The power of ‘what if?’

“If there was ever a time for fresh thinking, for being bold, for being visionary and imaginative – for reimagining everything – this is it. So let’s get together and reshape the world.” Rob Hopkins, author and co-founder of Transition Town Totnes and the Transition Network

Following on from his recent book, ‘From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of the Imagination to Create the Future We Want’, Rob Hopkins invites us to his fortnightly podcast ‘From What if to What next’.

Listeners are asked to send in their ‘What If’ questions and Rob then finds the best people to explore how they might move from What If to What Next. Some of the questions which have already been discussed (and can be listened to again) include: What if birdsong drowned out the traffic? What if cities relocalised their food system? What if we decolonised education? What if indigenous wisdom could save the world?

Writing in January this year, in the following article Rob looks further at The Power of What if? 

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote that “the future must enter into you a long time before it happens”.

When Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon in 1969, it wasn’t his idea, or JFK’s idea when he announced the moon mission in 1960. We had been going to the moon for decades before then, in films, stories, songs. Tintin went to the moon, Sinatra sang us there.

By 1960, we had created such a deep cultural longing to get there that once we decided to, it took just nine years, from scratch, with a team whose average age was 26.

When I think about the changes that the climate and ecological emergency demands that we make, changes of which Naomi Klein once wrote “there are no non-radical solutions left”, I often wonder how it might be that we can similarly create sufficient longing that such a shift becomes inevitable.

It strikes me that if all it required was logical arguments, reasoning and science, we would have done this in the 1980s when it would have been so much easier.

Our challenge, the scientists tell us, is within just 10 to 15 years, to reimagine and rebuild pretty much every aspect of our economy. In part, this is the work of storytelling, of bringing to life for those who struggle to imagine anything other than the way things are today, how such a world would taste, feel, look and sound like.

All too often we default to dystopian images, rather than allowing ourselves to believe that it could actually be amazing: more connected, happier, healthier, more time-rich, less stressed and anxious, with cleaner air, better food, cities full of vegetation and far fewer cars, a far more diverse and decentralised economy, more equal, fair and just.

I am a great believer that one of the best ways to unlock our ability to imagine a different, and far better future, is through the asking of good ‘what if’ questions.

Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogota in Colombia, once described a good ‘what if’ question thus: “What people love most is when you write on the blackboard a risky first half of a sentence and then recognise their freedom to write the other half.”
In Liège in Belgium, the local Transition group six years ago asked: “What if, in a generation’s time, the majority of the food eaten in Liège was grown on the land closest to Liège?”

The asking of this question has sparked a remarkable reimagining of the city’s food system; with 25 new co-operatives created already, and €5 million invested into it by local people, a new economy is emerging. The city’s mayor told me “this is now the story of our city”. We must imagine while we build. And build while we imagine.

So, a challenge to you: what if, over the next few weeks, in any conversation you have about the state of the world, you were to weave into it your own storytelling about how the world could be, if we were to do everything we could possibly do? Try it. Because it is still possible, just. But only if we create the best conditions possible for the future to enter into us.

This article was initially published in the latest print issue of Wicked Leeks. You can read the full magazine online via Issuu.

These posters are have been made by members of Extinction Rebellion in Scotland who have been inspired to think about their What If questions –