. It is the control panel for everything we think and do."

Using tools that stimulate the imagination helps us to understand better, to "diagnose," which is particularly important where problems are complex and multi-faceted.

A lack of empathy for and awareness of the needs of future generations have fostered the short-termism that threatens nature and human well-being today.

Hughes related how English novelist H.E. Bates would play a game of describing in rich detail the lives of passers-by, strangers he had never met before, improvising on the basis of their dress or mannerisms, only later to discover that he was often disconcertingly accurate. Our imaginations can help us to pick up on signals we otherwise might neglect. Complex, systemic challenges like those that sustainability leaders have to deal with cannot be properly understood through computer models or logical reasoning alone. Hunches and leaps of faith matter.

Imagination as the basis for empathy

Secondly, without a powerful imagination we cannot hope to empathize with others, and empathy is a crucial underpinning of any sustainable society. A lack of empathy for and awareness of the needs of future generations have fostered the short-termism that threatens nature and human well-being today.

A lack of empathy with people in other parts of the globe makes it possible to ignore the direct and indirect consequences of unsustainable behavior at home. And in a more mundane way, we know how important collaboration is for the future of sustainability; without the imaginative skills to empathize with others, how can sustainability leaders collaborate successfully? 

Imagination as the source of breakthrough ideas

Thirdly, we need our imaginations to help us escape the confines of the moment and come up with radically better ways of living and organizing. We are too often imprisoned by a sense of what is possible today, with today’s mindsets, rules and technologies.

If what we need to do seems out of our reach, we must first become people who can reach farther. And to reach farther, we must first dream better.

Futurist Alex Steffen wrote in The Long View earlier this year: "The things we need to do are huge, and accomplishing them often feels impossible. We then become tempted to hope that smaller aims may somehow achieve our goals. They won’t. If what we need to do seems out of our reach, we must first become people who can reach farther. And to reach farther, we must first dream better. This begins with acts of comprehension and imagination."

Future scenarios —  evidence-based stories of alternative futures — can be used to stimulate the imagination in this way. My own experience of using future scenarios is that people often go far beyond what is included in a scenario itself, and come up with ideas that they never normally would have come up with. Some of these ideas might seem crazy or impossible, but after discussion and reflection they are often judged to have great potential and be worth exploring in more depth. 

The imagination is undervalued

So if the imagination is so important, why don’t we spend more time cultivating it? It’s certainly possible to do so. Ted Hughes writes that "most teachers simply assume that the faculty is weak or strong by nature, and nothing can be done about it," but "this faculty, with which we comprehend the reality and global intricacy of the world, and the reality and global intricacy of what goes on inside our neighbor's head, can be trained."

Simply reading more, trying different and original things, exposing ourselves to new experiences, telling or writing stories, can help. Various management and facilitation tools also are available, such as Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. And there are the many techniques of futures practice, such as future scenarios, that can develop and engage people’s imaginations. We can build our imaginative faculties just as we can our time management or presentation skills.

I think the reason we don’t generally do this is that we chronically undervalue the role of the imagination, in business if not in society as a whole. Maybe the idea seems childish or a distraction when there are reports to write, people to meet, emails to answer and an ever-extending list of to-dos. But, to quote Alex Steffen again, "There’s nothing airy or vague about wilful imagination. Indeed, in a world partially paralyzed by cynicism and despair, optimistic imagination is a political act."

The imagination is a critical faculty for sustainability leaders, to understand the complex challenges of sustainability, empathize and build collaborations, and develop the ideas that can unlock radical change. So let’s bring a powerful imagination into the offical skillset of the sustainability leader. 

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