Aisha Shillingford, an artist and strategy consultant from Trinidad and Tobago, asked a room full of suits in New York last month to imagine their “Happy Place.” “Close your eyes,” she whispered. “Think of a place that holds meaning for you. Now, envision it in the year 2223.”
Shillingford was speaking at a recent event during Climate Week NYC. Her mission? Help people see how world building, a creative process of building future worlds used in video games, books and movies (think post-apocalyptic like The Last of Us or fantastical like Harry Potter) can help society innovate.
I’m a corporate sustainability consultant with a special interest in encouraging companies to rethink the way they impact people and the planet. When prompted to envision my “Happy Place,” I immediately thought of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In particular, I thought of Truro, the place I first visited when I was three. We stayed at a small house on a marsh. My mom hauled me and my two brothers around on a bike trailer. We ate saltwater taffy as she pedaled up hills and along the shoreline path of Route 6.
My mom first went to the Cape with her mother. My grandmother, after escaping the Holocaust in Germany, found serenity in a place of extreme beauty. She passed along her love of the Cape to her daughter, and my mom passed it along to me. It is a place that is ingrained in my family’s culture, and even now as I sit in my small, New York City apartment, I can smell the Rugosa Roses and the spray off the Atlantic.
Over the years, the Cape has changed. It’s become increasingly expensive, driving out many low-income residents. Short-term rentals have exploded over the past decade, disrupting what were once tight-knit neighborhoods. The Cape is facing significant climate-related threats. Rising sea-levels, storm surges, flooding, erosion, strong winds, wildfires and scorching summer temperatures are damaging natural habitats and communities. By 2100, vast portions of Cape Cod could be underwater.
Following Shillingford’s exercise, I imagine a better Cape Cod in 2223. In my world, warm sun bathes the landscape, thanks to heat-absorbing sidewalks. McMansions have disappeared, offering everyone breathtaking views of the sparkling sea. Bio-based structures, mirroring the resilience of coral and oyster reefs, are barely visible under the water, a new development to act as coastal barriers and prevent erosion. On the horizon, a wind farm powers the peninsula, designed with high-tech features in low-carbon steel frames to protect local bird and fish populations. Short-term rentals are history, replaced by affordable options. Over two centuries, community-driven innovation has transformed Cape Cod into a place that is more inclusive, just, and resilient.
Shillingford asks participants to share their imaginings. Someone says that they’re invigorated by these speculative futures that could become reality. Her point is that we can use world building to brainstorm a future that doesn’t currently seem possible. Companies, non-profits, and governments can use Shillingford’s framework by applying a three-step process: 1. Identify a problem. 2. Envision potential solutions. 3. Develop tools, technologies, and processes to bring these solutions to life.
At least one company already employs this technique. Superflux, a London design studio and consultancy, uses world building to bridge the gap between future uncertainty and present-day decision-making. As an example, Superflux worked with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government to help it make better future energy policy decisions. Together, they recruited policy makers, nonprofit partners, and other stakeholders to explore potential energy-related scenarios to inform their future energy strategy.
The group identified five future scenarios. For each, they made a model metropolis to help decision makers see the future world and how it could be impacted by new energy policies. These included renewable energy technologies, new means of public transport like low-carbon trains, and peer-to-peer energy trading that can democratize energy generation. Participants could also track a future happiness index, monitor energy diversification, and observe the affordability and sustainability of each future. Each scenario offered different costs and carbon emissions based on these factors. The group saw how society would shift based on the consequences of each decision made. Following the exercise, the findings significantly shaped the UAE’s National Energy Strategy 2050, leading to substantial investments – including $163 billion in renewables, making up roughly 44% of their energy sourcing.
Shillingford’s bottom line to the NYC event participants is that the future isn’t set in stone. Reality is shaped by what we imagine now.