Advocacy and activism need rethinking
For decades those advocating for progress have framed the change they seek in terms of demand – “end poverty”, “stop burning fossil fuels”, “zero-waste” etc.
These demands sound obvious and reasonable at first glance. We can all get on board with them and agree with their virtue. So why are they so difficult to bring about?
History tells us that when we frame demands in terms of trying to fix problems, they rarely have a long lasting impact – at best they are sticking plasters. Why is this?
The reason is because demands fail to provide a true sense of what comes next – let alone what we can or should do to start. They are often negative in tone, intangible and provide little to no guidance on how we achieve them.
Let's look at a specific example... What does an end to poverty actually mean in terms of a societal system? How does the world need to function differently in order to meet this demand? By demanding an end to poverty we might raise some money through charity and philanthropy in the short term and we may even lift some people up out of poverty successfully. But the system that put them there remains intact. Without sight of an eventual destination – and a clear sense of how to get there – the buzz that activist demands generate tends to fade as quickly as it rises.
Where are we going and how do we get there?
What traditional activism and advocacy lacks is a clear vision of the future it seeks and a step-by-step plan on how to get there. A tangible picture of how a fair, environmentally regenerative and prosperous socio-economic system looks and functions.
Vision is the currency the great leaders of the past and the marketing kings of the present day trade in. Mobile phone brands don’t demand we buy more of their products, they ask us to ‘imagine a world where everyone is connected’. Automotive marketing is not telling us to buy cars, it is selling us a vision of a future where we, the consumer, have 'status', 'independence' and 'freedom'. And they do this by showing it to us visually (advertising, placement etc.) with clear cues on the actions required to bring it about (e.g. buy the product).
Commercial demand is generated by painting a vision of life that is more compelling than the status quo: one that we can see in our mind’s eye, one we desire.
This is inherently human. We can only create the things we can imagine. Civilisation built skyscrapers because it imagined a world where they existed. We built aeroplanes because we envisioned a world where flying was possible many years before it was made real.
Vision gives us a destination to aim for, but it also drives the creative process needed to make the change. If we want to build the world’s tallest building we must first conceive it. We can then sketch out, explore, challenge and revise. These iterative steps lead to plans and focussed action.
The vision becomes reality.
Design the future
The change agenda is lacking this imaginative design step.
Even the way we refer to ourselves reflects this difficulty. Everyone working across all levels of advocacy and activism consistently use terms like 'impact', 'change', 'purpose' and 'progress'. What impact? What change? Progress towards what? These empty words fill the gap where the intention should be, while leaving these crucial questions unanswered.
While global movements such as Make Poverty History and Extinction Rebellion have performed amazing feats in recent decades getting the need for global change into the news agenda, they fall short of providing a visionary destination of what that change should be. The result is while we agree with the sentiment, we cannot imagine what such an alternative future looks like outside of the terms of reference of the current socio-economic system. This limits the potential for innovative design and constructive action to take place.
We must move beyond simply demanding change. The time has come to take the next step and envision what that change will look like – in detail, so that we can begin to design and create it.
We need to return to the drawing board and revise our current, largely capitalist, global system that has remained unchanged for too long.
To revise the system in a way that provides a vision of what a fair, regenerative and prosperous future looks like.
We need to design a new vision, a regenerative vision – a revision.