We have to talk about the future.

You’ll be lucky to find anyone under thirty who currently thinks there is one.

We haven’t been raising our children to imagine tomorrows better than our todays, and we haven’t been equipping them to go build what they’re imagining.

What can you say. It’s constant. 

The metrics, the forecasts, the clamours for resources. The news cycle of the climate crisis years doesn’t exactly light you up to keep responding, does it. And not just about polar regions and rainforests, far away for most of us.

I’d like to say if you are a local authority leader of some kind right now, simply indicate if you need a hug.

I spent a week with Bournemouth Christchurch Poole Council back in July. Invited in as a creative critical friend, it was my privilege to listen and reflect during the inaugural strategy week of a brand new administration. New portfolio holders were meeting directors and officers and all were laying out across the top table what the top challenges were.

This is not a round of Top Trumps you want to find yourself playing, let me say. Because it’s no public revelation to say everyone around the table found themselves holding the same winning cards and their prize included a set of soberingly grown-up challenges to figure out responses to. 

My role was to bring a different perspective. A cultural one. And feeling like a reflective generalist, I marvelled a little at the calm adulthood of everyone sitting around that top table choosing to face some impossible-seeming things for the people of their communities.

You don’t need me to paint a picture. The impacts of climate crisis, social care costs, pay and review catch-ups and systematic local authority de-funding over decades are converging on councils across the UK and in various similar ways around the world. BCP’s tough strategy choices now partly just highlight the trend in averagely competent councils everywhere beginning, more obviously, to stumble – a serious national condition not helped by everyone still trying to make business as usual carry on. 

Are there more radical visions of how to position a local authority’s role in our lives?

Is it the hour to actually think the unthinkable?

Not closing Adult Services or leaving a note in the desk draw for the Special Measures team. 

I’m talking about The Future.

Talking the walk.

I was a kind of UN observer that week, but from the artistic community. I was there as a storyteller – because, as you know I say all the time and did that week, everything we decide to do is driven by the story we think we’re in. And that our voters think they’re in.

It sounds to me like at least a few creatives should be involved in trying to change that story. And in helping people catch up with what’s already changing around them, to make new sense of it.

Part of my creative role is to be a conspicuous outsider. I can sometimes wonder if people think I’ve beamed in from space. But BCP administers the towns I grew up in and during a remarkably heartening first week for the new LibDem-led coalition, I observed a bunch of narrative themes that left me with a sense of possibilities for where I live. Between people and unique region, I came away thinking that there are some tantalising possibilities for exemplary strategy and practices, despite the over-simple scary budget headlines. 

It also brought home to me something general yet fundamental I think we all have to do now, when we talk about our impossible seeming times and problems.

We have to talk about the future.

You’ll be lucky to find anyone under thirty who currently thinks there is one.

We haven’t been raising our children to imagine tomorrows better than our todays, and we haven’t been equipping them to go build what they’re imagining.

The UK Trade Skills Index suggested back at the start of the year that the UK is facing an “urgent and alarming” shortage of skilled labourers, just for business as usual. If, as some figures suggest, we can expect 25% of tradespeople to retire in the next ten years around the world, who is going to be literally building our futures? Especially when the cumulative impacts of business as usual on our habitats and mental health have left us with some impossible seeming changes to get to grips with.

When we talk about our global problems, even when they hit home locally, it sounds like we have a chronic failure of imagination. 

Not insignificantly because we’ve removed artists from the payroll of everything. We’re looking for growing sums of money to keep bandaging the local wounds of deep societal symptoms while turning off the trickles of investment into cultural preventions.

We don’t know how to paint pictures of alternative tomorrows. Tell inspiring stories of us. We think it’s impossible now. We’re out of practice at futuring together. 

Yet it may be most possible at the heart of where all our living comes home – our local communities. The place where we live.

Our doorstep is where we know the score. Because we know who’s taking the shots. And where they live. 

Facing the possibilities.

Right now, the leader who talks boldly and evocatively of a radically different tomorrow will stand out. But still almost nobody wants to. That Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez did bluntly with zeal at New York Climate Week only underlines how unusual she is for a person in government. For ranks of established blow-hards in administrations around the world, there’s too much at stake. Which is a spectacularly ironic lack of perspective.

That’s precisely why, I have a deep hunch, many communities are aching to hear voices that will speak out those new stories. In fact sing them. From a truthful understanding of our rich old stories of who we are and where we’ve grown up.

The technology is there. The evidence is in abundance. The ideas, the frameworks, practices of futures that realign systems of value with nature and community wellness are all out there to try. What’s stopping us is cultures. Expectations.

We lack belief. But we keep throwing ourselves into story experiences across screens and books while we wait for it to appear. 

So what if we just began to declare intentions, visions, desires of better?

Laid it all out with the courage of our poet selves? Actually wrote new stories for us to lose ourselves in?

The Skidmore Report, issued this week, outlines “more than 30 recommendations on how the Government can give agency to local authorities to help deliver net-zero.”. It talks of a “retrofit” mission and is partly in response to the energy sector’s struggle to overcome short termism.

When will we start talking to ordinary all of us about the massive opportunities to switch up our skills and improve how we do things?

The BCIT Zero Energy/Emissions Buildings Learning Centre in Canada is getting on with training people to fill the massive shortfall in green revolution skills. Vancouver may have especially high sounding ambitions for net zero compared with a morally bankrupt Sunak Conservative government, but Rishi Sunak will be gone from office soon and our futures will still be waiting to be filled.

When we hear talk about everything being hopeless, I suspect there’s one thing we’re all longing to do privately. Suspend disbelief. Lay down the burden of impossible.

I can picture the future being built by local authority level leadership. Big enough to try things but tied directly to people’s sense of home, place, heritage, identity. Local is where the future impacts us personally. It is where the story of us is most richly true and evident.

Connecting people to ideas emotionally is always a success or failure based on how well we told the story. 

Perhaps if we put some practices of artists into our strategies we will find ourselves not just talking about the impossible but feeling inspiration to make it. And back those leading by example like they believe it.

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