The Power of Narrative

Essay by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Mallerett: “…The expression “failure of imagination” captures this by describing the expectation that future opportunities and risks will resemble those of the past. Novelist Graham Greene used it in The Power and the Glory, but the 9/11 Commission made it popular by invoking it as the main reason why intelligence agencies had failed to anticipate the “unimaginable” events of that day.

Ever since, the expression has been associated with situations in which strategic thinking and risk management are stuck in unimaginative and reactive thinking. Considering today’s wide and interdependent array of risks, we can’t afford to be unimaginative, even though, as the astrobiologist Caleb Scharf points out, we risk getting imprisoned in a dangerous cognitive lockdown because of the magnitude of the task. “Indeed, we humans do seem to struggle in general when too many new things are thrown at us at once. Especially when those things are outside of our normal purview. Like, well, weird viruses or new climate patterns,” Scharf writes. “In the face of such things, we can simply go into a state of cognitive lockdown, flipping from one small piece of the problem to another and not quite building a cohesive whole.”

Imagination is precisely what is required to escape a state of “cognitive lockdown” and to build a “cohesive whole.” It gives us the capacity to dream up innovative solutions to successfully address the multitude of risks that confront us. For decades now, we’ve been destabilizing the world, having failed to imagine the consequences of our actions on our societies and our biosphere, and the way in which they are connected. Now, following this failure and the stark realization of what it has entailed, we need to do just the opposite: rely on the power of imagination to get us out of the holes we’ve dug ourselves into. It is incumbent upon us to imagine the contours of a more equitable and sustainable world. Imagination being boundless, the variety of social, economic, and political solutions is infinite.

With respect to the assertion that there are things we don’t imagine to be socially or politically possible, a recent book shows that nothing is preordained. We are in fact only bound by the power of our own imaginations. In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow (an anthropologist and an archaeologist) prove this by showing that every imaginable form of social and economic organization has existed from the very beginning of humankind. Over the past 300,000 years, we’ve pursued knowledge, experimentation, happiness, development, freedom, and other human endeavors in myriad different ways. During these times that preceded our modern world, none of the arrangements that we devised to live together exhibited a single point of origin or an invariant pattern. Early societies were peaceful and violent, authoritarian and democratic, patriarchal and matriarchal, slaveholding and abolitionist, some moving between different types of organizations all the time, others not. Antique industrial cities were flourishing at the heart of empires while others existed in the absence of a sovereign entity…(More)”