Episode #43 Dreaming a flourishing future: Rob Hopkins on radical creativity, activism and re-booting our imaginations
‘Climate Change is a failure of the imagination’. If this is so, and this is a time when we need to be at our most imaginative, how can we change the trajectory of our falling imaginations?Rob Hopkins, author of ‘From What Is to What If?’, offers an answer. In this podcast, we explore the ways that all of us could combine to create a new future – ways to recharge and restart and give space to our imaginations. Rob offers a vision of a future and actual examples of change happening now from the Civic Imagination Office in Bologna, with its pacts of actually doing things, that has inspired other towns in the UK to do the same, to the Doughnut Economics model and the ways people engage to make a difference. Here, we have a wealth of radically transformative ideas that we can engage with on a daily basis to transform ourselves, our communities and our planet.
Manda: So Rob Hopkins on our second try at the other end of a lockdown- the other end of first lockdown – welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. How is life down in Devon?
Rob: Life is kind of I don’t know. I almost feel like I’m emerging from lockdown as a different person than I went in. It feels very strange kind of a process. And next week I’m going away to France to go and do some talks and stuff, which was supposed to happen in April or May and was cancelled. But actually, I’m sort of feeling that in the last six months, the furthest I’ve been is Totnes. I went to Exeter once and it was completely sensorially overwhelming. So quite how going on Eurostar and all that’s going to be, I have no idea.
Manda: This is how our ancestors lived there, wasn’t it? There were people in our village who for whom going to Glasgow was a once in a decade event when I was a kid growing up. And the rest of the time they were within walking distance or maybe took a bus to the little town and that was it.
Rob: I used to live in Italy when I was about in my early 20s and I lived in this village and we had this friend called Guido, who was about 80, lovely, lovely man, still running his farm on his own. He had a cow and a horse. And I remember he had one time an English backpacking young woman had come to stay in his house for a while and helped on the farm called Lynetta. We still talked about Lynetta all the time. And I don’t think he’d ever been maybe he’d been to Pisa once, you know, he’d hardly ever been away.
And I remember he said, I know you’re going to London. If you go to London, just ask for Lynetta. Everyone will know.It’s like this mental picture of London as it was the same size village..
Manda: So since we last spoke, you have started your own podcast and the whole of your book, ‘From what is to What If’ seems to me to have taken off as an Internet phenomenon. The concept of creative thinking as a way to move us forward has become central. So there may well be people listening to the podcast. Actually, I hope there are people listening to the podcast who haven’t read your book yet, because that means that they will go out and buy it by the end of the podcast and we will enlarge the general audience of the concept of creative imagination and what it can do to begin to shape the more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible that Charles Eisenstein speaks of. So before we move into the work that you’ve been doing recently, can we talk a little bit about the book from what is to what is how it arose and the wonder that is contained within it?
Rob: Well, it was kind of a two year project, really, that I did where I interviewed more than 100 people. I went to visit loads of really interesting places, projects.
And it came about because I kept reading people who I really admire and respect, like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein and George Monbiot and people. And they all seem to be using this term where they would say climate change is a failure of the imagination. It would kind of pop up and then disappear again. I’d be going, oh, ah, I was interesting. What do you mean by that? Why why would we be having a failure of the imagination in 2020 at a time when we need to be at our most imaginative?
And then I came across some research done in 2011 by a woman called Kyum Hee Kim, a researcher who had looked at a whole load of data from something called the Torrance Test for Creative Thinking, which is the sort of gold standard creativity test which had been done in the US on big samples of people going back to the 1960s. And the conclusion was that imagination and IQ had risen together until the mid 90s and then IQ kept rising and imagination kind of just like sort of divergent thinking had started to decline.
And I thought, well, when this was published, it made the front page of Newsweek. It was a really big deal. And it was like people it was a whole lot of soul searching in the US about what does this mean for economic growth? What does this mean for Hollywood? And to which I was I don’t really care about those, but I do really care about what that means for the fact that we’re trying to imagine an alternative to business as usual, because business as usual is a suicide pact. And if we’re stuck with our imagination, that’s really, really serious.
And actually, we were talking about lock down before for me, one of the one of the moments for me during lockdown that just nailed this thing of climate change is a failure of the imagination was the most surreal. I mean, the last four years have given us lots of surreal Donald Trump moments.
But the one where he was talking about how he was trying to dismiss the idea of making buildings more energy efficient, because everybody knows that the only way to make buildings more energy efficient is to fill in all their windows. So they have no windows.
I’m thinking you’re the you’re the president of this country and actually really on social media and things, I encounter so many people who get into that thing of, well, a low carbon future is basically living in a cave and eating potatoes, isn’t it? And of course it’s not. Of course it’s not. And so in the book, what I wanted to do, it kind of help me really realise that a lot of what I’ve been doing for the last 10, 12 years and the transition movement and the writing and the talking I do is about longing and cultivating longing.
The only way we’re going to achieve a zero carbon world is by creating such deep longing in people that it becomes inevitable that we create it in a way. We say when when Neil Armstrong went to the moon, it wasn’t his idea, it wasn’t JFK idea. We had culturally been creating that longing to go there. Frank Sinatra sang us to the moon. Tintin went to the moon. Everybody went to the moon, to the point where there was such a profound collective longing to go to the moon that it kind of became inevitable. And we did it within eight years from scratch. We got someone onto the moon, you know, and and it seems like we often focus on the how do we build the rocket bit and not on the how do we create the longing bit, which is about imagination. So the book is an exploration of what’s the state of health, of our collective imagination.
Rob: How can we tell if the imagination is not doing that well, what could we do about that? What would it look like if we set out to intentionally rebuild the imagination, if we elected people who said our priority is to make this the most imaginative country in the world, what would you do? How would you do that? You would have to completely overhaul education and health service and politics and democracy and economics. And I find examples of all of those things and of people who are putting imagination now at the heart of how they see their political future, how they want to reimagine things.
And one of my favourite stories in there that I only heard about two weeks before I had to submit the final manuscript. So I had a frenzied couple of weeks trying to find out more. Was the Civic Imagination office in Bologna, where the government in Bologna had created a not a civic engagement office or a civic participation office, but a civic imagination office, and said ‘Our intention is to boost the imaginative capacity of this city’. And it’s so replicable and so beautiful. So fundamentally, the book is an extended love poem to those two words’ What if?’ And their profound power and our need to reconnect to them at this particular time in our history.
Manda: Because it does seem to me that the whole thing, the analogy of going to the moon, we could all imagine what we thought going to the moon was going to be like. And then what happened was we saw where we could do it or – we believed the scientists who told us there was a way we could do it – and that what is lacking in the conversations that I hold out in the world, not with Accidental Gods people or people within our collective bubbles, but the general people who still read the Mail and the Telegraph and believe the BBC – is that they genuinely have no idea of what the alternative might look like. Which is exactly what you’re saying, this total failure. It’s easier to imagine the complete extinction of everything that lives on Earth than it is to imagine an alternative to business as usual. Which is a collective failure of the imagination. It is terrifying. So lots of questions arising. But the first one is actually I want to know what is happening with the Civic Imagination office in Bologna, because you must have it must be at least 18 months, possibly two years since you submitted your manuscript?
Rob: I haven’t checked back in with them. I don’t know what a civic imagination is in lockdown looks like. But the idea of it, I think, came about the fact that they always trace projects, always have their kind of founding story, and their founding story is all about a bench that somebody who lived on the street wanted to paint the bench a different colour. And they approached the municipality and realised that in order to just get permission to paint, one bench was going to take the nine months and they had to get the permission of six different government departments. And they realised that this was just ridiculous. And it was the same time as they were noting that there was a real decline in participation in elections. There was a real decline in civic engagement generally. So they that they started this idea of a Civic Imagination office by creating six laboratories around the city. And the people who run them are completely immersed in that place. They said everybody has our phone numbers and they run visioning exercises and all kinds of different imagining work.
But the bit that made for me that stood out as the genius bit was this idea of Pacts. We all get so used in our daily life to being invited to be imaginative. At works someone might put up a flip chart and say, ‘Hey, ideas, people, ideas!’ Or we go along to a consultation about a housing development. And we know that everything we write on a piece of paper, they’re just going to chuck it in the bin and build it as it was. So our imagination has become bruised and used to disrespect and used to just being sidelined, marginalised and ignored.
And what they do in Bologna is they run these processes and the ideas that emerge that are particularly strong.The municipality will say ‘That’s a great idea, OK, let’s make a pact. We can offer this, this and this. And you as a community or as a community organisation, you can offer that and that. Good. OK, let’s do it. Let’s make a pact.’ And in the last five years in Bologna, they’ve made 500 pacts, which range from ‘We’re going to support you to make a garden on your street and make it much easier for you to do so,’ through to, ‘Oh, OK, you want to start a school to train and support young people to become classical musicians? Well, you can have this empty office block and we’ll support you to get in there and to turn into that.’ And it comes because of the pact.
And this idea of pacts feels so respectful to me.How do we create a place where people are invited to be imaginative with the chance that actually those are those ideas might become a reality? So for me, that was my key take away from Bologna was pacts. The imagination needs Pacts.
Manda: And the chance that the ideas might become a reality. That feels like a really, really important key step before we ever start the process.
Exactly as you said, if you sit in the room when he created the ideas and you know that the people running the process have no intention of following what you’re saying, then it’s already dampening, if not completely annihilating, the ability of your imagination to stretch out to its furthest limit. If you know that your ideas might take off, then it becomes exciting and real and juicy and fun and inspiring.
Rob: It’s a completely different it’s a completely different experience.
Manda: I’m due to talk quite soon to Mark Lawrence, who set up the City Repair Project in Portland. Have you heard of that?
Rob: Yes, of course. Absolutely.
Manda: That feels like one of those extraordinary experiences of the imagination that says, ‘OK, this we need more collective space. So we’re just going to paint this intersection and turn it into a park and see what happens.’ And what happens is that there are now 700 of those in Portland, which is just mind blowing. Or there were before Portland turned into a war zone.
Rob: There might be more because of that.
Manda: So that’s happening in Bologna. And it seemed to me that when you were writing the book you were talking particularly to the more progressive parties in the U.K., and I’m wondering since then and particularly since lockdown – because lockdown seemed to me that a lot of us who want social and cultural and climate justice saw the potential of lockdown for change. What Molly Scott Cato caused the Boeing 747 of the business as usual fossil fuel economy was landing and that potentially when it took off, again, it could be something different. And we’re not necessarily seeing that played out yet. But I am hoping that there is some pretty strong roots growing underneath of ways that it might play out. So I’m wondering, in your connexions with politicians in the U.K., are you seeing more imagination being exercised there?
Rob: There is an exercise that I do whenever I do talks where I invite people to close their eyes and to imagine that we are helped by the time machine I built during down from plans I found online, we’re travelling forwards 10 years in the future to a future where we had done everything we could possibly do. And it’s not a utopia, but it is a world that has been profoundly transformed by us doing everything we could possibly do.
And I’ve done this with 15 people in the room and fifteen hundred people in the hall in Belgium and the things that always come out strongest when I do it, when we then kind of get people’s feedback afterwards is the birdsong was louder, the air smelled clearer. There were less cars or no cars sometimes. There was a stronger sense of shared collective purpose and there was food growing all over the place. And we would do that exercise.
And then the people would leave and go out into the normal world and think ‘well, that was that was nice. But that’s never going to happen.’ And actually, that’s what we’ve had for at least a couple of months, we could go outside and all of a sudden that was so much more kind of tangible. And what I’ve observed during lockdown has been a lot of organisation, a lot of Extinction Rebellion groups and other environmental groups who are really keen to explore that kind of what academics would call ‘prefigurative’ – that sort of really feeling into and becoming better at articulating, ‘What do we want to come next? What does it look like? What does it feel like? How do we communicate that to people that we’re going out into the world with a big, bold, beautiful ‘yes!’ that accompanies the big, bold, beautiful ‘No!’ that is also so, so important in the fight that we have at the moment.
So I’ve seen a huge amount of that and a huge number of organisations who have been picking up bits of the book and wanting to do stuff with them.
And I’ve heard lovely things of people sending me little video clips or bits where they’ve started a conference or started the meeting by reading the first bit of the book, which is my imaginary walk through a future where we made it. It has been really fascinating to see where that pops up.
So I my intention always with the book was to to put it out and just see where it went. And so I know a few places now that are that are very moving along very strongly now: Hastings and Stroud and a few other places in creating Civic Imagination offices. And there’s a project I’ve been asked to be part of in Northern Ireland as a coming together of unexpected organisations.
And they’re using ‘What If?’ Through all of this really interesting. So I’m just I’m just sort of sitting with all of that. It’s really important. I think that we always bear in mind with all of this that there is an element of imagination, which is a function of privilege, and that the imagination needs certain conditions to be in place, and that when we are living a world where we are overwhelmed with stress and anxiety and trauma are the part of our brain that fires, the imagination shrinks. And one of the things that I was doing overlooked, I was reading Adrienne Maree Brown, who’s fantastic black, permaculture activist in the US who talks beautifully about how colonisation and systemic racism impacts the imagination. She has this lovely line about ‘We are living in someone else’s imagination and imagination that doesn’t make space for us or particularly wants us even to be there.’ So when you were saying about politics, we have to bear in mind that if we want to see a massive increase in imaginative capacity across society, it’s not a level playing field.
That if your basic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are being met, it’s very hard to have an imaginative life and capacity, which is one of the reasons why on the podcast, we keep coming back to Universal Basic Income all the same as such a vital piece of creating space for people to rediscover an imaginative life.
Manda: I had a conversation recently with someone who’s quite tapped into the Tory party because I have been listening to other more economic podcasts with people who are greatly in support of UBI. And one individual had said that it was his opinion that we were now 50/50 the chances of UBI. I said this to my friend who laughed and said the Tories will never allow it because they need the fear to be prevalent to maintain what they want. And what you’re saying is at a core level, whether they know what they’re doing or not, they don’t want us to be able to stretch our imaginations in the directions that they might go. They like the fact that everybody is terrified.
Rob: There’s a guy who I interviewed for the book called Henry Giroux, who was an activist educator in the US, who I read an article by him where he used this term ‘The Trump dis-imagination machine.’ It Leapt out at me, this phrase of The Trump Dis-imagination Machine.
I feel like there is a perfect storm of factors that we’re living in at the moment that are corrosive and toxic to the imagination. We have no time. We have no space. And when we do have space, we fill it up with scrolling and scrolling and trying to get to the bottom of our Facebook feeds. And our attention span is being demolished and co-opted by people who value it financially, literally, far more than we value it. We have an education system that marginalises it, sidelines it.
There are so many factors I set out in the book. And I do think there is a thing when you rewrite people’s history for them; when you deny people’s experience; when people’s attempts to change things get routinely squashed; when you have politicians who are utterly shameless and you lose that sense of a familiar ground in which if you do something, if you break the law, you’re out of your job, which applies to the rest of us.
We’re kind of in this strange land. And I think we always underestimate the power that our time online has in terms of shaping our imagination and the degree to which now – as we saw during Brexit – a handful of very smart people can shape people’s imagination and sense of what’s possible because they know so much about them through their data. I think it’s a profoundly dangerous time and our imagination is in deep danger. And actually, I found during the research, there were people going back to the 1960s, who were warning about what happens in a culture if our imagination gets depleted? What happens if we don’t protect the imaginative capacity of a society and of a people?
And I think that’s what we’re seeing now is that, if Kyum Hee Kim was right and what we saw in the mid 90s was that was the point when we tipped and the imagination started to decline again, which she said was due to the decline of play in our culture and its disappearance from our children’s lives was due to our spending, more and more time on screens and less and less time outside and daydreaming and with an education system around that time that put testing at the heart of absolutely everything.
We started to create the conditions then. And we know that if we don’t feed a society a good diet, if we aren’t sufficiently nourished, then you see a rise in preventable illnesses. We know that if a population isn’t educated well, then it’s unable to reach its full potential. But we seem to just be allowing this curling up at the edges, this depletion of or contraction of our imagination just goes off just slightly out of our field of vision and we don’t notice it. And the point of the book, which for me was to say, ‘Hang on. If we lose our collective imagination, we are screwed. Particularly now. We would be at any time, but particularly with the climate emergency, which demands that we reimagine and rebuild everything. We have to focus back on this and say this really is important. Something really precious here is not being paid attention to, and that really matters.’
Manda: So have you had feedback since the book was published from people who might hold the levers of the power to change our imagination. So I’m thinking obviously not Cambridge Analytica, but the people who run any of the social media companies and or the BBC or Sky or Channel Four or are any of the big media companies whose job it is one way or another to curate what reaches are a marginal pool?
Rob: The quick answer to that is no. I’m sure that the longer answer is, ‘But I have been contacted by quite a few people who are script writers, who are looking to write, who are fed up of writing endless dystopian stories and who want to do stuff which is looking to tell the other stories.’
I’ve been contacted by a lot of people working within the education system who want to change it. And and and it’s been really fascinating.
And, you know, it’s one of those things where you never quite know. But there have been quite a few things I’ve been listening to. And I’m thinking ‘They read the book. They read my book.’ They were on the food programme on Radio Four. A couple of weeks ago. That was just a phenomenal thing where the idea was that we were living now in 2030 and it was a utopia was based around food and it was so totally that first opening day of the book. But I didn’t get credit. That’s OK.
But that the power of ideas. And the only thing that I thought was slightly disappointing was, was how posh everybody was. There were not very many regional accents, responsible for running the future or even a young accent, very often suggestions of people who were not white. There was definitely not very many of those here. I thought that was beautiful how they did that and just those little kind of observations of stuff.
And I also know that Anne Hidalgo, who is the mayor of Paris, who has been very enthusiastic about Transition for a long time – she wrote an endorsement for the book – and when she began her campaign to run to be re-elected as the mayor of Paris, early in lockdown, she gave this phenomenal speech where she talked about Paris is a 15 minute city where everything you need is within 15 minutes of your house. And she painted a picture of what it would be like. It was beautiful. It was ‘A day in the life’ living in a 15 minute city. And you wake up and you get your bread from here and everything you need is within 15 minute walk. You don’t need a car because you can get to everything. And that’s the bit that I see more and more of.
And I see more and more people using ‘What if?’ in all kinds of different places. I’m not saying that’s all happening because of the book. I think there’s something which is kind of of the moment that maybe the book captured rather than somehow it all being due back to that.
Manda: Yeah, but I think you put the idea out there and it’s beginning to run. So I’d like to look a bit about Amsterdam specifically because it is heading to be a Doughnut city. And I saw that you had looked at that on your podcast so we could talk a little bit about your podcast. And then I’d like to discuss Amsterdam and then we’ll see where we go from there. So tell us about your podcast and particularly about the Amsterdam concept.
Rob: So the podcast has been my lockdown project. I was sitting there thinking it would be nice to emerge from lockdown with something different from how I went into lockdown.
Manda: You’ve been to a lot of Lino Cuts as well. Like but as I say in a very lovely thank you.
Rob: That’s been a bit of a discovery. But I wanted to do something that was beginning the process of thinking about what the next book might be. So it’s called ‘From What If to What Next’ The first book was called ‘From What is the What If’. And this is called ‘From what if to what next?’
The concept was that the listeners and subscribers would send me in there. ‘What if’ questions – which are the questions that are sitting with them in terms of the kind of future they long for, the kind of future they dream of? Which ‘What if?’ questions does that raise for them? And then I would find the two best people I could to help explore how we might move from what if to what next, how we might explore how that could become a living, breathing reality.
And it’s been such fun. It’s been brilliant and we start every episode with that exercise I mentioned before of saying, ‘OK, we’re travelling forward is 2030’. So for example, the first episode was ‘What if birdsong drowned out the traffic?’ So we had Sam Lee and Maya Rose Craig, who’s also known as Bird Girl, who is a young ornithologist. And we started out with a travel forward, ‘We’re 10 years is 2013. We’re now living in a world where birdsong drowns out the traffic. Take us on a walk around, describe it to us, explain it to us.’ And it’s just so beautiful, because it allows you into the imagination of those people, which is what gets them out of bed every morning to create that.
And we don’t do that often enough. I remember one of the guys I interviewed for the book called Stuart Candy, who’s a futurist, who said to me that one of his thoughts was, every time there’s an election, we should say that the people who are running for office should make a two or three minute film about what the world would be like 10 years in the future if all of their policies have been implemented. Let us inside that of your imagination. We want to I want to know what that feels like and looks like. And so that part of it is just magic.
And then we also do a bonus thing for people who subscribe to the Ministry of Imagination, where there is now a Ministry of Imagination which has proved hugely catalytic in terms of making the country and its politics more imaginative. And the guests are then anointed as Ministers of the Imagination and are invited to come up with three policies that will hugely accelerate our move towards whatever it is we’re talking about, and not to think there are any constraints or budget limits or whatever, just some really big, bold, clever ideas.
And as those have gone along, the Ministry itself has become a whole character who actually the building itself is so imaginative that some days you turn up to go there and it’s run away to join the circus turned himself into a hill. And the whole interview is conducted lying on our backs, looking at a meteor shower
Manda: And does it in this building that you’ve been talking about UBI a lot, or is that come up in other slightly more sober conversations?
Rob: It comes up in both, actually, but it’s often one of people’s three policies. You know, ‘How do how are we going to do this?’ ‘Well we need to start with a UBI, obviously, because that’s how we free up people’s space.
Manda: So have you thought in-depth about Universal Basic Income? Because it was one of the things that we talked quite a lot about when I went to Schumacher and I haven’t had a chance on this podcast to have a proper conversation. Is it something that you’ve considered as other than a concept? Because I’d be really interested to unpick that a little bit.
Rob: Well, I’m always sort of more attracted to the idea of a Universal Basic Assets, actually, you know, the idea that people should have access to all of the assets and services that are needed because income is just one little part of it. But we did have we did do a podcast that was what if a universal basic income unlocked or sparked a revival of the imagination.
And there was a guy on that called Phil Tier who wrote a book called The Coming Age of Imagination, all about how UBI gives people space to be more imaginative. We were doing this quite early on in lockdown and he was saying, ‘Well, just look at what people are doing.’ You know, that’s just a little bit of space the lockdown has given people. For all of its downsides and stuff, it forced people to stop and to pause. And you saw people starting drawing again or starting lino cutting again in my case or, you know, making daft videos of their family, doing complex dance routines or posing as famous portraits.
I wonder how many people, you know, wrote the novel they always dreamt of writing or so many people started gardening in a way they’d always dreamt of and talked about and never done. So it’s something that would also give the artistic people in the world some kind of stability. It’s such a terrifying life. A lot of people being art, being artists, you’re so hand-to-mouth and precarious. The other guest who was on that episode talked about how it would give artists a security that they don’t have, which would be hugely beneficial for the for the wider society to see that kind of explosion of creativity. But also that in that situation, the rest of us would then have a huge amount to learn from those people. That artists would then be able to teach us how better to use our time and andhow to be creative.
Manda: So, yes, because creativity and imagination are are two sides of the same coin. And if we had the space and the I think something you said earlier about we need to feel safe in order to be able to be imaginative. And one of the strange paradoxes of lockdown, it seemed to me, was people’s incomes crashed, but there was nothing to be done about it. It wasn’t as if you had to rush around going out, trying to find another job because that wasn’t possible. And so the odd paradox of being less fearful than we might otherwise have been in a circumstance where there really was for some people, almost no income at all struck me as very liberating, as well as showing up a huge holes in the structure that we have at the moment.
So anyway, that’s probably a whole different concept. I would really like to have to run a podcast on the difference between Universal Basic Income and Universal Basic Services and how we could actually make them work. But that’s a separate conversation. So Amsterdam is looking forwards and wants to be the first doughnut city. It’s one of the C40 cities of which I gather there are now, in fact, 76 at the time of recording.
These are activist green mayors who want their cities to be, as you saig with Paris, to be 15 minute cities, to be living cities, to be regenerative cities where the ecosystems thrive more than they did on the land on which the city was built before the city ever got there. And that these things are possible and that all we need is, is, as you said, the Bologna pacts. You need the people at the top to say, ‘If you can imagine it, we will help you make it happen. What matters to you?’ And that Amsterdam is really kicking off with this. So have you been to Amsterdam or have you been zooming with people in Amsterdam or otherwise exploring it as a model?
Rob: Well, I love Amsterdam and also as a massive van Gogh nerd, it’s a regular pilgrimage site for me. No, I didn’t go there. It was it was during lockdown. So we did an episode speaking to Kate Raworth and Marika Van Doneck, who was the deputy mayor there. I think the thing that I love and Kate and I have talked about quite a lot that is so exciting to me about Doughnut Economics and where it crosses over so beautifully with imagination. And Rob Shorter, who was at Schumacher, who I worked with to create the imagination sundial. And he now works on Doughnut Economics Action Lab.
And one of the things that came to me halfway through researching the book was the degree to which the imagination needs limits. And so if I said Manda, Tell me a story,’ you’d be stuck. But I said, ‘Tell me a story about the mouse that lives under the piano in the pub around the corner from you always wears a blue hat.’ It would be easier because there would be some limits, a framework around the imagination.
This why Dr. Seuss wrote a book with 50 words. It’s why we like haikus and limericks and Hip-Hop and art forms that give us some kind of a limit.
And it’s why everywhere I go around Europe, where people are working on climate change solutions who fundamentally understand the scale and the gravity of the issue, what they’re coming up with is brilliant, imaginative, and we could do that and we could do that.
And people like Donald Trump, who still can’t get his head around the fact that a well insulated building could actually have windows…When you put those limits around, then the imagination thrives. And what the doughnut economics model does so beautifully is it defines that Doughnut. So you can’t go further out that way and you can’t go further in this way. So this is the sweet spot.
And what it does and what you see it doing in Amsterdam is then it fires all that imagination where we understand that we need to be working within this space.
And that’s what I love about it. It’s an imagination work out for economists. I’ve been to workshops that Kate has run with a real mix of people, very hard headed business people, kind of artistic people, engineers, planners, and they all get it. And they’ll go, ‘Oh, OK, that’s the space. Right? So what are we going to do?’.
And everybody has something to bring differently to what it would look like in that space. And when we did the podcast about it, they both did their kind of walk through the city of the future. And Kate was so great at picking out all the places where ‘Look over there, there’s someone who’s got a cargo bike and they’re actually running a business out of the bike. And this is how you see this flourishing of micro enterprises and creativity and how it all ties in with a sort of a circular and a micro circular economy within that city.
It’s a really powerful tool for shifting us into the headspace of designing within the framework we need to design with but having a defined the space. where we can say, ‘You know this place better than us. We’re not coming in to tell you what to do. We’re just defining the space. And you can’t push further that way and you can’t push further that way.’It’s magical. And you see in the workshops they run and how they do them, the way they bring in making and art.
Kate was on the very first people who read the final manuscript of the book because she wrote an endorsement. I sent her the draught. And she was going to New Zealand to do some work for the New Zealand government. And she read it the whole way. And she arrived and sent me this message from New Zealand airport saying ‘I just finished it. I love it. It’s great!’.
One of the one of the stories in the book is about an exercise that Transition Network developed, developed along with Encounters Art called ‘Transition Town Anywhere’ In it, you get 100 to 400 people together and you imagine you’re stepping into the future where we had done everything we could possibly do. And then you think about, ‘Well, what’s my role in this future? What am I doing?’ You meet other people who share your interest and together you design a project you’re going to do and then you literally build it out of cardboard and bamboo and string and sticky tape and pens and then you inhabits it and you trade in it and you celebrate it and you grieve in it and you dance in it.
And to be amongst three hundred adults totally lost in a play world that they’ve created is just amazing. And Kate’s first thought was we should do that as a circular high street, so you could do it as a high street and then afterwards then you could pan up and you could look down and you could say, ‘Look, it’s a Doughnut!’, We haven’t we haven’t done it yet because it didn’t quite feel like it worked that time.
But maybe sometime in the future now. Somehow just that thought captured for me, that sense of the way that Doughnut Economics defines the space and then you need to facilitate the imagination within that space. So I love it.
Amsterdam is the first, but there are many other cities working on it now. It’s a brilliant tool because everybody understands doughnuts and Kate can explain it in about two minutes and it makes complete sense.
Manda: I will put a link in the show notes. But for people who haven’t got access to the show notes because you’re listening to this on the move, the doughnut is a model of economics where the floor, the minimum that is allowable is provided for all of the basic human needs of food, water, shelter, but also political representation, gender equity, pay gaps between the largest pay and the smallest pay being as narrow as we can get them. And then there’s an upper ceiling of the planetary limits. And the point is to find an economic, political, social, environmental solution that provides for the needs of all of the people and communities within the defined space, within the means of the living planet. And it’s beautiful and elegant and it works. And it basically overturns every economic model that has been since the start of economics as a science. If Kate doesn’t get the economics Nobel PRIZE equivalent, it’ll be because they’re all too jealous that she did this and they didn’t.
I’ll find a link to Kate describing that and I’ll put it in the show notes. Because if you’re not aware of this and that’s the other book that you’ll want to read as a result of this podcast after you finished Rob’s book. You need them both on your bookshelf.
So as we’re heading towards the end of our time, I know that you wrote at the beginning of your book a manifesto for the future of how you saw it then. But since writing, you have listened to so many other people clearly designing their future of where we got to 2030 and this is what it looks like if we got everything right. Have you got an internal model that you could set for us just now of how your life is going to be in 2030 if from the moment of this podcast forward, we got everything right?
Rob: Well, hopefully I’m still here.So assuming that I am, for me, it’s a world that is that is much more localised and much more resilient.
So I see it as a as a future where I’m living in a place with very little in the way of cars and the air quality is so much better as a result. And streets have been taken back and tarmac has come up. And we now live in cities where what used to be really, really busy roads are now small forests, emerging forests and food gardens and places for play and an economy which is much more about micro enterprises than big enterprises. I always like to dream when I go into a supermarket about what this place could be and how this space could be used more effectively and what else could be going on in here.
So maybe there’s a sawmill in there and a flour mill and maybe there’s all kinds of people making different things that are going on in there. It feels like a future that’s much more practical. People are able to turn their hand to most things. Schools are maybe more like how I imagine a kibbutz would have been in the 60s and 70s, with food being grown and people learning through doing this and using the town, the city around them as a place where people go to learn.
It’s a future where no more people of colour are killed by the police.And that hasn’t happened for seven or eight years. It’s a place where money that would be invested into criminal justice and brutalising particular communities now goes into enabling those communities to live lives of well-being and with good housing and good food and good opportunities. And we’ve seen a massive increase in well-being and drops in crime. As a result, we see addiction being treated as an illness, not as a crime. We see people being able to live lives in which they are able to be imaginative and creative and and that there is space in people’s lives. People don’t work anywhere near the kind of hours that people work today. So families are able to spend more time together.
We see a lot of the strategies that we needed to do for climate change back in 2020. We looked at climate change and public health and mental health and economic regeneration as entirely separate fields. And by 2030, we recognise that they are entirely the same thing. We joined them up. We are thinking more in terms of bio regions and connecting people to those.
The food’s fantastic. The beer is just exquisite. We we are back in a time where we go to places because there are things that you can only taste there. There are particular beers that you have to come to Totnes to sample because you won’t get them in any supermarkets anywhere but they are created in Rob’s brewery.
The birdsong would be so much louder and insect life would be so much more visible. But the thing that I noticed during lockdown in 2020 was that whether the birdsong was louder or whether I just had more time and space to listen to it, I felt like it was a spring of birdsong, louder than I ever heard in my life. It was the most beautiful spring of my whole life, I think during lockdown. And I feel like as we slow down going into that future, will we all be able to say that of a lot more years, ‘That was the most beautiful winter of my life, because I actually had the time and space to stop and appreciate it.’
You know, I could go on for hours with this.
Manda: Please feel free. Because this is what we need. This is the visioning that we need because we can’t get to the moon unless we know what the moon looks like and feels like.
Rob: So these bits in the podcast where people talk about the future, they’re so beautiful and so heartfelt and poignant and kind of dreamy and and I’m just I’m just doing a project at the moment where I’ve been editing little bits of them together. I’m working with an animator to bring them to life.
I’m sure there are always people who will say that by 2030, we’ll all be underwater and it’ll all be just horrendous and awful. And yes, I’m not saying somehow magically, because we decide to think differently, that the the impacts of climate change that we have already put into train will somehow magically disappear. But the point is that the worst scenarios that we read and the terrifying scenarios, scientists usually say this is the scenario if we don’t do anything.
But there is this one over here which is admittedly is looking pretty unlikely, but there is this scenario over here, which is the one where we pulled our finger out and did something phenomenally amazing in a short period of time because we decided that we could and we did. We created something so phenomenally extraordinary that the generations who came after us still tell great tales and sing great songs about those phenomenal people who did that work. And that’s the bit that I’m still holding out for. And that’s the bit that will only happen if we can help people to imagine it and to dream it.
And so anything that we can do, anything that I can do, to give people those tastes of it just feels so precious and important to me.
Manda: Yes. Thank you. That is absolutely perfect. So people will be able to find this animation at some point on your website.
Rob: So I’m on Twitter as @RobInTransition and and also I imagine that it’ll probably be shared first with people who are subscribers to the podcast, which is patreon.com/From What If To What Next.
Manda: I will link to all of those in the show notes. So as we wind to a close, if people listening wanted to do one thing other than reading your book that would substantially or significantly or even just a tiny bit make a difference to their world what would you encourage them to do?
Rob: To their world or to their imagination?
Manda: Either? Both. I imagine that if you contained your imagination and content, you want to get content, you really can change your imagination.
That’s a good idea that. Someone should write a book about it. My favourite practise is when I’m walking to look up at the trees and to eat or even just lie on my back and look up at the canopy of trees. And there is something about the canopy of trees, particularly when they’re when the sun’s coming through them and it is different at different times of year that is just a huge perspective shift. And the patterns and the compositions and the colours are just one of the most beautiful things.
It always just takes me out of where I am at that moment. And it just grounds me in something and it reconnects me to just how exquisitely beautiful this world is that we are blessed to live in. And it just gives me a bit of space. And I find that then when I go back afterwards, somehow I’m more… maybe what it is is is one of the things that I wrote about in the book about awe. It’s about little everyday tastes of awe. And the science about how it awe makes us more compassionate and more generous and more prosocial is really fascinating.
And I think for me, maybe there’s something biological that explains why we like going into cathedrals. And when we look up maybe that when we even tilt our head back, I don’t know, some hormone kicks in or something. For me, there is something about looking up at the canopy of beautiful trees, even if I’m in the middle of a city that just gives me a little dose of awe and just sends me off back into my life with my imagination, just somehow a bit perked up.
Manda: Brilliant. That is a truly fantastic place to end. So, Rob Hopkins, thank you very much indeed for our second try on the podcast.
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