McGuinness: I have gone beyond my headlines and reading news that described world events as epidemics and extreme weather as “unimaginable.” In recent years, there have been many tragic political events in our United States, and there have been extremism and new kinds of protests and social movements, and the term is being seen. It was annoying because we predicted so much of it for so long. It wasn’t that they were “unimaginable” or “unthinkable”, we didn’t want to think about them because it’s stressful and it makes us feel anxious. Or, we did not have the tools or information to visualize clearly what it would be like to live through an epidemic or how social media could encourage extremism. I wanted to write a book so that people could see with confidence that no future is unimaginable because we refuse to think about it, or no future is unimaginable because we do not believe that transformational change is possible.
The book’s driving concept is one Urgent optimism. What is urgent optimism and why should we strive for it?
McGonagall: Emergency optimism means we must act and not sit around waiting for the future to happen. We Willpower Take steps to shape how the future will turn out. Optimism comes from a sense of agency or self-efficacy where the future is shaped by the steps we take to change the way we prepare, plan and operate the world today. We need to ignite the fire of hope and creativity to be involved in the future. We need to realize that the future can be better because of our own actions. At the end of the day, urgent optimism allows mental flexibility to internalize a realistic sense of hope that is based on awareness of risks and threats, but also involves new technologies, solutions and movements that will make things better.
What are some accessible futuristic strategies that could translate well into a school or other youth-oriented environment?
McGonagall: We have a simple habit of collecting and sharing what we call signals of change. Anyone can collect signals, and they will definitely work for teachers who want to bring future-thinking into their classroom. A sign of change could be a news story, an amazing social media post, or something from the world around you. It’s something you’ve never seen before that introduces a new way of doing things or a new way of being in reality. You can take a picture of it or take notes about it. This is not a conjecture or a myth: it is a real change happening somewhere.
Every industry has a medium, and the signal of change is the raw material of the futurist. Writers use words, computer programmers use code, musicians use musical notes, and artists use color or clay. We form ideas about the future from these change signals. Examples might include a “No Drone Zone” sign in a park, a pay-what-you-can restaurant in Berkeley with no price on the menu, or a story about the new virtual real estate market unfolding in Metaverse. These concrete examples force you to stop at your tracks and say, “Wow! I guess things could be different.” These are signs of change for me.
Schools and teachers can create a culture of signal detection, signal sharing, feedback and reflection. Students can discuss whether the signal makes them more optimistic or more anxious. Does it make them feel strong? Interested in knowing how they got involved? Where will it lead? You can even host a signal scavenger hunt.
Every subject benefits from future-thinking, and it makes learning more relevant because it is about the things that are happening in the world that are great, interesting, strange and amazing. My background is gaming, so I always look for opportunities to create positive emotions that we get easily from games, but maybe not from our daily lives. Surprise, joy, curiosity inspired by the sign of change is a great way to bring those positive emotions into the classroom.
What are some exciting futures for schools that emerge from your work?
McGunnigal: One of the biggest ideas for driving change at school that I was excited to see. The big challenge. Instead of a traditional subject or a major announcement at the university, students can take on a challenge to solve a global problem such as climate action, poverty alleviation, gender equality or zero hunger. I am thrilled to see how people use the concept of learning connectivity at all levels and across disciplines with great challenges around the world to create a more meaningful learning experience.
In the book you describe a future-thinking strategy where you immerse teams in large-scale situations and social imitations, usually determined 10 years into the future. How can school, parent, youth or community teams run or participate in this situation?
McGonigal: The most practical thing is to take a scenario from a book, Whom we share Visit the Institute of the Future in public, or Emergency Optimist website, Who has a club you can join new situations every month. Teachers, parents, community groups or anyone can adapt to the local life experience. You play with it, see how people react and what emerges. It can be like a school newspaper or a school play, where kids are eager to roll up their sleeves and be part of creating something together. It can be a simulation club, a scenario club, or a signal club, but they can also be integrated into the classroom.
Can you share with your youth a powerful or memorable experience from your work?
McGonigal: We invited teens to a 10-year forecasting conference and asked them to visualize their future transition events. Many teenagers no longer get a driver’s license, and this has been the practice for decades. It means freedom and independence and growth. Today, teens are less interested in driving for sustainable reasons, economic reasons, or mental health. We asked them, “What do you think teenagers are going to do in the future?” The passage they brought that they all agreed on seemed most admirable the first time they would personally experience a climate catastrophe or terrible extreme weather. It was in 2018, before Greta Thanberg came on the scene and really channeled this pious wrath of the youth. It was certainly a signal to us that this generation is already experiencing a pre-traumatic experience of climate change. They knew it was something they would live with personally. The old adolescent ritual was about freedom and liberty, and this new ritual of passage is going to be about tolerating loss and trauma. When young people imagine their future, we should trust them. What they are saying is that they think a lot of trauma and suffering is coming, and they need a way to imagine a better world.
Running a scenario is as much about predicting the future as it is about building personal growth and resilience. What’s the point of running a scenario or a simulation, even if they can’t accurately predict the future?
McGonagall: Future situations and simulations are how things can be different, so that the basic creative ability to think differently is at the center of it. This is a big driver of hope, especially for young people. Often, it is less about preparing for future challenges and more about imagining the world we want to wake up to. It’s about being the author of our own world; To use the power of the future as a place where no one has yet said.
Learning how to visualize the future more precisely can help people feel less frustrated and less anxious. When we are anxious, we tend to fix bright mental images of things that scare us, but we can imagine a future where we can deal with things effectively. We can imagine ourselves taking steps that are within our power to deal with the situation. Or, we may redirect our imagination to something that is a good representation of our hopes and values
In the book you also discuss how to build empathy for our future. Can you tell me more about that?
McGinnigal: It stems from research at UCLA that uses neuroimaging to study how we think about our future or our distant future. Our brains respond to our future voices as if they were strangers. This explains why today we often have a hard time taking steps that benefit our future selves, be it saving money for long-term goals, exercising, choosing sustainability or even voting. It even leads to delays. We avoid tasks and leave them in the hands of our future. In the future I will be better off writing this paper! But, you will be there when you get there.
We can build a relationship with our future self by clearly imagining future-thinking situations and what our future life might be like. It’s like nervous cross training because it helps us develop a strong sense of empathy for our future self, which can then translate into empathy for other strangers or other people whom we feel are different from ourselves. Thinking about the difference increases our empathy: how the future may be different, how our future may be different, and how other people’s experiences of crisis or change may be different. Some people are very motivated to help others and not help themselves.
And, finally, it’s an excellent segway in the concept of empowerment Learned helpfulness.
McGonagall: By imagining what we can do in the potential future, we can learn our own help. It is so powerful to imagine that our own unique skills and abilities and strengths, no matter how small, may serve others. We often give ourselves more creative latitudes when we imagine ourselves in our future. We think, “In the future I can be really strong and capable and amazing and accomplished.” We set higher goals for our future self, and we can more easily see ourselves taking action in the future because we are not there yet and our imagination has a playground. We feel the power of our organization when we imagine ourselves doing something that becomes more ambitious, more courageous. When we imagine what we can do to help others in the future, we realize that we can take that step today and change the future accordingly.