The Art of the Potential

Otto von Bismarck once astutely said that “politics is the art of the possible.” Yet as our various political systems prove themselves increasingly incapable of solving – or even honestly discussing – the many problems facing the globe, we are in desperate need of something more than what is commonly assumed “possible”.

For the vast majority of us born into the industrialized world, we live incredibly institutionalized lives. Indeed, we are literally born into an institutionalized hospital system, separated from our mothers almost instantly. We are then ‘educated’ through a system of institutionalized schools for a minimum of 9 or 10 years, and often up to 16 years or more. Nearly everything we need is provided by one institution or another – from getting a driver’s license to getting married, we are continuously passed through an incredible universe of seemingly benign institutions.

Thus, it is no wonder that we have come to expect institutional solutions to the plethora of problems we see unfolding around us. The institutionalization of our consciousness, though, is often so pervasive that its difficult even to recognize or see beyond the narrow options given to us through such a controlled system.  Institutional dependence thus limits our vision of what is possible and erodes our sense of agency in the world.

Politics, of course, is so deeply ingrained in an institutional framework that it seems silly to even suggest that it doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, our current institutionalized bureaucracies have historically brought order to the political process and protected the rights that many of us hold so dear. Yet in the face of such a clearly broken and inadequate political process, amidst questions about whether these rights are now protected or undermined, can we dare to dream of something different?

The late systems theorist and visionary Donella Meadows once wrote of the power of visioning to free ourselves from unexamined assumptions and conceptual constraints. In our industrial society, she wrote, “particularly in the cultures of science and economics, envisioning is actively discouraged.” For her, “the process of building a responsible vision of a sustainable world is not a rational one. It comes from values, not logic.” And hence, it is a necessary and transformative antidote to our overly rational, reductionist approach to facing the future.

True visioning – learning how to imagine a future that we want, not merely what we expect is possible – is an art, a skill that must be cultivated and nurtured. It is a process which opens us to our own potential, but can take us to a very vulnerable place. Realizing the distance between our envisioned world and the world we actually live in can be a painful process.

However, without a compelling vision of where we want to go – as individuals, as communities, as societies – how can we ever expect to get beyond what we actually have? This is not to deny reality in any sense; in fact, it is to recognize and embrace the uncertain nature of reality. In an ever-changing and uncertain universe, potential is nearly infinite.

The art of visioning is not a rational process, but neither is it an exclusively mystical or flaky new age practice. It is increasingly being used by policy makers, business, and civil society organizations to help plan for an uncertain future. Even the UK government is engaged in future scenario planning. However, visioning a different path forward is useful only when there is a genuine engagement with the process and the outcome is shared with others.

Einstein was probably on to something when he said, “you cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” Only once we have dared to see a different world will we be empowered to live it.


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