Narratives Which Inspire Better Futures

Polina Silakova, a member of our Emerging Fellows program devotes her eleventh blog post to the possibility of building better futures by narratives with an eye on New Zealand. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

The address by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at 2018 UN Assembly caused an eruption of applause. She devoted a lot of her speech to a call-for-action on climate change: “Our action in the wake of this global challenge remains optional, but the impact of inaction does not.” This is a very good point, indeed. This type of challenge requires strong political leadership across the globe with a clear, long-sighted shared vision. And yet, despite the destructive impact of human activities being obvious by now, we still are not doing enough to change the course. Why?

 

For Jean Tirole, the winner of the Nobel prize in Economics, this is a no-brainer. “It is the result of two factors” – Tirole says – “selfishness with regard to future generations and the free rider problem. In other words, the benefits of reducing climate change remain global and distant in time, while the costs of that reduction are local and immediate.” Although there are attempts to internalise the negative externalities, for example, by means of carbon tax, they are far from perfect. For example, carbon leakage – moving contaminating production from a country with stricter environmental regulation to a country where it’s cheaper to pollute – makes it clear that only a truly global solution could slow down climate change.

 

It is hard to motivate yourself to solve a problem which you don’t see at this point in time in your immediate environment. Moreover, as studies show, our brains are biased towards more positive images of future and can even influence our perception of facts. Neither are helpful political systems based on short-term election cycles. They often make politicians prioritise the immediate outcomes promised to their electorate over the long-term improvements, the benefits of which might not be even seen by the current voting generation. But this is not the case everywhere.

 

For starters, China, allegedly, is halfway through its 100-year strategy. The strategy consists of nine steps, based on lessons from history, which are supposed to make China the world’s leading superpower by 2050. Another example of long-term planning comes from indigenous people of North America. In Mohawk nation, historically based in present-day New York area, the chief is appointed by the clan mother for life. As part of his role, he should be making decisions based on the interests of the community “seven generations from now”. Should the chief not be acting in the best interests of people, after three warnings the title can be taken away from him.

 

What elements of this long-term thinking can Western capitalistic societies adopt to represent the voices of yet-to-be-born generation in decisions we take today? Back to New Zealand which also seems to be inspired by its local communities. Learning from Maori’s concept of guardianship – the idea that we have a duty of care for the environment that we pass on to future generations – New Zealand is aiming to become the best place in the world to be a child. This encompasses not only young Kiwis’ childhood experience but also the prospects for their future, the country, and the environment today’s generation hands over to them.

 

While other countries are working on policies and strategies aiming for similar outcomes, the way New Zealand communicates it seems to be different. It unites various strategies under one inspiring goal which reveals a deeper meaning and images of the future behind the dry targets. Supported by strong engagement, it might become a powerful strategic narrative. It has an exciting potential to mobilise people’s agency towards achieving a goal they can relate to.

 

Business has already started adopting narratives for strategic decision-making. To mature further, these narratives need to incorporate systemic thinking. A switch from pitching benefits of individual initiatives towards a better understanding of how pulling one trigger can influence another area could get us one step closer towards understanding how our actions impact our children’s future.

 

In isolation, the narratives won’t do the job. We need a united global action, internalisation of externalities and more systemic approach. This will only happy when all key parties will take a conscious decision to take these steps. But what a good narrative can do is to make a shift in thinking and inspire these actions that our future kids so desperately need.

 

© Polina Silakova 2018