It’s High Time for New Visions

Humankind is always on the way to a better world, and as soon as we arrive, we leave for an even better place we have envisioned. For many years, in Sweden this vision was the Folkhemmet (the people’s home = the social welfare state organising society like a family), manifested in the three Vs: villa – vovve – Volvo (to own a house – a dog – a Volvo car). But where are the visions that today can both attract and unite, give hope and inspire? To make us feel that we all are part of an important, shared project? Where each brick we contribute is more than a brick, it is central to building the cathedral of the future. Could it be that the current lack of vision is at the root of a rapidly growing sense of meaninglessness?

Being Drawn to the Future
In 1955, Fred Polak's mammoth work 'The Image of the Future' was first published in Dutch. The abridged English version was published in 1973 in a translation by his friend, peace and futures researcher Elise Boulding, with a foreword by her husband, Kenneth Boulding. Kenneth Boulding was a prominent economist at the time and the author of the contemporary book 'The Image', in which he stated that everything begins with an image. Every decision, every thought, begins with an image of what could or should be. He was probably inspired by Polak after they worked together during this period.

But back to Polak, whose book won the Council of Europe Prize in 1956. The reason may well have been its perspective. In the book, Polak carefully examines the history of the West from ancient Mesopotamia to the early postwar period. Polak's judgment is harsh. He sees a Europe dangerously closed in on itself, unwilling or unable to look either backward, towards the history it would prefer to forget, or forward.

Polak notes that cultures and nations, and, we might add, companies and organizations, are changed by two forces. First, we are pushed toward the future by the choices we have made, the decisions we have made and can never undo. Second, we are pulled toward the future by what we dream. It is also this ability to dream of the world we have not yet seen that distinguishes human beings from other living creatures and has been the constant engine of development.

The Decline of Visions Precedes the Decline of Culture
Thus, according to Polak, visions are crucial to the development of humanity. Positive images of the future, whether religious or secular, have always been the very engine of development, influencing the rise and fall of cultures. In short, the collapse of vision precedes the collapse of a nation, culture, or business. 

Jack Welch, longtime head of General Electric, once said that when development outside the company is faster than inside, the end is near. Polak might have agreed, but he added that when we no longer know where we are going, the end is near. 

Post-war Europe had forgotten all that, Polak said. They did not understand the importance of visions, of positive images of the future, they even rejected them in whatever form they appeared.

"Many speak of the decline of our culture, but to our knowledge, no one has laid his finger on the gaping wound from which the lifeblood of the culture is draining away, where the pulsing and impassioned images of the future that have always moved man and society now lie torn and still."

Lack of Future Leads to Depression
Over the past 20 years, the proportion of Swedes who say their lives are meaningless has risen from 6% to 24%1. Among young men, the figure is as high as 35%. 

Looking deeper into the figures, it does not seem to be a philosophical consideration that Swedes have increasingly become French existentialists, with the basic attitude that life is meaningless and that you have to give it meaning yourself. Rather, it seems to be a matter of people increasingly experiencing life as barren, lonely and empty. Those who see life as meaningless are also much more likely than others to report the latter. 

Social media certainly plays a role in this. We no longer compare ourselves to our neighbors, but to the perfectly arranged lives of distant acquaintances and strangers. And in that comparison, even the most amazing life can seem barren. Reduced physical contact may also play a role. Over the same time period, the number of friends we see physically in a week or month has dropped rapidly. For those who perceive life as meaningless, the experience of loneliness is strong.

Feelings of anxiety and depression have also risen sharply over the same period, especially among young people. Again, there is a clear link to feelings of meaninglessness. And depression, as brain researcher David Ingvar used to point out, is a lack of a future.

The Power of Seeing Beyond the Present
The psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl had a successful practice in Vienna when World War II broke out. Unwilling to leave his parents, he decided to stay behind, even though his friends urged him to leave the country. As a result, he spent much of the war in four different concentration camps, including Auschwitz, where he lost both his parents and his family. 

During his years in the concentration camps, Frankl witnessed how some perished while others survived. And what was common among those who survived was that they saw a purpose in surviving. They had something to focus their energy on, a future beyond the camp itself.

High Time for New Visions
So maybe the question of meaning is bigger than social media, stress and socializing. Maybe it's about a lack of vision, a lack of future, a lack of something to live for. Something bigger than ourselves. And about contributing to something greater and more important than ourselves. Something to live for.

Throughout the ages, people have had something "greater". A higher purpose that wasn't just about family and loved ones. For a long time, this "greater" was religious in nature and sustained by meaningful communal rituals. By the time Polak wrote his work, the religious framework of interpretation had already begun to break down in many places and been taken over by ideologies, and it was these ideologies that were now in crisis. They had collapsed under the tanks and carpet bombs of World War II.

Since then, a lot of time has passed. Europe recovered and the vision of a Europe of peace and cooperation slowly emerged and manifested itself in the Coal and Steel Union, the EEC and the EU. In Sweden, which was largely spared by the war, the idea of Folkhemmet, the social welfare state, remained strong. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, history ended, in the words of Francis Fukuyama. But not the visions. They were strengthened in the 1990s, and the whole world was about to enter the realm of global market liberal democracy.

In the early 2000s, however, the vision began to unravel. September 11th, the Iraq war. The financial crisis. The refugee crisis. The climate crisis. The culture war. The war in Ukraine. A whole new geopolitical playing field has pulverized the relatively coherent visions of the 1990s about where we were going and how to get there.

Now we must find them again. In Sweden, we need a new unifying idea of a Sweden as a much broader people's home than that of Per Albin Hansson (Swedish Prime Minister 1932-1946). Europe needs a unifying idea about the meaning and future of the community in a new geopolitical era when many are knocking at the door while others have left. And many companies and organizations need new ideas about what to be in a time that is not what it used to be.

So we need to see, as both Kenneth and Elise Boulding noted. Everything begins with an image. And what we cannot see, we cannot create. So it is high time to start envisioning. Start modeling, start discussing possible futures and ways to get there. Because a unifying vision, a common why and because, is the only thing that can move humanity forward.

For 30 years, Kairos Future has been helping companies and organizations develop visions of society and organizations. We have well-developed methodologies with the ability to engage from a few people to hundreds or thousands of members, employees or citizens. Want to know more? Feel free to contact us.

By Mats Lindgren