Markus Kreutzer

The Role of Future Imaginaries to Design for Societal Transformations




More than a decade ago a group of earth system and environmental scientists published a paper to define nine planetary life support systems that are essential for human survival. For each of these nine planetary life support systems the researchers defined a boundary within which humanity could thrive for the generations to come. In order to stay within these boundaries many societies, especially those that are considered as highly developed, need to transform their habits and practices towards social-ecological resilience and sustainability. These societal transformation processes, whether they relate to changes of economic systems, urban infrastructures or consumer behaviors, are driven or prevented by individual and collective actions.

Though, people aren't completely free and act within social structures that contain imaginations like assumptions, norms and expectations. Future imaginaries are such imaginations about the future that affect individual and collective actions in the present. As consequence these actions shape social structures and therefore future imaginaries. The following is an attempt to explain these causal effects between future imaginaries and the development of social structures. It will also be discussed why and how practices of unsustainability get reproduced through future imaginaries. Both aspects will be addressed by answering the questions how future imaginaries affect the actions of individuals and organizations, and how in turn these actions affect social structures, and therefore the further development of future imaginaries. To illustrate the developed conception, future imaginaries in the field of mobility will be used as an example.

All individual and collective actors of a society contribute to the creation and distribution of future imaginaries. Organizations produce and distribute them through products and communications, individuals through informal communications, movie makers through narratives and politicians through speeches and decisions. For that reason, the following will also outline how to design interventions that transform existing future imaginaries, and therefore enable societal transformation processes towards more resilient and sustainable futures.

Social Change and Societal Transformation

When a group of engineers develops a technology, when people trade a good through a prior defined currency or when youths create a movement to fight for their future. All these are social phenomena where humans act and interact with each other and the sum of these actions produces structures which in turn affect following actions and interactions. These interdependencies between actions and the formation of social structures define under which conditions and how humans interact with the natural environment in social-ecological systems. An economic system for example has social structures with roles and practices influenced by beliefs, norms, assumptions and worldviews. Such structures define how humans act within the structure and these actions form the further structural development of the economic system, which in turn defines the further actions of humans within it. These interdependencies between actions and structures create a repetitive loop that over a period of time becomes a social process. When this process gets exposed to external influences each loop of the social process changes its state and the social process becomes social change. This could be a change in language, norms, social order, cultural practices or behavioral patterns. When for example an economic system that follows the idea of infinite growth gets exposed to the influences of sustainability science, social change could mean the emergence of an idea like green infinite growth.

Societal transformations are fundamental changes in a society that affect beliefs, norms and assumptions, but also technology, production, consumption, infrastructure and politics. These transformations change the operating systems of a society like law or political institutions, or societal subsystems like transportation or the economy. Societal transformations are non-linear because they change the direction in which a society develops. If a transformation is intentionally designed, it addresses normative questions and aims to create changes towards more desirable futures, for example towards more sustainable and resilient societies. Whether its about economy or transportation the operating systems of a society are human creations and therefore social phenomena that are shaped by actions and structures. In order to enable transformations on a societal scale, humans have to take action and actively intervene in social change.

Future Imaginations and Future Imaginaries

Whenever we make a plan, develop a strategy, dream about a different state of the world, formulate assumptions of what could happen tomorrow or discuss the consequences of an action, we imagine possible futures in the present. These future imaginations are mental constructions represented through language by sharing, explaining and discussing our thoughts and assumptions. How we perceive the world emerges from the experiences we made in the world and these experiences are defined by the social environments in which we grew up. Thus, these experiences also define our imaginations about the future, and thereby enable and constrain them. This mental limit defines the field of action within which we navigate and move from the present into the future. In order to imagine alternative futures that are outside of our mental limit, we have to make experiences that expand these limits.

So far future imaginations have been outlined, but what are future imaginaries? And what is the difference between the two terms? The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes imaginaries as stories or narratives of how people imagine their social coexistence. But these kinds of imaginations aren't individual imaginations, they are shared by a large group of people or even a whole society, what makes common practices possible and enables a widely shared sense of legitimacy. On that basis, future imaginaries are imaginations about the future that are so common, widely shared and unquestioned within a society, that they guide the actions of large groups of people or a whole society towards a common direction. In that sense they are part of the social structures of societies and can be found in roles and practices. Often these future imaginaries emerge as future imaginations and then spread through informal and formal communication in visual, written or spoken language. Statements such as “artificial intelligence is the future” or “electric mobility is the future” are common representations of such future imaginaries.

The emergence and effect of future imaginaries

The Effects of Future Imaginaries on Social Change

But how do future imaginaries affect the social actions of individuals and organizations? As outlined do the experiences that individuals have made in a social environment define how they perceive the world. This perception of reality and its mental limit becomes visible when imagining possible futures. We are just able to imagine a combination of what we have already experienced. Future imaginations are therefore often extrapolations of the past and present, or something we could imagine to happen, because we have experienced it in another context and transferred it from there. What we have never experienced, heard of, or observed is very difficult or probably impossible to imagine. The perception of the present and the imagination of the past and future defines the space within which people plan and navigate towards the future. Future imaginaries are a part of social structures and a subject to the limits of imagination. They are widespread and common assumptions about the future that define the actions of entire societies and therefore how societies navigate and move towards the future. Future imaginaries are fixed imagined environments that guide the decisions and actions of individuals without widespread or common questioning where the imagination of a desired or assumed state of something in the future comes from. This affects every individual, citizens as well as politicians or managers. In principle, everyone who is part of a social structure. Future imaginaries affect their actions like consumption behavior, decision-making, project planning, social interactions or storytelling.

But how do actions that are driven by future imaginaries affect social structures and therefore the further development of future imaginaries? Earlier on, it was outlined how the actions of individuals form the social structures of a society, of a societal subsystem or of a group of people, and how these structures in turn affect individual and collective actions. Hence, when the actions of individuals are guided by unquestioned future imaginaries, these future imaginaries must also affect social structures like roles, practices, beliefs, norms, worldviews and opinions. When for example the common future imaginary “artificial intelligence is the future” guides the action of a politician or manager, the unquestioned assumption that artificial intelligence will be a non-negotiable future technology, produces new roles and practices such as investment strategies, jobs or public communications. When this happens the causal loop closes, because with the further development of social structures, also future imaginaries develop further which in turn produces new actions. Then the loop recurs and a social process emerges. If this social process is exposed to external influences, the social process becomes social change and also future imaginaries change over time.

The reproduction and effect of future imaginaries

The Effects of Future Mobility Imaginaries on Social Change

The just described reproduction will now be illustrated through future mobility imaginaries and their effects on social change. The most common future mobility imaginaries of the past years are on one hand the imaginary of electric and self-driving cars, and on the other hand the imaginary of car-free cities and cycling mobility. Both future mobility imaginaries represent the earlier explained mental limits of imagination and show to what extend future imaginations are based on the experiences we made in a social environment. All the producers and communicators of these imaginaries grew up in a social reality and have made experiences within this environment. Maybe they grew up with their parents having a car and the idea of a car as a desired object of freedom and social status. Maybe they even played with toy cars. Growing up in such kind of car-centric environment shapes the perception of reality, how someone imagines the future, and the actions of individuals and organizations. This becomes visible on the individual level for instance in consumption behavior, but also on an organizational level in decision-making, economic investments or technological developments.

If a designer grows up in a very car-centric social reality and is exposed to few external influences, it is highly probable that its mobility related work involves cars in one or the other way. Maybe such outcomes are then considered as futuristic due to its aesthetic or functionality, but in essence the work would probably be centered around cars with similar decade old features. Let's assume most humans don't live in isolation and there are external influences like growing ecological challenges, the emergence of a technology like artificial intelligence or increasing traffic congestion challenges. In that case, humans absorb these influences, their mental limit expands, and also future imaginations change. In the case of mobility this leads to future imaginations like the one of electric cars to approach ecological challenges or of self-driving cars to solve traffic congestion challenges. What stays is the future imaginary of a car for individual transportation combined with an external influence, imagined by people that experienced a lot of car throughout their life. Without such experiences they would probably have imagined something fundamentally different. Technological developments are therefore shaped by and at the same time shape the social structure their developers are embedded in, and the interactions between the social and the technological produce predetermined paths. That means that since the technological system of the car was developed and implemented, it became part of many social realities out of which future mobility imaginaries emerged. But how do actions that are driven by future mobility imaginaries affect social structures? Every action of an individual shapes social structures. In the case of future mobility imaginaries this leads to the creation of new roles such as battery material engineers and artificial intelligence specialists, or increased funding for research on batteries for electric cars and political programs like innovation bonuses. Beyond that, such formation of social structures through future imaginaries is also visible in the further development of norms, routines, behaviors and certainly also future imaginaries.

The reproduction and effect of future mobility imaginaries

From Social Change to Societal Transformation

There is a widespread consensus that in order to leave the path of unsustainability, societies have to radically transform their habits and practices. As outlined earlier, these habits and practices are part of the social reality of individuals and deeply rigidified in social structures. Like norms and routines, future imaginaries are part of such social structures with an enormous influence on people's decisions and actions, and therefore the future development of a society. To guide individual and collective actions towards resilience and sustainability, also future imaginaries have to be transformed. If such transformation of future imaginaries isn't an integral part of transformation design, societies will repetitively reproduce the same or similar habits, practices and structures. Like that the imaginary of infinite growth became the future imaginary of infinite green growth, the imaginary of cars became the future imaginary of electric cars, and the future imaginary of electric cars became the future imaginary of electric self-driving cars. This might produce desired effects in some cases, but even if a car is electric it will still produce traffic congestion and deaths, the long term consequences of battery production and waste is very difficult to anticipate and autonomous machines produce new ethical challenges.

If there are planetary boundaries, the described linear social change cannot be infinitely be reproduced. Hence, old social-ecological problems, become changed new social-ecological problems and the only way forward is to move from social change to societal transformation. Though, in order to move from social change to societal transformation its necessary to intervene into the reproduction of future imaginaries, what would then trigger actions that affect fundamental changes in systems such as economy, energy or transportation. These designed interventions could produce alternative future imaginaries as part of a societies social structure and then guide individual and collective actions. But what could such interventions be? The experiences that people gain in the world shape their individual and collective perception and what they are able to imagine. Hence, designed interventions such as narratives, images, interactions or writings need to be experiences through which the imagination of possible futures expands or changes. Though, of course also the designers space of imagination has mental limits and their interventions might be as reproductive as the reproduction they are trying to intervene in. This needs to be considered when designing such kind of interventions through reflective research practices. Furthermore, to enable transformations on a societal scale the designed interventions need to address the individual, spread through formal and informal communication, and then form alternative future imaginaries that guide the behavior of large groups of people or societies as a whole towards a future that guarantees a thriving planet for generations to come.

Designed intervention into the reproduction of future imaginaries


The just outlined is an attempt to offer a new perspective why societies remain in their development path and thereby reproduce similar behaviors over and over again, and especially what role future imaginaries play in this social phenomena. This was outlined in the field of mobility by illustrating the reproduction of future mobility imaginaries and their effects on individual and collective actions. Furthermore, it was outlined how interventions need to be designed in order to enable transformations towards social-ecological resilience and sustainability. Beyond that, every individual needs to be able to reflect on the reproduction of sourrounding imaginaries, try to prevent reproductions where needed, and propose new alternative future imaginaries. Just like that new future imaginaries as guiding imaginations within large groups of people and societies can emerge. This is a fundamental educational task because just if everyone has the consciousness for current and for possible more desired guiding future imaginaries, the required large scale transformation, that consists of many small transformations driven by peoples actions, can be organized. On that basis it can be argued that beside aspects like the development of technologies for sustainability or infrastructural adaptations, the emergence of alternative future imaginaries is still underestimated. For that reason their role needs to be deeply integrated into transformation design strategies.