Kathy Gibson reports – Mankind used to dream big ideas about the future and how technology would change our lives – many of which have become reality.

Today, however, we tend to think about gloom and doom future scenarios rather than dreaming big as we did in the past, says Bronwen Williams, a futurist from Flux Trends. She was speaking at a Women’s Day event organised by Commvault, Hitachi and First Distribution.

“Our aspirations as society have shrunk – our dreams about the future have become a lot smaller than they were in the past.”

But this is a disconnect, Williams says: we live in the best possible time for people – live expectancy and other metrics are better than they have ever been.

“But we are pessimistic about where we want to go. And even our virtual reality dreams are banal. Virtual property that you can purchase – for big amounts of money – look a lot like our dystopian reality.”

Where have all the ideas gone, she asks? And where can we go for those new ideas?

The real world is still very exclusionary, and the virtual world is still very much the preserve of the rich. But ideas about making a virtual paradise available for the poor are not necessarily an answer to that problem either.

The WEF vision of the future where people own nothing and have no privacy, will still make their lives better.

“A shrunk future where we have to make do with less is rapidly becoming a reality. We have completely lost perspective about where we can head in a positive direction.”

All futurists and economists are talking about a future that is smaller than the present; where the rich live behind high walls and the poor have to make do with VR escapism.

The other vision of the future is annihilation, which is difficult for people to get excited about.

This is why people tend to be trending towards what Williams calls “postalgia”, a longing for a past when we looked forward to a better future.

This is playing out in some disturbing trends, such as the lying down movement where young people are choosing to opt out of society. “It’s part of the age of anti-ambition. And its affecting young people, which is not surprising when you consider the pessimistic future they have to look forward to.”

Even in South Africa, some young people with degrees are choosing not to do the jobs they can get and returning back to their communities instead.

This also plays out in the “Great Resignation” where post-Covid life audits saw many people moving out of the workplace.

“There is a sense of people questioning what we are doing, and why. There is a move to people becoming time millionaires rather than money millionaires. People are looking for a better balance in the work, some kind of sanity; for a reason to get out of bed in the morning and participate.”

Another shift is how people are being renumerated. “There is a shift from being paid incomes to being paid for outcomes, for the value people add to society.

“This translates to a lot less security for people; one of the big trade-offs for opting out.”

Spiritual wellness is quickly becoming a big trend: come companies are creating rituals in the workplace to help people find meaning in their work.

“In the past companies were concerned only with workers’ financial wellness, then they started looking at physical and then mental wellness. Now they are looking to the state of their souls as well. This argues that people do want to have meaning in the lives; they want to feel they matter and their opinions count. There is a sense of learned helplessness because we don’t think our contribution matters and will change anything.

“But we do need more choices and more voices. We don’t have to buy into the pessimism

We need new ideas, not new iterations of the old ones. We can come up with new ideas – we don’t have to agree with the ideas put on the table for us, dictating how the future has to be.

“We need new stories, more choices.”

A single view of the future stifles innovation and change. “We have to be able to challenge the views we don’t get excited by.”

One of the most dangerous ideas circulating is negative sustainability, Williams says. The future of smallness and shrinking plays into the trend to degrowth.

Another way of looking at sustainability is about renewal and growth. “In Africa we have to buy into the idea of positive sustainability, how we can use technology and science to do more with less, to keep progress growing.

“The idea of sustainability that argues you have to stop growing is very dangerous and has to be challenged.”

Williams concludes that our expectations create our reality. “Positive or negative: either way you are right.

“That is why, particularly in South Africa, we have a moral obligation towards optimism. Not blind, Polyanna-ish optimism, but a practical optimism where we invest in the things we want more of.”

Some practical examples include investing only in dollars, which removes funding from South African companies thus creates the conditions for them to fail.

“I challenge people to think about active optimism. And that brings us to the topic of agency. All our choices to compound. Every day we vote for things we want more of, what we give our attention and money to. We get more of what we invest in.

“But agency is one of those things: if you don’t use it, you lose it. People who use it more, get more of it; those who use it less, have it less. We need to be counterbalancing and challenging the ideas we don’t like. If you don’t use your agency, you can’t complain.

“So we need to get some skin in the game; align our centres towards things we want more of.”

The challenge for all of us, is where we want to be a lead character or a non-laying character; be passengers or participate in designing the future, Williams says.

“The point of futures thinking is to consider what could be rather than what is probable,” she says. “If we think about what is possible, we will come up with many more ideas, and then we can start considering what is preferable to you so you don’t end up with someone else’s future.

“The most optimistic future is where there are many choices on the table. Monoculture is not an aspiration – we need to see more ideas about what is possible.”

And there is not a lot of creative competition in future visualisation, Williams says. “By putting your own ideas out there, you can nudge the future in a different and better direction.”