The power of narrative foresight to reframe reality through brands, media and the stories we consume

This is part one of a two-part article.

Essayist Anaïs Nin famously said: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

Although this may sound metaphorical, recent research across academic fields ranging from neuroscience to cognitive psychology to linguistics has revealed just how true this adage is. Quite literally, the narratives we use to organise and understand the world determine, to a large extent, our perceptions of, our interactions with and our emotions towards, the world.

Our feelings are not only an integral part of our moral, social and personal well-being, but also are vital tools for solving the complex challenges we face individually, organisationally and even as a species. As Emiliana Simon-Thomas of the University of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Centre says, “[Emotions] provide us with quintessential information about what’s important and what to do next, and how to do it and who to do it with.”

In recent decades, an array of scientific insights has reshaped the way we view emotions, particularly in the way they affect how we think about the future.

Pragmatic prospection and the self-transcendent emotions that can help us rearticulate the future

Certain emotions, such as feelings of empathy, gratitude and awe – evolved to help manage social relationships with others and orient humans to a world that is bigger than ourselves – without needing to overtax resource-intensive, rational thought processes. These emotions also help delay the need for instant gratification or reward, being essential to the evaluation of simulated possible futures, and can be geared toward long-term thinking and long-term behaviour change. Transgenerational empathy, for example, can help us make decisions that impact us for the better both today and for generations to come by reducing the immediate impulse of taking the easy way out. This may include having that difficult conversation today rather than letting the underlying discontent fester for days or even decades. But, for all its power, empathy is also fragile, with people finding it difficult to empathise with those who differ from them politically, racially or ideologically. One way to build empathy is by cultivating a sense of psychological safety, especially through close connection to other people. For instance, awe helps reduce the occurrence of ‘temporal discounting, the tendency to undervalue a future reward in favour of an immediate, but lesser, return. The popular rise of the environmental movement, for instance, is often linked to the collective awe inspired by astronaut Bill Anders’ iconic ‘Earthrise’ image. Shows like Blue Planet II create a sense of wonder at the natural world before cruelly showing us what we are doing to it.

 

As a simple example, there is evidence that mere exposure to the Apple logo can briefly enhance an individual’s creativity. This is because of the narrative that has long supported that image: a simple bitten apple represents change, innovation and individual expression (as established via deliberate advertising and slogans urging people to ‘think different’ and ensure ‘creativity goes on’).

Importantly, the impact of narrative and metaphors is not confined to the present. According to Professor Sohail Inayatullah, UNESCO’s chair in Futures Studies: “Metaphors present themselves as the main causation drivers of the future.” In other words, our narratives not only shape our current social milieu, but are the primary drivers behind its evolution.

Back in 2009, Oscar-winning animated short Logorama encapsulated almost a century of corporate greed, animated by its myriad brands. The film’s lack of a coherent story is in itself a nod to brainless entertainment, our social decline due to an inundation of consumer culture that feeds on the one thing it promotes, consumption. The sheer intended chaos expressing the words that have been creating our world were the alarm bells that many keep ignoring.


Now, if we are to truly shift course, to make individual commitments that allow us to build better futures, we need to find a big and emotionally satisfying story that makes sense of the world in which we now live and points the way towards a brighter future.

A call-to-arms is not the call-to-action we need to reframe this pandemic from tragedy to opportunity

With regards to COVID-19, researchers, journalists and politicos have primarily utilised the narrative of ‘war’ structured under the warrior archetype. Chinese premier Xi Jinping swore to wage a ‘people’s war’ on the coronavirus; US President Donald Trump described himself as a ‘wartime president’; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked the imagery of the 18-day battle from the Hindu epic Mahabharata when commencing the country’s lockdown.

Moving to the world of business, Burger King released a ‘call-to-arms’ campaign urging ‘couch potatriots’ to make orders through the Burger King app. Furthermore, as a ‘salute’ to those on the ‘frontline fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, this company also gave away 250,000 Whoppers to nurses across the US.

The problem with the wartime narrative is that the warrior archetype wins their battle not through adaptation or change, but merely through recognising and tapping into the power and strength they have had all along. Interestingly, war has been waged on everything from crime, cancer, drugs and terrorism, to Christmas and now COVID and, as a narrative, it has proven itself more often than not ineffective. The narrative is so strongly embedded and evocative of rivalry and conquest that it would have prevented the West – not faring much better than less developed and less wealthy countries in Africa and Asia – from calling upon their wisdom and experience from having dealt with Ebola and SARS outbreaks. And despite this being a global pandemic, requiring global cooperation, many countries are still not being invited to a seat at the table.

When we use this narrative to frame the current pandemic, we can expect to see little to no long-term social change once COVID-19 comes under control. The reason for this is that the narrative demands we’ve always had the resources to succeed: if we already have the power to beat this enemy, why change a thing? In fact, pundits have pointed out that when this narrative has been used in the past to characterise a crisis, that return to the status quo was swift and no lasting change occurred.

If we want the outcome of this crisis to be different – if we want to establish enduring cultural change – then we must shift the narrative that we are employing. Rather than ‘war’, we must select a narrative that focuses on adaptation, evolution and future betterment.

To this end, we propose the archetype of Gaia that, according to Greek mythology, is the ancestral mother of all life.

A more mature and developed alternative to the war narrative, the Gaian narrative focuses largely on collective development and interconnectedness, it elevates service above winning and it extols the virtues of establishing an abiding legacy beyond the present.

 

James Lovelock revived Gaia, the mythological name, in 1977 in Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth

His Gaia hypothesis proposes that living organisms and inorganic material are part of a dynamical system that shapes the Earth’s biosphere and maintains the planet as a fit environment for life. Evolution, therefore, is the result of cooperative, not competitive, processes. This may well have been the inspiration for the ancient civilisations that embraced what we now call a ‘circular economy’, which was adopted (to some extent) by New Age environmentalists and only now may be hitting the mainstream.

As a popular example of this narrative, consider the Disney animated film Moana. Unlike most animated films that focus on the warrior (recognition of natural strengths), this film revolves around restoring the ‘heart’ to an island goddess. To this end, the protagonists are neither battling nor trying to defeat something; instead they are aiming to improve the world and leave a lasting legacy by restoring balance: the archetypal king narrative. Gaian leadership at this time needs to be about charting a new direction, exploring scenarios and creating global systems that help us arrive at a regenerated future.

 

As a social catalyst, COVID-19 has led to a few interesting examples of positive change. For instance, Amsterdam has formally embraced the Doughnut economics model, a breakthrough and holistic alternative to the destructive, growth economics employed over the last few centuries. Similarly, in Spain, progressive steps are being taken towards the implementation of a universal basic income. In Milan, one of Europe’s most ambitious schemes reallocating street space from cars to pedestrians is being introduced in response to COVID. In an attempt to improve the world, Princess Sofia of Sweden has been volunteering to clean and cook at a local hospital, having exchanged her royal attire for a white and blue uniform.

Likewise, brands have been beginning to adopt more holistically considered behaviours, retooling themselves in response to COVID out of a sense of public responsibility. For instance, in the UK Burberry announced it would use its global supply network to deliver 100,000 surgical masks to NHS workers and repurpose its trench coat factory in Yorkshire to manufacture gowns for hospital patients.. In March 2020, the British Honey Company announced it would use spare capacity in its Buckinghamshire distillery to produce hand sanitiser. And independent craft brewer BrewDog is currently in talks with the UK government about turning its closed bars into temporary COVID vaccination centres.

 

These examples highlight that a shift in narrative can occur and, if we want to see lasting change following this pandemic, we must collectively change the COVID narrative. If we want to avoid a reversion to the status quo – a world marked by social inequality, climate change avoidance, scarcity of resources and the Kardashians – then the media must work to change the narrative.

How can the media adopt the Gaian narrative? In this instance, the virus would stop being referenced as an ‘enemy’ (something to be defeated before returning back to normal) and would start being referenced to as a ‘catalyst’ (something instigating change requiring adaptation).
Pushing further, the focus of newscasts would no longer be disaster and tragedy. Rather, the focus would shift to healing and the measures being taken to engender protection and improvement. Finally, the media would not simply look backwards on the events of the day; it would begin to look forward to the larger impacts of our daily actions and decisions.

 

Can the creative minority make a dent in macrohistory?

Macrohistory is a study of change in social systems through time, not in time. It is concerned with the historical development of a subject through a long period of time rather than with a subject as it existed at one point in time. Macrohistory is therefore concerned with the history of social systems through centuries and since the epoch of the human race. Macrohistorians’ studies cover long periods (diachronic data), focusing on the identification of striking or grand patterns, regularities and laws in the histories of social systems (hidden in a massive amount of historical data) and not on the endless number of dissimilarities and micro) historical events (synchronic data). In other words, macrohistorians are not interested in the ‘noise’ in the media. Macrohistorians have a tremendous appetite for ambiguity in their quests to suspend all dissimilarities and to identify the underlying mechanisms of change. It is a phenomenal feat and intellectually difficult – hence the small number of macrohistorians in the entire human history.

That said, according to Professor Sohail Inayatullah, “Macrohistory does not predict the future per se. but questions its patterns.” Therefore, by also focusing on the macro patterns of change, decision-makers can gain more insight into the probable long-term shape of risks and, of course, opportunities.

Arnold Toynbee was one of the most famous macrohistorians of the 20th century. He wrote volumes on the rise and decline of civilisations, a theory of history that can also be applied to business or risk strategy. To summarise his work in a few paragraphs is to do injustice to it. But, in a nutshell Toynbee made it clear that a civilisation (or a business, for that matter) will be on the rise when there is a creative minority “responding in an appropriate manner to the challenges of the environment.” Of course, the ‘environment’ is a broad term that includes the physical environment and human-made ecosystems and contextual environments, like economic, political and social systems etc). But it is not only about the creative minority. Such a creative minority should also have the support of the majority of citizens both internal and external (those of other countries). Without the majority’s support, there would be no successful ‘appropriate response’.


Conclusion

One of the most unfortunate and widely accepted ideas about historical thinking is that ‘history is written by the victors’. This maxim asserts that the truth of the past is shaped by the might of political and cultural leaders on the ‘winning’ side of history. The winners exploit the power of historical narratives mediatised through school textbooks, public iconography, movies, etc., to achieve their own ends.

In his book ‘Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century’, historian John Bodnar discusses the concept of ‘official cultural expressions’ that aim to shape how people remember the past. These expressions originate from social leaders and official authorities that seek to shape society’s historical understanding in ways that promote “social unity, the continuity of existing institutions, and loyalty to the status quo”. In other words, those in power have an interest in maintaining their power, and a “useable past” that conforms to their vision of present-day conditions can function as a strong tool in upholding their status.

It is a mistake (and rather defeatist) however, to assume that only the ‘winners’ of history have the power to manipulate the past to attain their present-day and future goals. This is especially the case in an age where the internet wields enormous potential for a person from any walk of life to build a powerful platform for spouting their beliefs and opinions. That was the case with Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, Joshua Wong and, why not, you!

We must do away with this fiction that history is only written by the winners to start winning back our preferred future.

Sérgio Brodsky is the executive producer of Futurecast and a leading brand and foresight strategist.
Sophia Bazile is an independent foresight researcher and Founder of FLYP (Futures Literate Youth and Professionals)
Dr. Susann Roth is the foresight and futures lead at the Asian Development Bank.
Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath is a Harvard Neuroscientist and the Director at LME.

Artwork:

Feature illustration and original artwork by Francisco Zuccato (Chico).