Ideas of utopia inspire us to change the world. Imagining a perfect society can guide business action — and bring us joy.
Dr. Charlene Zietsma is a co-founder of the Utopia Platform for Imagining Transformations. She is also Associate Professor at the Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University. This article is based on NBS’s conversation with Charlene.
What is utopia?
Utopia is an imagined place where everything is perfect. Utopian ideals are often developed in response to the problems of the present.
The original utopian ideas came from Thomas More in his book Utopia, published in 1516. He talked about the problems of his current day, with the solutions based in a fictional society that included representative democracy, religious freedom, and no private property rights. Everyone participated in farming and had a trade, both men and women. And no one had to work more than six hours a day, which sounds pretty nice, actually.
Why should we imagine utopia?
Utopia inspires people to change the world. It’s all about imagining a better society. Because it is fantasy, it can free us from the constraints of taken-for-granted norms and give us insights into other ways of being and doing. If we translate our utopian imaginings into principles to live by, it also helps us set goals.
If we don’t imagine the future we want, we’re never going to get there. Instead, the future will be influenced by people who did imagine it but maybe whose values are different from our own.
What are some ideas of utopia today?
What you see as utopian depends on your values. If you look at Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged, she described a new capitalist society without a highly regulated state that was taking the fruits of people’s labor and giving them to lazy people and to welfare payments. That’s a utopia that would resonate really well with narratives today from right-wing groups.
But most of the utopian societies that I’ve read about spend a lot more time on the interdependence of members. Usually they’re smallish societies governed by principles like being in harmony with nature and using renewable resources. Inequality’s mostly gone, property rights are mostly communal, that kind of thing.
What’s the role of business in utopia?
How businesses apply the idea is more often in pursuing some specific utopian principle than in creating complete utopian societies. Responsive capitalism through B Corps is a recent example, or imagining a world free of race- or gender-based discrimination and working to make that happen.
Utopian ideals might include the Tesla idea of getting more electric cars on the road. Imagining zero waste and zero carbon. The Green New Deal. Universal health care. These are all utopian ideals which can motivate people to action.
Interface, a carpet company, is a great example. They had a goal to become carbon neutral — their “Mission Zero” goal. And they used that utopian imagining to guide them in all their activities and they got there. And now they’re focused on climate take back, which is effectively taking carbon out of the atmosphere through company operations. That’s a pretty utopian objective and they are achieving it.
I’ve also talked to a lot of sustainable entrepreneurs who have a vision for a more sustainable world through renewable energy generation, better efficiency, waste elimination or circular economy principles.
How can business leaders imagine utopia?
You’re going to do it from your own perspective. If you’re a transportation company, you might say: “What is transportation going to look like 50 years from now? What could it look like?”
You can come up with something crazy — Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is an example of that. But it can stimulate the imagination. Then you can start to say, “Well, that’s way out there, but if we wanted to get there 30 years from now, what would we have to do today to move toward that path?”
I think the imagining exercise should be done regularly as a way of trying to free yourself from constraints. Then you just have to keep working with it, to get it to what it means today.
There’s a story about Brian Chesky at Airbnb saying, “How do we design the perfect experience for a traveler? If most people think about a five-star experience, what’s an 11-star experience?” Just total fantasy about: Elon Musk meets you at the airport and says you are going to space. That’s not doable, but it can inspire you to think, “How do we deliver something that’s mindblowing like that?”
How is this different from common business strategies for thinking about the future?
Scenario planning and forecasting often has a much shorter timeframe. You might think about the quarterly report, the annual report, even the five-year plan.
But utopian thinking is about thinking decades out and saying, “What is the future that we want to create? What is the path so we can get there?
Scenario planning makes you think about real-world scenarios, guided by facts. Utopian thinking is more about “Yeah, I don’t care about the facts. I just want to think about the possibilities.” It frees you.
Why do you care about utopia?
I study what makes change hard: all the norms, practices, values, that hold things in place. I’m interested in making the world a more sustainable place. So, I think: “Okay, how do I get past that? How do I personally start to imagine more interesting things?”
I do it through fiction. I like science fiction and fantasy. Anything that will take me out of current day practices and constraints and expand the way I look at things.
It helps me to say: This is one way of doing things, but it’s not the right way of doing things. It’s just one way and we can do other things.
About the Author
Dr. Charlene Zietsma is Associate Professor of Management at the Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University, and International Research Fellow of the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation. Her research focuses on social and organizational change. She is a co-founder of the Utopia Platform for Imagining Transformations, an effort to use utopian thinking to stimulate change and action.
What’s Your Utopia?
Tell us your vision of the perfect society, through a 3-question survey. NBS will share these ideas in a future newsletter, to expand our collective vision of what is possible.