Taking Dreams Seriously: The Future As A Collective Exercise.
I was born in a dictatorship. It is something that I never really think about much, but once in a while it hits me: The unconscious forces shaping my early world views are probably more Orwellian than what I would like to.
The first four years of my life coincided with the end of Augusto Pinochet’s ruthless authoritarian regime in Chile, and even though I didn’t experience much of it myself, I was certainly molded by its cultural, political and emotional repercussions during the following decades.
I learned how to read by putting together the letters “n” and “o”, painted on the walls of Santiago during the referendum that brought back democracy with a resounding “NO” to more years of military rule. “Happiness is coming” was the slogan of the campaign that overthrew Pinochet. But did happiness actually come?
I grew up in the Chile of the 90’s. The fun one.
Not the Chile of missing people, torture and political prosecution.
The one with an explosive economic boom, credit cards, nike sneakers, MTV, free trade agreements, and the opening doors to an exciting globalised world that was closed for over 17 years. Democracy’s promise didn’t disappoint. Neither did neoliberalism.
We loved our lives in the present. With the naivety of those who finally see the light after a long dark imprisonment we said yes to whatever was offered to us. When everything has been stripped out from you, anything that comes your way will feel like a divine gift. The “shock doctrine”, Naomi Klein called it.
The Chicago Boys, a group of prominent Chilean economists, executed to perfection during the 80’s what they learned first hand from Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger. Capitalism packed its bags and, together with this group of young men, flew thousands of miles from Illinois to Santiago to settle for good in this small land at the end of the world. The economic miracle was on its way. Nothing would stop it.
There was no time to get over the massive collective trauma that the country went through. No time to question the fact that the once public educational and healthcare systems were now growing industries with private universities and private hospitals popping up across the country like mushrooms. With open arms and smiles only for those willing -and able- to pay for it, of course.
The Chilean dream was alive and kicking, and a whole generation indebted themselves for life in order to cost the misfortune of a health problem or to access the dream of higher education as a miraculous insurance for a prosperous future.
Buy more, borrow more, grow more. Whatever it takes to become a developed country. To keep on being “The Jaguars of Latinamerica” -as we cringely liked to call ourselves back then. It was the World Cup of reckless capitalism. And we were killing it.
But amid this impulsive race for progress, we forgot a very fundamental thing that one must do after a defining crisis: To stop, reflect and set a direction for the future -together- before moving too far, too fast.
We forgot to dream and imagine what kind of society we really wanted. To talk and listen to one another in order to weave hand in hand, the threads of a new social fabric.
We forgot to imagine what kind of tomorrow we wanted to build for the generations coming after us, to debate what culture and values we wanted to preserve or change for the future.
We didn’t take dreams seriously.
We got greedy, individualistic, hungry and thirsty for that so desired development. To be better, to do better, to have better.
But deep inside we knew there was no collective direction. There was no unified dream, or higher purpose to tie it all together. The rich got richer, and the poor even poorer.
Economic success is certainly key for the prosperity of our societies, it is a crucial mean to that end, but it is not the whole picture of prosperity.
On its own it is not enough to serve as a guiding star that can help give meaning and a sense of direction to our collective tribe, to promote happiness and wellbeing and to strengthen the social glue among us.
Who cares about the other? Who cares about the next generations and the pollution they will have to learn to live with? Who cares about the ancient forests, oceans, glaciers and ecosystems completely destroyed for the benefits of a very few companies?
Not my problem. Not yet.
I remember one of my highschool teachers angrily yelling at us: “You are the children of the dictatorship!”, when the whole class turned into mayhem for any particular reason, and our entitled innocence contrasted with his lacerated spirit, bruised by years and years of oppression and frustration. We didn’t get it. A dictatorship is not only defined by what can be seen and quantified, horrors for some, collateral damage of a necessary evil to others.
I might have had the luck of not being affected directly by the physical brutality of it all, but I was certainly shaped by the tyranny of the mind that it created in the environment that nurtured me, and by the second hand scars coming to surface in my generation decades later.
Like a mirage in the desert, this materialistic self imposed way of living was all just a burst of short term gains, and hormonal avarice, that sooner rather than later will come to our table with a very expensive bill.
Narrow one directional mental frames and unsustainable social scaffoldings are obviously not exclusive to Chile. We were just the guinea pig. They have dominated our global socioeconomic and political landscape for the past many decades, and unquestionably, at expense of the planet and the unprivileged, they have brought comfort and progress to more humans across the world than ever before in history. It is a paradox that is hard to come to terms with. However, for good or bad its cracks are starting to show.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a tirade against businesses. I run a business myself and I work with corporations and organisations from all over the world. So I know first hand the positive impact that business can have for the blossoming of individuals and communities when purpose guides actions. But I find it crucial to question the pursuit of economic success at the expense of human wellbeing and the health of our ecology. That is just a pointless rat race.
This conflicting paradigm of embedded individualism and endless growth is such a strong contrast with the world famous danish collectivistic approach to life I have adopted for the last ten years of my life living among the Danes.
Denmark is said to be one of the happiest countries in the world, and that well earned reputation certainly shapes how we go about our lives in this part of the globe.
Some might say: “Yeah, But Denmark is also one of the countries with the highest consumption of antidepressants in the world”- Sure, every place has its issues and Denmark is no exception, but it is undeniable that -Yes, I will take the liberty to generalise here- among most Danes there is a widespread feeling of possibility. That everything can be achieved if you set your mind on it, a firm belief that institutions are here to take care of you, that we should all care for each other, and that if we all do our part to better our society -businesses, institutions and citizens- the fruits of those benefits will reach us all somehow at some point.
It is clear to me that, from an outsider perspective, the Danes were inspired and educated to trust. Trust in the institutions, trust in each other, but most importantly, trust in themselves.
The promise of the welfare state -a system of government that protects and promotes the economic and social wellbeing of citizens on the principles of equal opportunity- is very much still alive in Denmark and its neighbouring Scandinavian countries, and contrary to popular belief, that promise has also been built on one of the highest indexes of economic freedom in the planet. A puzzling contradiction for many cold war-like polarised minds out there.
It might be the fact that Denmark is one of the oldest states in Europe and one of the oldest Kingdoms in the world, so this collective conversation is not a new occurrence, it has been cooking slowly for over generations. Unnoticed for most. You just don’t make a stew in a couple of minutes, it requires, above all, a fair amount of patience. And dialogue is its most powerful ingredient.
Democratic participation is also extremely high in Denmark. Around 90% of people eligible to vote turn out to manifest their opinion on election day. There’s a collective empowerment to speak out if you want to change something, and not let apathy and passivity govern.
This consistent collective dialogue and shared sense of belonging eventually becomes behaviour, and over time, behaviours become culture, and in this case, Denmark has given birth to a culture that fosters possibility thinking and the firm belief in the capacity -and the duty- to self actualize yourself and the world around you. This shouldn’t be taken for granted.
People’s trust in a better future can determine the fate of a society. The future is, by definition, a collective exercise.
My good friend Pete Sims once told me something that stuck with me: “Hope is not the precondition of an action, it is the result of an action”. Without imagination there’s no action, and without actions there’s no hope.
With all its successes and challenges, Denmark tries to imagine a different future. One with cleaner energy, equal opportunities for men and women and a lifestyle that promotes human wellbeing before all. Denmark dares to dream.
Being able to dream about the future is an act of hope in itself. When we make a declaration of intentions we are opening up to a reality that doesn’t exist yet, and this helps us set a direction forward.
Back in the days building a cathedral used to be an endeavour of such scale that it would often take decades or even centuries to finish. Those laying the foundations for such projects would do so in the almost certain knowledge that they would never live to see the finished product of that labor. Similarly, cathedral thinking assumes that the consequences and fruits of dreams and actions taken today will only be visible and enjoyed for the next generations.
It took 30 years, but last October -after months of social unrest and massive protests across the country- Chile dared to dream and started building a new cathedral for the future.
With massive support from people from all ages, classes and backgrounds, most Chileans voted in favour of redesigning the constitution, to revise the rules of the game and make a new declaration of intentions written by a diverse group of citizens from all walks of life.
A total new start from scratch.
It will be a long process of dialogue, hard conversations and heated debate about what is a preferable future for the country and what principles will guide that pursuit. It will be difficult, uncertain, painful and scary, like any other massive endeavour of this caliber. But that’s exactly what should have happened when Pinochet left power.
As a futures practitioner I am excited to witness the collective process and results of this social experiment. If a whole country can do it, what is stopping us to imagine an alternative reality?
What mental tyrannies do we need to break in order to flourish?
Sometimes, we can not afford not to take dreams seriously.