Why Imagining Desirable Futures is Important to Innovation


Predictions are often based on past data and experiences. This biases innovators to look backwards and assume the future is already projected or pre-determined.

Imagining desirable futures is within our collective control. By aligning our actions today, innovators can shape the future into what is believed to be desirable.

In this article, we explore why it’s important to imagine desirable futures and take proactive steps to make them happen. You will discover the transformative power of shared future visions, collaborative efforts, and optimistic thinking.

Predicting the Future

Simply put, predictions are forecasts about the future based on past experiences, available data, and potential outcomes or trends. Predictions are often seen as useful for providing seemingly valuable insights and informing decision-making processes.

For example, weather predictions allow us to dress appropriately or prepare for extreme weather conditions, while economic predictions help businesses decide where to invest their time and resources. But, in many geographies, weather forecasters can tell you what the weather will be tomorrow, but can’t accurately predict what it will be next week, much less in four weeks. And, if everyone could predict the stock market, we’d all be billionaires.

Predicting the future can be challenging due to the future’s inherent uncertainty and complexity. The future is influenced by many factors, including human actions, technological advancements, societal changes, and unpredictable events.

As a result, predictions are often subject to error and should be interpreted with caution. Predictions do not always capture all relevant factors or unexpected events, especially those that cannot be measured or clearly seen. Predictions are also subject to biases, subjective interpretations, or incomplete information.

Most importantly, predicting the future can make organizations more rigid, fixated on anticipated scenarios instead of exploring potentially more promising opportunities. Organizations then miss out on innovative endeavours that don’t fit neatly into their predictions.

By imagining, rather than predicting, the future, we can better embrace uncertainty and exploration.

Why Imagine Desirable Futures

Imagining the future, though, is completely different. Imagination sparks creativity and innovation since it is not bound by the constraints of the present. It allows us to break free from the limitations and biases of predictions mentioned above.

Imagining the future also often shapes what will be. Technologies that were once simply imagined become reality.

Take the television series Star Trek, for example, which imagined a tricorder, universal translators, and replicators. Today, we have smart phones, real-time translation, and 3D printing.

Imagining desirable futures is important in our world of interconnected systems (which you can learn more about in this article). There are many possible futures in a complex system, and you may feel too overwhelmed to act. Imagining desirable futures can be an important part of taking a systems approach, since it facilitates:

1)     Multiple possibilities

Recent psychology studies indicate people think more about the future than the past. The decisions we make every day are based on being pulled by the future, not pushed from the past. Recognizing this shift offers numerous possibilities for people to think about, instead of looking backwards.

Imagining desirable futures acknowledges there are numerous conceivable possibilities, not just one. As innovators, we have the power to imagine multiple futures full of different possibilities that can be creatively explored and shaped in various directions. Exploring multiple possibilities also makes space for visions that resonate with different groups.

When different stakeholders assemble to imagine the future, they often find themselves in a playful and creative space. They often find common ground as, fundamentally, many of us want very similar things in life.

2)     A sense of optimism

Imagining a desirable future can fuel optimism because you anticipate inspiring visions. Optimism is the belief that positive outcomes are possible and achievable. Research suggests optimistic people have better mental and physical health and coping strategies, and are more resilient in the face of setbacks.

A sense of optimism can additionally motivate innovation teams to create products and services that make those futures possible. Some strategies that develop optimism include:

  • Recognizing negative thinking biases (such as catastrophizing or jumping to conclusions) and consciously replace them with more positive and realistic thoughts;
  • Looking to your organization’s purpose – what we call the North Star – and considering how to work towards it;
  • Surrounding yourself with supportive and positive influences, and celebrating achievements, both big and small; and,
  • Prioritizing healthy work-life balance, ensuring you have time to recharge so you can be more productive and feel good about your contributions at work. 

It is worth noting that we are speaking of realistic, not unrealistic, optimism. Realistic optimism involves having a positive outlook while acknowledging potential challenges and obstacles, whereas unrealistic optimism involves an excessively positive outlook that may ignore or downplay potential risks and challenges. Developing realistic optimism is important in imagining desirable futures.

3)     The ability to anticipate and adapt

Innovators relying on a single future risk failure because they must react in the moment to potential obstacles or challenges. Complex systems can throw many curveballs. Imagining multiple possibilities allows innovators to be more proactive and change course.

Imagining desirable futures unlocks the ability to anticipate and adapt for both individuals and organizations. This involves actively considering a variety of future possibilities (anticipating) and adjusting to new or changing conditions (adapting).

Developing the ability to anticipate and adapt involves a willingness to learn, embrace change, and be open to new opportunities. Critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, and feeling comfortable with uncertainty are essential.

Reflect: Are there any upcoming opportunities for you to imagine, instead of predicting, desirable futures?

How to Imagine Desirable Futures

In an unpredictable world, it feels nearly impossible to create change. Below are a few things you can do now to both imagine and create desirable futures:

1)     Collaborate with others

A highly collaborative approach is crucial to imagining desirable futures that are both contextually relevant and actionable.

First, innovators need to bring together stakeholders from all parts of the system to pool resources, skills, and knowledge to generate desired futures.

Next, group members need to imagine desirable futures together, so they share understanding and responsibility towards the same vision. To do this effectively, stakeholders must be truly imaginative and have realistic optimism.

Finally, the group needs to discuss all potential short- and long-term impacts on other actors within the system. This anticipates where obstacles may arise and encourages proactivity in adapting. Group members can do this by backcasting – starting from their desired future and then outlining what they must do today to realize that desired future.

2)     Avoid repeating past mistakes

As our world becomes more unpredictable and systemic, what worked in the past may not work in the future (which you can read more about in this article).

Innovators can avoid repeating mistakes by:

  • Speaking with the organization’s leaders about past failures and the learnings;
  • Researching the broad history of their industry or field to understand large shifts that were unsuccessful; and,
  • Reflecting on learning opportunities and setting up feedback loops for the future.

Using these strategies will help inform present-day decisions and activities and increase the likelihood of achieving desirable futures.

3)     Remain optimistic

Innovators who are realistic optimists know they will face obstacles or conflict in working towards desirable futures. When faced with adversity, it’s important to remain optimistic to stay motivated and decide the best course of action in the present.

The farther away your time horizon is for the desirable futures, the more important it is to remain optimistic. You may want to spend time in the Ideas and Actions spaces on the Compass to stay motivated and focus on the actions the system can take in the present to move forward.

Ultimately, imagining shared desirable futures can create ripple effects, inspiring others to get involved and contribute, creating a snowball effect.

Recap: Predictions are often based on past data and experiences and focus on creating a singular future. Imagining desirable futures recognizes there are multiple possibilities, creating shared optimism, and allowing innovators to anticipate and adapt to change. You can start imagining desirable futures by collaborating with others, avoiding past mistakes, and remaining optimistic.