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The Capacity to Imagine Differently

by Rick Smyre

December 5,2006

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."  - Buckminster Fuller


When my four year-old grandson, Caleb, comes to our house, he is always creating an imaginary world that turns blankets and pillows into the newest house, or transforms paper towels into the latest racetrack. I often marvel at his capacity to create within the context of a four year old. Caleb makes connections that continue to amaze me.

As I watched Caleb recently, I thought how important it will be for his generation to learn not only how to imagine within the context of existing knowledge, but also how to identify and work with totally new knowledge. In the early 20th century, electricity was just beginning to impact the general public in larger cities. Flight was conceived in 1903, but until jet planes arrived, the nature of our society stayed the same. The importance of the discovery of the DNA double helix in 1952 emerged slowly until the human genome was identified. In every decade of the 20th century a major new discovery occurred that changed the society thirty years later. One difference today….back then we had time to adjust to change that transformed our lives.

That is no longer the case. New knowledge has never emerged at such a fast pace. Think of the change that our society has had to absorb in the last fifteen years. In 1991, Tim Berners-Lee conceived the idea of HTML which established the graphical interface of the Internet now known as the Web. In 1993 in New York, a World Center Trade Tower was bombed. That same year Samuel Huntington introduced an idea in Foreign Affairs that we were entering a period of history in which a Clash of Civilizations would dominate our foreign policy. Eight years later Islamic fundamentalist terrorists burst upon our TV screens as the symbols of western financial might came crushing down on innocent people. In 1994, outsourcing was a new word. In 2006, outsourcing is already old news…the new challenge, as yet unknown to the public, is “crowd sourcing.”

Change is now coming as if it were fired by a machine gun. The half-life of a new idea is measured in months and years, not decades. As a result local leaders and citizens will need the capacity to imagine the future within a changing context.

Consider how the following new data, ideas and discoveries might impact our region: 1) Transumers – consumers driven by experiences and not products; 2) early reports of “emigration” to other countries, 3) The recently developed Connectivity Map at MIT helping researchers use computers to find unanticipated possibilities among drugs and diseases, 4) The Smart Sponge Plus filtration system placed in storm drains to catch the pollutants and kill bacteria before they end up in rivers and lakes.

These are four new ideas introduced in 2006. Although having no apparent connections, new linkages will appear if we learn to “imagine” differently. By continuously shifting our context of knowledge and understanding from the past to the future, we will be able to do more than rearrange obsolete ideas and actions. We will be able to create new opportunities and ideas for our region.

In Gaston County, we have a group we call the Second Enlightenment Club that meets once a month. Its members share information about future trends and weak signals. Only recently have we identified the importance of building capacities in Gaston County citizens to “imagine” differently.”

We think the capacity to imagine can be developed in the culture by building small interacting networks of people interested in sharing information about creative ideas, innovations and discoveries appropriate to a constantly changing society. A gala event would be held once a year to recognize and reward the most innovative ideas.

Thomas Jefferson once predicted that the success of our future democracy would be based on the ability to insure an educated citizenry within the context of its times. If Jefferson appeared today, he probably would tell us we are trying to imagine the future using obsolete concepts and methods. ”We had to develop the capacity to imagine the future differently…..why shouldn’t you?”

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