Blog No.12. Destination 2050: the 21st century needs Utopian Realism

December 18, 2012

By Peter Ellyard


When we seek to shape the future we first imagine and choose a goal and second we develop and implement a strategy to realize it. In the 19th and 20th  centuries two competing philosophical approaches significantly informed how we might best shape the future: utopianism and realism. Historian and realist C.F. Carr described the difference between utopianism and realism respectively as between those who regard politics as a function of ethics and those who regard ethics as a function of politics. Traditionally utopians tended to inhabit the world dominated by the primacy of ideas and realists the world dominated by the primacy of power.

In the 20th century it was virtually impossible to consider shaping the future without being influenced by competing ideological perspectives: socialism versus capitalism, communism versus fascism, and democracy versus autocracy. Utopianism traditionally is regarded as the territory of the ideologically progressive – the political left. They envisioned preferred futures – what should be the future and committed themselves to what I call mission-directed strategic actions to realize their preferred future. Realists contended that utopians were too ambitious and bold in defining their goals, and noted that most utopians were often limited and impractical at devising effective means to fulfill their aspirations . Realists had a point as for the most part utopians only proposed two strategies for realizing their aspirations: either fomenting revolution that tears down the old with the aim of creating the new, or totally withdrawing from society and building the new from scratch outside it. In the 21st century where we recognize that humanity, like it or not, has a shared home and a shared future, withdrawing completely from society is less likely for the consequences of doing so means loss of opportunity to prosper through connection to global trade and investment. However whenever the old was torn down babies were usually thrown out with bathwater. Destruction was rampant  – the French and Russian Revolutions, Jonestown and the Year Zero of Pol Pot illustrate this fact. Democratic socialism was an attempt to combine somewhat more modest utopian goal setting with modest realistic strategic actions. However it still placed the government at the centre of change and regarded markets and capitalism generally as something they must live with and whose excesses should be tamed. By and large intervening in markets and capitalism to produce positive outcomes was not central to implementing their aspirations. In the 21st century democratic socialism began to shift towards ‘the Third Way’ where market economies and private investment are increasingly used to do more of the heavy lifting to create positive outcomes and lessen reliance on state investment characteristic of the USSR style ‘command economy’.

Realism on the other hand is the territory of the ideological conservative- the political right. Realism has been used to justify laissez faire approaches, the maintenance of the status quo, and minimalist action by government in shaping the future. In the main any action was aimed to consider probable futures – what will be the future- and to minimize harm or overcome problems rather than to create positive outcomes.  – this is what I call a problem-centred strategic action. If realism dominated all our thinking reform would be rare and always insufficient.

So utopianism fails mainly because the strategies designed to realize aspirations are ineffective or even worse, produce disaster, when action to realize them is initiated. And realism fails because its aspirations are mediocre , it aims to protect the status quo, and to institute change only when things go wrong.

In my last blog (No.11) I referred to Tony Giddens description of utopian realismthinking beyond the world we live in now, but with realistic ways of getting there. I also discussed the Apollo project which actually realized a previously thought to be impossible aspiration. I suggested that this was an example of utopian realism implemented before the term was invented.

In the polarized Modernist 20th century it would have been inconceivable to put these two words together into a single framework. They were conceived as two conflicting and opposing ways of shaping the future. Postmodernism however encourages us to appropriate from diverse ways of knowing and different cultural approaches- both old and new- and combine these to create new ways of doing things. In the modernist past we used to think that environment and development were incompatible yet we are now combining these into new conceptual frameworks. In my own work I have introduced the concept of sustainable prosperity, two words that were regarded as incompatible in modernist times, but to me are totally complementary in the postmodern present and the emerging planetist future.  Both realism and utopianism failed individually as effective shapers of the future. However we can now be very postmodern and combine the lofty envisioning characteristic of utopianism and the realistic strategic action making of realism: we can bring these together into a new 21st century relevant framework. In doing this we are combining the advantages of both utopianism and realism and eliminating  the disadvantages of both of these- a very postmodern approach. This is a win/win outcome. This way we can imagine and initiate major changes through uplifting and utopian visions and seek to use existing tools to realize them, by implementing proven strategies to realize these aspirations and with means that do not create unacceptable levels of collateral damage. Indeed my core definition of sustainably is doing things in ways that that produce zero net collateral damage to others and the environment. I have embraced the concept of utopian realism because it involves thinking and acting in ways I have done for decades.

            Destination 2050 :  realizing universal prosperity, sustainability, harmony, justice and security by the year 2050 is a utopian goal. However my strategic toolkit for realizing this future is built on my 20 years experience as a public sector CEO. It is described in my books and other writings. My very realistic six tools for shaping the future to realize this utopian Destination 2050 are known to all who have read my books or know my work.

Our young are already moving into the utopian realist space.  Generation Y does not look at the world through the ideological lenses that is embedded in the thinking of my generation. And they are not joining political parties who for the most part are still trapped in ideological modes of thinking.  However Generation Y is as committed to building a better future as I am. They recognize that the command economy is dead and the market economy can be driven into new positive directions through their own entrepreneurship and collaborative consumer action driven through social media and other means. They are beginning to deliver revolutionary levels change without the immense collateral damage characteristic the revolutionary change of yesteryear. And they are founding businesses to accomplish visionary aspirations. They want to economically prosper while doing ecological, social and cultural good. They believe in sustainable prosperity, they believe in utopian realism, and they are planetists – even if they do not recognize any of these terms.

I am a natural utopian realist but I don’t meet many like me in people closer to my own age. I meet many frustrated utopians who are still blaming the tools of change such as capitalism, technology, and globalization for all the ills of the world, without recognizing these same tools equally can equally be used to realize the aspirations they yearn for if the use of these tools is informed by planetist values. On the other hand I also meet many timid realists who go through their lives without imagining things that never were and saying why not? – to quote G.B Shaw. They focus on making minor change- mostly solving problems that impede ‘progress’, and protecting their own interests. In our emerging 21st century interconnected interdependent global society the acceptable way of constructing change is through crafting win/win outcomes, not win /loss so characteristic of both sides of the ideological divide in the 20th century.

Even though I have only embraced utopian realism after Destination 2050 went to press a month ago, I recognize that my books are actually manuals for would-be utopian realists – which is my pathway to purposeful future-making

In my own work I have been criticized by both realists who think that I am an impractical dreamer and utopians who tell me I have sold out to ‘the market’. So I must be doing something right. My utopian critics are mostly in the media and academia and watch things happen but rarely make things happen. On the other hand many of my former colleagues in bureaucracies are unrepentant realists who distrust the making of utopian aspirations, and who for the most part envision small and seek to only make changes at the margin.

The time is right for us embrace utopian realism as the best way forward for creating a 21st century global society we all yearn for and one that is worthy of our best selves. Both Destination 2050 and Designing 2050 stress that this aspiration is within reach by the year 2050 and offers the toolkit for the realistic realization of these utopian goals.


18 December 2012





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