Dream Thinking & Functional Fiction

Reclaiming imagination in our pursuit of shared prosperity.

The problem stems from ideas, or rather the lack thereof. The arguments of both the Right and the Left had something to offer when they originated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but today their potential is spent. No longer bold reforms, they box us in. To open up our social possibilities, we must open our minds to radical redesigns.

– Eric A. Posner & E. Glen Weyl, Radical Markets


A long view of history would show there has never been a better time to be a human. There is less war, less poverty, and less hunger than there has ever been. Life expectancy around the world has never been higher. Yet we face a confluence of crises that threatens to plateau and erode the long arc of human progress – a global pandemic, climate catastrophe, social fragmentation, economic insecurity, political polarization. These challenges have forced us to rethink long standing systems and shared beliefs. Especially this year as the pandemic has illuminated and magnified many of the dysfunctions of our society. Questions like ‘how should we relate to each other socially, support each other economically, consume restoratively, and organize ourselves corporately?’ are more important than ever.

These questions present us with an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine the systems and structures on which our lives are built. Yet when you look around, it seems there is very little reimagining happening. Most “innovation” is merely derivative – a new application of an existing technology or the recycling of an idea – incremental advances in processes. Actual moonshots are few and far in between. It seems that as our inventive focus moved from atoms to algorithms over the last forty years, our aspirations have sunk lower and lower. We don’t need more personal data parasites parading as convenience apps.

The algorithmic fetish and the subsequent dataism that has become the enterprise maxim for value creation has seeped into every crevice of our corporate psyche, shackling our creativity in the bonds of empiricism. This has perpetuated a myopic perspective of the im/possible, constrained by feasibility and expertise. We need liberation. To address the confluence of crises we face as humanity, we need more than new answers, we need the great liberator: new questions – questions that transcend the next big technology product, questions that create space for new paradigms, questions that provoke a reimagination of what it means to be human, to be a part of a larger whole.

To evoke this liberation of inquiry, I propose we reintroduce the ancient practice of non objective imagination and speculation, untainted by the colonization of economic ends. Those innate yet deeply buried human gifts that have propelled us through the millennia; those tools of sensing so familiar to artists, poets, prophets, and esoterics.

I call this practice Dream Thinking. Dream Thinking is the practice of encountering, exploring, understanding, and communicating stories of possibility. We call these stories Functional Fictions—the narrative scaffolding by which our hopes, dreams, and aspirations are built and shared with others. The stories that catalyze a faith in the possibility of the impossible; a new way of being, together.

Dream Thinking is a response and counterweight to dataism and the cult of productivity. Dream thinking is a practice free from the constraints of P&L, feasibility, and expertise. Dream thinking favors slow reflection over fast reaction, the nuanced over the new. Dream Thinking holds space for the pre-verbal, for the unconscious to become conscious. It is a safe space that affirms uncaged authenticity, the mystery of our experience, the suffering of our world, and the friction of paradox that is so often the soil from which true creativity grows. It is the entheogenic means of overcoming the pathogenesis of certainty in a world that demands comfort with ambiguity. Dream Thinking understands that our outcasts* – the feelings and beliefs marginalized by corporate culture – are actually our outposts, the places we need to fortify as we explore the frontier of our shared future.

Dream Thinking, unlike design thinking,** is not a process. It is a posture, an orientation towards what could be. It is not found in the halls of ivy league business schools, but on the kindergarten playgrounds of public schools where imagination runs rampant. Dream Thinking is inclusive of all who identify as human.

I believe Dream Thinking and Functional Fictions are more important than ever. We need new systems, and new systems are always predicated upon new stories. Unless we reclaim our human inheritance as inveterate dreamers and storytellers, we will fail to build a foundation on which new and equitable systems can be built for the next millennia of human progress.

Dream Thinking is itself a Functional Fiction. It is a hope. An aspirational narrative. To further unpack this functional fiction I’ve decided to pivot this newsletter a bit and focus on Dream Thinking, professionally and personally, for 2021. I’ll begin by outlining and deconstructing some of the stories we need to reimagine if we hope to create new systems – educational, economic, ecological, and existential. I’ll then spend some time exploring the Dream Thinking traditions of our ancestors – prophets, artists, mystics, and philosophers – their contexts, practices, and mediums for exploring and communicating stories of possibility. Finally, I’ll do my best to give some shape and form to the who and how of Dream Thinking, and what this may look like in public school classrooms, Fortune 50 boardrooms, and everywhere in between.

As always, thanks for following along.

-Joel


Get Involved in Dream Thinking

In January 2021 we are launching a pop-up think tank that we’re calling The Functional Fiction Lab. The intention is to create a space for the practice and socialization of Dream Thinking. More information is coming shortly. In the meantime, we are looking for early investors and patrons who want to join us on the journey. Get in touch if you’d like to be involved!


Notes

*I am borrowing the concept of outcasts as outposts from Francis Weller, whose work on grief has been transformational for me and my family.

**Dream Thinking does not stand in place of design thinking, nor do I think we should get rid of design thinking. Dream Thinking is a complementary and adjacent practice to design thinking. Though to compare and contrast too much would be to miss the point – much of our innovation and even our foresight work over indexes on the cognitive, the empirical, and action. As cognition becomes evermore outsourced and automated, we need a creative practice that includes our believing and feeling in addition to our thinking and doing.