No.91 - January 2014

Cover image of issue 91

“The really important thing is not to reject anything”, the American cultural theorist Susan Sontag wrote in an early diary. She was 16, partway through a term at the University of California, and had just been offered a scholarship to Chicago. “When I think”, she exclaims, “that I actually considered not accepting this new experience! How disastrous (though I would never have known!) that would have been –”

We’ve all been there, in the gratification of the moment when we realise the value of something we almost didn’t accept. So many things might have prevented us. There’s the inevitable comfort of the familiar, the fear of the unknown – sometimes disguised rather disdainfully as the assumption that whatever it is wouldn’t be worth the effort.

The thrill of knowing – after the event – that we were indeed right to push the boat out is tinged by the fear that we so nearly didn’t: for a moment, we peer into the gulf of what is and what might have been, and it churns the stomach like vertigo. Terrified, Sontag determines to “begin by going out and grabbing at experience”.

It’s impossible to consume all the experiences on offer. The most positive choice is always a rejection of some alternative. However much we value novelty, and aspire to do things in new ways – to innovate – it takes a good deal of effort to keep spotting the opportunities and make space for them in our lives. It means undoing habits that we have perhaps carefully honed – for maximum efficiency as well as ease. Doing things differently is a risk: it might take longer, cost more, and disrupt our plans and projections.

The cost of not doing so, though, could be disastrous – says Sontag, even if it’s a quiet disaster that she envisions, one she may not even have noticed at the time.

It’s the anticipation of such a disaster that prompts the CEO of TA Corporation Group, Neo Tiam Boon, to declare he will stay in post for no more than a decade. He’s not worried about missing out himself: he is worried that the company – which he currently stewards on behalf of his family – could miss out without a fresh perspective at the helm [see ‘Family valued’].

Similarly, it’s to build resilience in the face of disaster that the Informal City Dialogues – a collaboration of Forum for the Future, Next City and The Rockefeller Foundation – urges city officials to look outside the safe sphere of regulation, recognising the great social, environmental and economic value of informal networks and services, whether that’s fruit sellers in Bangkok, community-run food gardens in Manila, or garbage pickers in Nairobi [see ‘The unofficial story’].

And it’s to ward against a stagnant system that Greg Barker, the UK energy minister, and Jonathon Porritt champion a new decentralised ‘energy culture’, led by the big 60,000 [see ‘An irrepressible sense of potential’ and ‘Energy plus’].

But fear is not the only impetus for innovation. Many of us also experience the desire to learn and to grow through new adventures. Embracing this desire is both gratifying for individuals, and can prompt the innovation we need to put our fundamental systems on a more sustainable footing. Unleashing this momentum is a main theme in my new book, ‘The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire’, available to order from www.palgrave.com.

Anna Simpson
Editor
anna@greenfutures.org.uk
@_annasimpson

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