Full transcript of futurist and designer Angela Oguntala’s TEDx Talk: Re-imagine the Future at TEDxCopenhagen conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: re-imagine-the-future-by-angela-oguntala-at-tedxcopenhagen
We love to think about the future. We have all of these predictions about what it will be like when it comes. The future of meat is lab-grown. The future of music is a chip in your brain. The future of chairs is a pair of Bionic pants that you put on and then you just kind of lean back into. The future of film, of work, of love, we talk about the future like it’s this thing that will just arrive one day.
But why do we think that? I have a little nephew named Nelson and he told me that he thinks that school is pointless. And when I asked him why, he said, because sooner than later, there’s going to be a machine that he can get into and then he’s just going to get smart by the push of a button, so why should he waste his time? And you know what he might be right. Who knows?
And then there’s this guy. I call him Doomsday Jerry and Jerry believes that a huge catastrophe is on its way. He’s not exactly sure what it will be: a nuclear attack, natural disaster but he knows that it’s coming. So he has spent $7 million preparing for it, including booby-trapping his house and buying a lifetime supply of premium toilet paper.
Now you can call Jerry a survivalist. You can call him a visionary, or you can call him just plain paranoid. But the fact is that Doomsday Jerry, just like my nephew, is hypnotized by a vision of the future. And he acts on it, because that is what we often do. If we believe that this is going to happen in the future, then this is how we’ll act in the present. So visions and dreams and images and ideas of the future, they’re powerful and they creep in all the time.
So let’s look at some of the ways that they do creep in.
Talking to your watch. This is the quintessential self-fulfilling prophecy. Pop culture has told us that talking into your watch is the future. So we’ve constantly tried to produce it and to reproduce it.
And then there is the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City which showcased the World of Tomorrow. 44 million people attended these exhibits and they were told that this is what the future will look like: master planned cities and suburbia, superhighways, futuristic kitchen appliances. This helped to define the American Dream, which meant that it ultimately helped to bring that specific dream to life.
So these kinds of visions, they creep in and then they stay with us, from Hollywood, from tech companies, from science fiction. And I don’t think it’s a conspiracy. I think we all collect visions so that we can have something to aspire to. But in the same way our visions inspire us. They can also start to limit us. If we hear the same narratives over and over again and if we see the same visuals over and over again, then that becomes our scope of possibility. That becomes our benchmark for what we believe is good and what’s not.
So today I want you to think about your assumptions about the future, because there are just so many different futures and alternatives out there. And if we choose to be more curious about them, then they will make us rethink what’s possible.
Take the concept of mobile money. I can pay for all sorts of things in my everyday life by sending money to someone’s phone number. I bought a bike for my next door neighbor. I split the bill when I’m out to eat with friends. I buy furniture from flea markets and I do all these things as easy as it is to send a text message. Part of the reason that I can do this, part of the inspiration for this is based on M-Pesa.
M-Pesa is the mobile payment system that started almost 10 years ago in Kenya. And M-Pesa came to life from the everyday needs of what life in Kenya was like and a vision of what it could be like. For instance, people wanted to send money to family members that lived far away and many people didn’t have bank accounts. So Kenyan started experimenting with new ways to transfer money. And their vision was so successful that it did influence the world, including my world here in Copenhagen.
Our futures can be influenced by people in places that we’re just not used to looking to. But looking back might seem a little obvious. So let’s look forward to space. Bangladesh has a space program and so does Ethiopia. But how can a poor country afford a space program is what the outside world asks very very frequently. And getting stuck on a question this flat stops people from having more interesting, more nuanced and may be more useful and necessary discussions like what does Bangladesh hope to achieve with their space program? What future are they working towards? What knowledge and traditions drive these dreams?
When Ethiopia launched its space program last year, they said that their main priority is to inspire young people to be involved in science and technology. And that ability to inspire can’t be underestimated because it gives people permission to imagine. An imagination is the spark that can lead to change for Bangladesh, for Ethiopia, for the outside world. People first need to be able to imagine a future, to see themselves in a different place before they can make it happen.
And one of the most compelling ways that we do have to imagine is through science fiction. Science fiction has always made us think about what things could be different. And Caribbean science fiction opens up new worlds from a new perspective. It’s about aliens that rent the bodies of Cubans so they can vacation on earth. It’s about surveillance robots based on Jamaican folklore and Jamaican magic. It’s about Caribbean post-apocalyptic world shaped by extreme weather events and climate change. And of course, it’s about this and so much more. But what these kinds of stories do is that they can open up new worlds and they can make you think new thoughts that might surprise you, like what future technologies and societies might a Caribbean culture build, and what apocalyptic disasters have people already lived through, and how does that shape how they approach the future.
Reading something like Caribbean science fiction makes us aware of the fact that how we imagine the future depends on who is doing it. It depends on that person’s traditions, their history, their language, their mythology and all of these aspects of a person’s identity sit behind how they think about technology, the kinds of scenarios they think are good or bad, and the kinds of stories that they tell.
So when we consume stories about the future we should be aware of who is telling them. And I’ve always found this interesting partly because I’m a third culture kit. I was born in Lagos, Nigeria. I’m an American. I’ve lived in Iran and my home now is Copenhagen. With each one of these places I’ve seen and I’ve collected news stories about the future, new things to aspire to, new things to be afraid of. And although these experiences have broadened my perspective, I still get really uncomfortable and really confused by some of the alternatives in all of these places. And maybe that’s why we don’t sometimes see them, because they can make us feel uncomfortable and confused. It’s much easier to create need filters for exactly what we see and what we like and what we don’t see. And a really simple way we do that is by making others and their visions of what’s possible to something.
They’re too religious – the Arab world. They’re too disorganized – Africans. They’re too unemotional – the Chinese. They’re too emotional – women, Colombians — Colombian women. And of course, we know we shouldn’t think like this. I mean, I know I shouldn’t think like this. But sometimes I do, it happens and we need to be real about it so that we can do something to change it. Because what these filters do is that they leave us with a narrow set of choices and imaginations. And they also bring about an immense amount of conflict due to the fact that we don’t really understand what others are dreaming of, and so we don’t know what they’re working towards.
But we can find ways to disable some of these filters and how do you do that, you find a new source: talk to your grandmother. Ask her how she imagines the future, and I bet you she’ll tell you that no one asks her that anymore or read that Filipino science fiction novel, watch a Nigerian post-apocalyptic film, look for stories that ask what if from a new perspective. And maybe the next time you go on vacation you don’t only go on safari or lay by the beach but you find your counterpart in that place. Whoever you are and wherever you are, you have a counterpart. You’re a Danish engineer and you’re a Mexico go to a university, talk to an engineer, ask her what her dreams and nightmares are about the future.
When we choose to be curious about the alternatives and when we take them seriously, we’ll start to think in new ways, we’ll solve problems in new ways and we’ll just start to see possibilities that we couldn’t see before.
When it comes to our futures, we have hope, we have fear but sometimes we forget that we also have influence. And that means we can choose the futures we want to work towards. Nothing is written in stone. So reconsider your vision of the future. Take a chance and be surprised.