Imagine a country imagining its future together. It did!

Within a month of toppling its dictator, Tunisia’s 2011 Arab Spring revolution was bogged down with a struggling transition government and a countrywide general strike. An ad agency that identified with the revolution (and needed the country to get back to work in order to sell its clients’ products!) decided to get all of Tunisia vividly imagining a better future. They convinced six brands and five major Tunisian media to spend one day together carrying nothing but stories as if it were three years later and Tunisia had become a prosperous, modern, democratic country. By the evening of that day people all over the country were imagining and debating the destiny of Tunisia on Twitter, on a special website, and in streets, homes, and media across the land. Suddenly returning to work became a revolutionary act. This post explores the implications of that remarkable event for the rest of us, and for democracy itself.

“Possibilities are a whole area of mental activity which lies between truth and total fantasy. It is a very rich area because for any one truth there are many possibilities.” ~ Edward de Bono

Dear friends,

Over the last 15 years, my vision of a wise democracy has focused on better, wiser, more participatory ways to collectively solve society’s problems and issues.  This is the focus of the course – Introduction to the Possibility of a Wise Democracy – that I am currently developing with colleagues for release early in 2016.

But my vision has also included better, wiser, more participatory ways to resolve society’s conflicts, to satisfy people’s needs, to ignite and empower humanity’s aspirations, and to co-create collective narratives and futures.  This mailing focuses on that last capacity – collectively imagining our shared futures so that we can build them and live into them together.  I was excited to find that this has actually occurred in an entire country!

At this point I want to share a bit of relevant context from my early work.  Back in 1993 I developed a social (and also metaphysical) theory and activist strategy based on story – the Power of Story.  What I called “the story paradigm” includes the idea that we live in co-created (and often manipulated) narrative fields that shape everything we think and feel – including what we believe is real, right, and possible – and that as social change agents we can change those “story fields” with results that can impact everything else.  With that in mind, I also explored a narrative tactic I called imagineering – creating stories that inspire and enable readers or viewers to actually LIVE a version of a transformational story in their own individual or collective lives.  Peggy Holman and I even convened a conference on this subject in 2007.

These ideas overlap a lot with work developed over recent decades under professional rubrics like future studies, forecasting, scenario work, community visioning, backcasting, etc. – all referring to the envisioning and study of possible futures. This enterprise has so far been largely undertaken by corporate and government institutions. In popular culture it is represented mostly by science fiction.

Efforts to consciously apply the principles of futures work to social transformation are rare, but two vivid examples come to mind: The first is the Mont Fleur scenario project done in 1992 with a full spectrum of South African stakeholders (from Communists to racists) prior to the dismantling of apartheid – after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and before the country’s first open elections. You can read the whole amazing story in this report. A more current example is how many Transition Town initiatives seek to involve their whole community in visioning, backcasting, and planning (see Step 12) for a life-enhancing move away from dependence on fossil fuels.

Imagine what a democracy would be like if we creatively combined such “futures work” with dialogue and deliberation… with social media and online participatory forums and games… with journalism that stimulates engaged citizenship… with creatively nonviolent social activism… with powerful new systems of answerability… and especially with renewed understanding of life’s wholeness and interconnectedness.  Together, in various combinations, these elements offer abundant possibilities for more potent, wise and benign forms of democracy.

I find it both amazing and hopeful that many of these have actually been woven together – albeit in moments of crisis rather than institutionalized as an integrated ongoing activity.  The essays excerpted below – and the essays and videos linked to the second one – may open your eyes (as they opened mine!!) to some truly mind-blowing possibilities.  We watch a whole country tumble into re-visioning their future together.

I see this story as an inspiring companion to the deliberative exercise done by Canada’s Maclean’s magazine in 1991 – an effort chronicled in detail in a special page on the co-intelligence.org website.  Both these initiatives involved national multi-media engagement – one deliberative, one visioning, both provocative and empowering (albeit both falling short of their potential as democratic institutions!). Both were triggered by relatively few people using mainstream media in a creative way. (Interviews with some of the Maclean’s initiators are at the link above.)  Both initiatives embody a phenomenon Peggy Holman calls possibility journalism, in this case evoking possibilities from the diverse voices in a community or country and then mirroring those possibilities back to the whole community or country as a stimulant for further conversation and transformative action.

And through this process we learn that even the impossible is possible.

Blessings on the Journey.

Coheartedly,
Tom

PS: While this initiative and another described below hold out tremendous promise, the road forward is filled with struggle. The Tunisian revolution is still vulnerable, as news reports make clear. Interestingly, the 2015 Nobel Peace Price went to a “quartet” of four major organizations in Tunisia who pressured embattled politicians into a “national dialogue” to agree on a peaceful way forward together. But even that is unsteady. See Nobel peace prize: national dialogue brought Tunisia back from the brink and How a Leftist Labor Union Helped Force Tunisia’s Political Settlement.

I can’t help but feel that, ultimately, wise, empowered public engagement will be key – with strategic use (and institutionalization!) of great tools like those described here and like random selection, Dynamic Facilitation, Open Space, Future Search, citizen deliberative councils, World Cafe and all the rest of the remarkable pieces of the wise democratic puzzle we have available. Most of the innovations described here have limited effectiveness, I believe, because they are held as events rather than practiced as cultural traditions and empowered institutions. Collective intelligence and wisdom need to be iterative processes, not isolated one-time events.

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Here is the report on this initiative by those who initiated it – Memac Ogilvy Label Tunisia, an ad agency (a “brand collective”) who won an award for it.

Tunis, January 14th 2011. Tunisians put an end to 23 years of brutal dictatorship. It was a moment of intense hope. But we were all too soon brought back to reality. The entire country went on strike and economic activity was soon left to a standstill. The advertising industry, like many others, was completely stuck. Brands were quite willing to advertise in order to kick-start the economy, but they were afraid of public perception. We needed to find a way to encourage the people to get back to work and start rebuilding the country we had all fought for.

Tunisia’s post-revolutionary context needed political answers explaining the path to democracy and showing a clear roadmap towards free elections. But the transition government was unable to provide such guidelines and kept warning population on the many risks threatening the country, especially its economy. Therefore, not only couldn’t they offer a projection of their political future to the people, but at the contrary the key messages that government sent to the public were all negative ones. The outcome was that people couldn’t project themselves anymore and future had become uncertain. The campaign allowed people to look ahead and recover hope.

So we decided to show everyone how bright our future could be if we all started building it now. We convinced 6 brands and 5 major Tunisian media of which 1 radio, 1TV, 2 newspapers and 1 online magazine to participate in the June 16th 2014 campaign. During a whole day, the media acted as if it were June 16th 2014 and presented Tunisia as a prosperous, modern and democratic country. To further engage people, we launched a hashtag on Twitter and 16juin2014.com, a website with all the content and where people could share their own vision of the future.

The media content spread to social media via 16juin2014.com and people began to imagine wonderful futures and called everyone for action. #16juin2014 hashtag was number 1 top trend topic on Twitter all day long. At 6pm, the debate was everywhere on TV, radios, blogs… Getting back to work quickly became an act of resistance. The operation was covered by most Tunisian media and several international networks. As getting on with life had become a political act, people progressively got back to work the next day and the 6 brands recommenced traditional marketing. Others soon followed.

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Note:  Memac Ogilvy Label Tunisia has produced other socially conscious campaigns.  Their “Return of Dictator Ben Ali” campaign for “Engagement Citoyen” won a Grand Prix at the 2012 Clio Awards in New York as well as twelve Gold Awards across multiple categories at the March 2012 Dubai Lynx Awards. As a campaign to re-activate people’s political engagement with a strong and effective reminder that their vote counted, it generated an unexpected rise of voter registrations, replacing indifference toward voting with personal commitment – resulting in 88% voting turnout, far higher than the expected 55%.  Under Ben Ali’s dictatorship, censorship was suffocating Tunisian creativity. Memac Ogilvy Label Tunisia’s campaign associated the name and image of Ben Ali with the re-birth of creativity in the country.  Ref
http://www.memacogilvy.com/news/memac-ogilvy-label-tunisia-awarded-first-grand-prix-in-mena-region-at-the-2012-clio-awards-in-new-york/

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The following essay explores the more general social and political implications of what happened in Tunisia, written by a leading-edge visionary of the role and technologies of collective imagination.

Excerpt from

Dreaming Together

by Stuart Candy

Sunday, November 22, 2015

…. There’s no physical limitation preventing us from [imagining and thinking about] wildly different and yet fully coherent life-settings in detail…. For “serious” purposes – governance, politics, and the “real” worlds we shape using those processes – we simply have not developed a habit of imagining and sharing the long-range scenarios at issue in any concrete way. Meanwhile the massive failure to understand our power as a species and to exercise it with anything approaching strategic foresight, let alone wisdom, is producing epically hairy environmental, economic and other consequences that are increasingly plain to see….

When it comes to the process of public choice – the way humanity supposedly shapes its destiny in our ostensibly most “developed” communities – we congratulate ourselves on the accomplishment of democracy, and fret endlessly over its procedures; the whos and hows of voting; the rituals of deliberation (the weighing of alternatives) and decision (the killing of alternatives when we make a choice). But regardless of who votes, what is the real meaning of any such choices if the alternatives among which we are selecting are underimagined, or clichéd – or simply absent?

Whatever their personal shortcomings, I locate the problem not with political candidates but in the scandalously uninspired fodder used to generate public conversation. So where might we look for a solution?

My friend Natalie Jeremijenko, an engineer and artist, has described her work as being about the creation of ‘structures of participation’, a phrase I use often because to me it captures what good futures work does, too. Foresight practice involves creating structures of participation for co-imagining. Likewise, the task of governance is bound up with the design and use of structures of participation for collectively shaping the common good. To my mind, those appear in quite diverse forms and at different scales, ranging from the design of a meeting or conference, to the design of a political/legal system like the United States of America, and also to the design of a political and experiential futures intervention like the one I’m about to describe.

With foresight and design colleagues I have been doing experiential futures since 02006 [sic], and its roots and influences go back much further. Of all interventions that I know of in this vein, the most exciting to date is one I heard about shortly after it occurred during the Arab Spring. It is a significant illustration of the faculty of public imagination.

In January 02011 Tunisia ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ending a 23-year dictatorship. Immediately the economy started tanking – the revolutionaries hadn’t known they would succeed, and didn’t have detailed plans for next steps. With a backdrop of economic suspension and a political vacuum, what followed might have been as bad as what had gone before. What did in fact happen next was rather extraordinary.

A month after the revolution, for one day in February 02011, several newspapers, television and radio stations across the country reported as if it were June 16, 02014; three years and four months into the future. They reported stories from within a hypothetical future Tunisia enjoying newfound stability, democracy and prosperity.

Social media activity swarmed around the #16juin2014 hashtag (and for the first time led the national conversation to trend at number one on French Twitter), and critically, the mood and situation began to change as people imagined and debated the destiny of their country. The intervention also helped spread the call for Tunisians to get back to work, a key step towards recovery in the wake of the upheaval.

[Note from Tom: At this point in your reading, I strongly suggest you take 4 minutes to view this inspiring video about how all this unfolded…]

This remarkable story should prompt many questions, but the one we’re most interested in here is: how might a sustained commitment to structures of participation for public imagination work in other contexts at scale?

For instance, what if standard political brand-oriented advertising expenditure were curbed, and candidates instead had to produce feature documentaries not about, but “from” the future that their policies envision?

Most places have a library or museum dedicated to preserving their past; how about a public building dedicated to immersing visitors in an ever-evolving array of experiences of what the community could become one generation from today?

Or why couldn’t we set aside a public holiday each year, dedicated to staging a Festival of Possible Worlds in the streets, parks and piazzas of great cities around the globe?….

The history we collectively choose to live out in years and decades to come will depend on how well we cultivate public imagination, through experiential futures, large-scale participatory simulations, transmedia games, and the like.

I believe we can dream together, now. And I suspect that to the extent we rise to the challenge of good governance for the 21st century, that’s exactly what we will be doing on a regular basis.

[If you are at all interested in this topic, I highly recommend these related blog posts by the same author. I’m still adventuring into his work, which I’ve newly stumbled on. – Tom]
The Futures of Everyday Life
An experiential scenario for post-revolution Tunisia
A History of Experiential Futures 02006-02031
Whose future is this?
The technology of public imagination

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