Why our world needs (real) utopias

A more beautiful world - sustainable and just - is possible. However, it will not come about spontaneously. We have to create and shape it ourselves. 
This requires utopian thinking that explores the numerous future possibilities and makes our own scope of action visible. 

„We are collectively creating results that nobody wants.“  

~ Otto Scharmer, Professor at MIT & Founder of Theory U

Our world is out of joint. Critical tipping points are threatening our vital systems like the environment and society.

The overexploitation of our planetary resources, the threat of climate catastrophe, the rapid extinction of species, the ever-increasing injustice, the compulsion to perform and the alienation in everyday life prevent a good life for all and undermine our livelihood.

How do we actually want to live?

In crisis and habit mode, structures and system logics often appear without alternative. To "think utopian" means to turn away from the lack of alternatives and supposed constraints and to describe and pursue the ideal of a better society. 

The power of utopia


Utopias have always had a cognitive and emotional power to direct people toward a common goal and to initiate change. Jens Beckert, director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, writes: "Imagination, anticipation, and longing directed toward the future have contributed decisively to the development of modern society." [1]

Human rights, free speech, women's equality, the United Nations, and democracy itself were once distant utopias whose radiance eventually produced revolutionary developments. 


[1] Beckert, J. (2018). Imaginierte Zukunft: Fiktionale Erwartungen und die Dynamik des Kapitalismus. Suhrkamp Verlag.

Guiding stars after Corona


"If you want to build a ship, don't start gathering wood, cutting planks, and dividing the work, but make people want to see the wide and open sea." 

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Right now during the Corona Crisis, which challenged paradigms and has broken down so many structures, a window of opportunity is opening to create new realities. Many people, however, lack ideas about what a good life can even look like within ecological limits. As never before, therefore, we need positive images of the future now - at the beginning of the 21st century - and signposts on the common journey into tomorrow. The transformation and sustainability researcher Prof. Dr. Maja Göpel took up this idea in 2020: "The future is not something that just falls from the sky. Nothing that just happens. It is in many parts the result of our decisions. Therefore, I would like to invite you to take a closer look at the world in which you, I, all of us live, in order to rethink what is possible in it." [2] 

 

Utopias are neither fairytales, nor are they a left-wing or right-wing literary genre. Nor are they astrology or futurology. Utopias are models that illustrate that another world is possible and how (everyday) life in it feels. Utopias make futures tangible. Solution-oriented, they anchor dimensions of a possible future in our psyche and are therefore an indispensable resource for social processes and projects. Without them, we humans drift into reactionary attitudes, become victims of apocalyptic and energy-sapping narratives, or freeze in the face of challenges. 

 

The positive turnaround of the global crisis situation can only succeed and mobilize social support if the new encourages in the form of positive images of the future, it makes people want to do something new ("I want that too!") and positive change can be experienced in real terms.

 

For the realization of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the limitation of climate change to 1.5°C and the necessary systemic change, we need this intrinsic motivation and creative power.

 

[2] Göpel, M. (2020). Unsere Welt neu denken. Ullstein.

Digital visions of the future from Apple, Google & Co.

 

"In our images of how we see the earth,  nature, how we humans are or are not, what progress is good for, what technology is used for, and what seems just, lies the interpretive sovereignty over what is possible in the world and what is not."

~ Maja Göpel  

 



There is no shortage of technological utopias - on the contrary. Silicon Valley promises us a glittering digital future. Smart robots for elderly care, intelligent user interfaces on new platforms, better apps and algorithms that make life more efficient and give us tailored offers when we surf online. But these visions of the future are rarely aligned with people's true needs, and even less with planetary boundaries.

 

The danger of purely technical utopias is that they reduce people to their role as consumers or users instead of helping them to become more human and to better live together. Further, they completely ignore the desirable development of society as a whole. What are the technologies being developed for? This question cannot be answered with Key Performance Indicators (KPI) and Objectives and Key Results (OKR), but only by developing comprehensive visions for society as a whole.

 

"In human history, culture served life and technology served survival. Today, technology determines our lives, but which culture ensures our survival? To give an answer to this is the task of utopia," writes philosopher Richard David Precht. [3]

 

The promises of technological utopias have not yet been fulfilled and will not be able to adequately solve societal problems in the future.

 

[3] Precht, R. D. (2018): Jäger, Hirten, Kritiker: Eine Utopie für die digitale Gesellschaft. Goldmann Verlag.

Real utopias contain next-best logics.


"The world is made of circles and we think in straight lines."

~ Peter M. Senge

There are already numerous solution concepts, principles, tools and methods that open up paths to transformation. However, these are often fragmented, hidden in niches, disseminated and to society as a whole barely known or visible. We call concrete utopian approaches that are already lived or practiced real utopias. Real utopias are forward-looking approaches for the realization of a livable, regenerative and just society that can be practically implemented or already exist on a small scale and could be scaled up. By focusing on real utopias, fears about the future can be reduced and the energy of society as a whole can be better focused on discovering possible solutions.

  

Real utopias are visible at all levels of society - from the private to the public. Current real utopias include Teal organizations and social enterprises, 3D printing of houses, aquaponics, energy self-sufficient buildings made of wood with green roofs, urban gardening, free rental bikes, cradle2cradle products, citizen councils, solidarity agriculture, permaculture farming and syntropic farming, repair cafés, transition towns, the Happy Planet Index, or meditation classes and project-based curricula in schools. 

 

Real utopias are also not to be understood as conclusive solutions - they just contain the next best logics for a beautiful and desirable life.

Utopia, Eutopia, Real utopia


By definition, utopias are fictional places. They can also be thought of as vantage points. From them we can look from the future back to the present and pursue the question of how certain hurdles were overcome at our time and what steps need to be taken.

The word "utopia" is derived from the Greek and means something like "no place" (ou = not; tópos = place). More correct would actually be the word "eutopia," which describes a good or beautiful place (eu = good), but due to the equal pronunciation of eutopia and utopia in English, the term has been displaced over time.

"Real utopia" (real = not only existing in the imagination; representational), on the other hand, unites two opposites as an oxymoron: the here-and-now and the utopian future place. Through the real manifestation of utopian principles on the one hand and a never-ending development and openness on the other, it succeeds in squaring the circle. Therefore, real utopias are tools on the journey into tomorrow, or in other words, they are valuable markers on our transformation paths.

Reinhold Messner, the famous extreme mountaineer, once explained this very vividly: "If you not only have ideas, but also let them grow, shape them into real utopias and bring strength, endurance and stamina to put them into practice, you always change something. That's how I, as a visionary, turn the future into a past that can be experienced."

Utopia oder Dystopia




Great thinkers in history have always been concerned with utopias, from Plato (Politeia), to Francis Bacon (New Atlantis), Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan), Leonardo da Vinci (flying), Milton Friedman (neoliberalism) and Karl Marx (communism). When Thomas Morus published his famous "Utopia" in 1516, he inspired the striving for progress and a better future and became the father of the concept of utopia.

Later, representatives of socialist as well as fascist ideologies shaped the genre and contributed to its fall through restrictive and authoritarian notions of the common good. One thing is clear: every good utopia must take the free and individual development of humans as its basis. Or, in Richard David Precht's words, "Intrinsic motivation - self-determined interest - must be at the heart of every utopia. In its dazzling fullness, it constitutes what it means to be human." [4] And so many literates in history saw the humans of the future as artists who do not live "in order to..." but who follow their human nature, seeking to realize the Beautiful, the True, and the Good.

Political utopias become problematic when they present ready-made goals, exploit the potentially identity-forming power of agitation against third parties and disparagement of other groups, divide people and nations, and negate scientific foundations. Often such visions arouse aspirations; but these, as recent examples of autocratic populists show, are exclusionary and destructive. As Orwell (1984, 1949) and Huxley (Brave New World, 1932) impressively demonstrated, utopian dreams from left to right can thus turn into dystopian worlds of horror.

Utopias that throw the central principles of human self-determination overboard and present their own vision as the only true one in a Machiavellian way are highly dangerous. This also applies to social experiments of repressive political regimes that want to educate people to perfect beings and prescribe the correct way of life. For this reason in particular, we would like to take a new, hopeful path with real utopias.


[4]
Precht, R. D. (2018): Jäger, Hirten, Kritiker: Eine Utopie für die digitale Gesellschaft. Goldmann Verlag.

Modern utopias are unfinished, open and integral 


"Everything is and moves according to a single law: life."
~ Frida Kahlo

When developing utopias, it is essential not to absolutize values and goals and never to establish them as true or final. Rather, it is about the development of certain logics and solution paths that meet social challenges.

Utopias must always remain unfinished proposals for a better world
and be open to diverse and marginalized perspectives. They must be ready to take up new needs and social changes, invite constructive criticism, and permanently question themselves. Such utopias, as inspiring invitations to new thinking spaces and possibilities, can contribute significantly to civilizational advancement toward the realization of happiness, peace, and planetary balance. 

They can then unleash their transformative power by igniting human creativity and enabling fundamental innovation - on the way to a more beautiful and just world.