/ Mark Frauenfelder / 10 am Fri, May 27 2016
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  • What I learned after spending two days with futurists and positive psychologists

    What I learned after spending two days with futurists and positive psychologists

    I wish Scott Barry Kaufman had been my college professor. Scott told me that he gives extra credit for daydreaming in his classes. That would have been an easy A for a space-case like me.

    Scott is the scientific director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The Imagination Institute’s mission is to “make progress on the measurement, growth, and improvement of imagination across all sectors of society.” One of the ways it’s doing this is by conducting retreats with different groups of people — such as educators, evolutionary psychologists, standup comedians, and futurists — to learn how they use their imaginations in their work.

    In May 2016, I participated in The Imagination Institute’s two day “futurists retreat,” held at Institute for the Future’s Palo Alto headquarters, where I’m a research director. I arrived on Tuesday and met the other participants. Leading the retreat along with Scott was Jane McGonigal, IFTF’s director of game research and development. Jane’s a game designer and author of two New York Times best-selling books about self-development though imagination, creativity, and play. We were joined by IFTF staffers Tessa Finlev, Dylan Hendricks, Sarah Smith, and Kathi Vian, along with futurists Stuart Candy and Jamais Cascio, Imagination Institute’s Elizabeth Hyde, and James W. Hovey of the Eisenhower Fellowships.

    What follows is my account of the retreat, and the five memorable insights I gleaned from the experience.

    Insight 1: Imagination is not a property of a single brain

    In the morning Jane led a group exercise to introduce The Imagination Institute to the idea of futures thinking. Everyone was given a pad of giant sticky notes and asked to write down the reasons why some people can’t (or don’t want to) imagine the future.

    I uncapped my pen and wrote “Belief that futures thinking is a waste of time,” and “Not necessary because we already know how to be successful.” After a few minutes Jane collected the sticky notes and we all discussed how the notes should be organized into related clusters. As Jane arranged the notes on the wall, the clustering triggered even more ideas for sticky notes. In fact, the most interesting sticky notes were generated after the first round had been put on the wall. Seeing the big picture that was developed by the group helped kick our creative juices into gear. While it’s true that imagination is sometimes sparked by thinking on your own, it’s also true that collaborative thinking can lead to “lightbulb moments” that no individual would have thought of on their own. Stuart Candy, a professor at OCAD University in Toronto, remarked, “imagination is not a property of a single brain.”

    Organizing the reasons why people don’t want to think about the future

    Organizing the reasons why people don’t want to think about the future

    The major reasons people had difficulty imagining the future included:

    Insight 2: Empty the bucket of the obvious so you can get to the good stuff

    The Thing From the Future is an imagination game from The Situation Lab

    The Thing From the Future is an imagination game from The Situation Lab

    Later in the day, we played an imagination game co-created by Stuart Candy, called The Thing From the Future. The object of the game, which comes in the form of a thick deck of playing cards, is to “generate the most interesting, funny, or thought-provoking ideas for artifacts from the future.” The cards are color-coded into four groups: Terrain (e.g., agriculture, community, fashion), Object (e.g., law, gift, beverage), Mood (e.g., calm, unease, outrage), and Arc (e.g., grow: a few years, collapse: a generation, discipline: a millennium). We started with two cards, Object and Arc, and gave ourselves a few minutes to write down as many ideas as possible. Our first pair of cards were “the zoo” and “transformation: a decade.” I wrote the following: