Blog No.11. Destination 2050 : to realise it we need utopian realism but not pragmatic idealism.

December 14, 2012

Tony Giddens – Baron Giddens for he is a UK Labour peer-  is a distinguished English thinker and change maker/catalyst. He has been and still is a major contributor to the conceptual base of sociology over decades and was the initiator of ‘The Third Way’ implemented by the New Labour government of another Tony whom Giddens was close to, namely Tony Blair. I am a life-member of the Australian Labor Party , and I have  worked within the parliament of public policy with ministers, and I spent two decades as a CEO of public sector organisations, trying to both encourage visionary public policy and translate visionary public policy aspirations into realistic outcomes on the ground.  I also support non-ideological  ‘Third Way’ thinking myself. Therefore it is not surprising that I am sympathetic with much of his thinking.  


Giddens is now promoting what he calls utopian realism’.  I find this pair of words uplifting. His definition of utopian realism: thinking beyond the world we live in now, but with realistic ways of getting there . Tony Blair in 2000 at the WEF in Davos introduced the concept of pragmatic idealism. It might be thatGiddens had something to do with this word twin pair as well. Tony Blair said something else in that speech that matters.   He had the view that just as ideology shaped the 20th century, often with disastrous results, ideals should shape the 21st century. However he also said that these ideals should be pragmatic – realizable.  I interpret his doctrine as saying that we should prepared to downsize our idealistic vision if necessary when we can’t imagine the means, or find the resources, to realize our original aspirations.  


I do not resonate to pragmatic idealism as I do to utopian realism.  As I sought to compare these apparently similar concepts I was surprised to find while they appeal somewhat equally to my head they produce totally different responses in my heart. And in my heart utopian realism sings while pragmatic idealism does not.  As I drilled down to consider the reason for this responsive difference,  I thought about the Apollo Program and Mission- harking back to 1961 when Kennedy told the people of the US that he  wanted the US to go to the moon and back by the end of that decade. When Kennedy  gave that speech nobody had clue how it might be accomplished. But nobody sought to downsize that aspiration saying that perhaps we should take 20 years rather than less than a decade, or aim to just to put a person into orbit around the Earth without aspiring to go on to the moon. Because this project was a presidentially initiated and well funded program that was important for national prestige- the mission to the moon and back was first invented and then accomplished on time and somewhat over budget.  The Apollo program asked Americans people to stretch themselves, think more creatively, and innovate more purposefully to realise this clearly utopian destination. People around the world were inspired and uplifted by watching the project unfold over a decade. From the EarthRise photographs taken from Apollo 8 humanity saw our fragile and beautiful planetary home for the first time. This moment was a tipping point. Looking at these photographs humanity was forced for the first time to recognize that it had shared home and shared a future.  My conclusion was that the Apollo Program was an exemplar of utopian realism but was not an example of pragmatic idealism. To me the  difference between utopian realism and pragmatic idealism is stark. With the Apollo project I think utopian realism  would have  accomplished the mission  while pragmatic idealism  would have produced failure.


Utopian realism means that as we aspire to shape the future we should never downsize our aspirations because of the demands of realism. If we do our inspiration and purposefulness will also lessen . Seeking more pedestrian aspirations will certainly produce more pedestrian strategies to realise them. However while we must not let realism downsize our aspirations we should be prepared to let realism inform out outcomes. We should be prepared to accept receiving half-a-loaf even if we hoped to receive a full loaf: for we can accept that half-loaf and then rededicate ourselves to search for a means to obtain the other half-loaf.  The bottom line is that we must never downside our aspirations but we should be realistic about the outcomes.


Both my books Designing 2050 and Destination 2050  ask the reader to imagine a planetary society in the year 2050 that is universally prosperous, sustainable, harmonious, just and secure- just five key words. This fits Giddens’ criterion of looking a world beyond the world of today. In my own futures terminology this involves imaging leadership-driven, vision-generated preferred-future or possible- future prospects but not management-driven prophecy-generated probable -future or prospective-future prophecies . It involves imagining a future well beyond what is present now- a future that will never be realised if we just proceed with more of the same, business as usual.  It also involves crafting a strategy – creating a project – that enables humanity to achieve this on schedule and within budget.  Ralph Waldo Emerson describes this aspiration marvellously:  Do not follow where the path may lea d. Go instead whee there is no path and leave a trail.    


This difference is also invoked by the serpent in The George Bernard Shaw’s 5-play cycle Back to Methuselah, where the serpent said ;   You see things and say why. I see things that never were and say why not.  Yes we need a lot more utopian realism .


Some of us are utopian realists by nature- I am this way by nature- but if we need more utopian realism in our discourse and negotiations- and I share Giddens’ view that we do –  we need to create concepts banks and  toolkits that enable all who wish embed utopian realism in their mindsets to do so.   Much of my work is dedicated to doing just this.


I have known about pragmatic idealism from 12 years and did nothing with it. Interesting that!  Clearly it did not mean much to me but when I contrasted it with utopian realism I was writing this blog within 24 hours. Thank you Tony Giddens !


Peter Ellyard 12/12/2012

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