As storytellers we’re interested in how transformative change happens. This week we hosted the first Salon with our Project Breakthrough partners Volans. The topic for discussion was ‘Breakthrough: inevitable or possible?’ Are we driven forward by ‘push’ factors – like technological progress – towards an inevitable future? Or are ‘pull’ factors – like an inspiring vision of a better world that motivates people to strive for a possible future – more important?

We asked attendees to get off the fence and choose ‘push’ or ‘pull’ when it comes to power and the forces that create innovation and change: “Pick a side of the fence to be on. Play devil’s advocate. Don’t be too reasonable to begin with.”


Attendees included: John Elkington, Sam Lakha, Richard Johnson, Jacqueline Lim and Richard Roberts from Volans, Atlas of the Future’s Cathy Runciman and Lisa Goldapple, Paul Willoughby (Human After All), Martin Wright (Positive News/Forum for the Future), Niraj Saraf (Innovate UK), Annette Mees (maker of theatrical adventures), Sarah Douglas (The Liminal Space), Agamemnon Otero (Repowering), Rachel Coldicutt (Doteveryone), Nijma Khan (Accenture), Solitaire Townsend (Futerra), Vian Sharif (Investec), Guy Pattinson (Long Run Works), Geoff Kendall (Future-Fit Foundation) and Tony Greenham (RSA).

Figuring out the future can be fun

If you don’t laugh you might cry

The techno-determinist ‘push’ argument is that technological forces will shape our future as progress has a momentum of its own. That’s the inevitable bit. Andrew McAfee talked about this when we interviewed him for Project Breakthrough. MIT’s principal research scientist and wannabe innovator addressed how computerisation affects society and the economy.

Take solar energy as an example. The technology is improving exponentially, which means the price is dropping fast (the sun is free after all), so in the pretty near future, the simple combo of tech progress and market forces mean solar will blow Big Oil out of the water. The best articulation of this argument can be seen here with FutureHero Ramez Naam.

If the energy problem is solved, and there is a good chance we can solve the water issue, a question remains whether we know enough about the unintended consequences of single issue problem-solving? And if we take the optimistic view and believe that we can solve these critical big problems, then what is our vision for a flourishing society that we would want to live in? What are we solving the problems for? A key part of the story is missing.

It was suggested that a shift to a more circular economy is inevitable, because the linear ‘take, make, waste’ economy is based on three assumptions – limitless resources, limitless consumer demand, limitless space to dump waste – all of which look unsustainable in the medium to long term.

Push or pull?

Push or pull?

The question was raised as to whether there will be the transfer of power that is needed in the future to give more people more agency over their futures; there are people who feel that they don’t have power or control over even their own bodies. Change is inevitable, but it’s how that change happens that is important. What could the role of co-operatives and platforms be in redistributing control?

Adapting the Fight Club maxim to “the first rule of sustainability is to not talk about sustainability”, energy co-op founder Agamemnon Otero opted for an analogy about a hoover, some glitter and being plugged in and connected.

If “everything that can be a platform will be a platform”, as Robin Chase has told us, does that make breakthrough inevitable?

So what about the pull side? Utopian ideas and imagining a better and different future could change the world. As Rutger Bregman writes in ‘Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There”:

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Whether push or pull, the consensus was that humans generally want the same destination, but the route is different. It was agreed that something we are doing with storytelling at the moment is making it about the individual. What is needed is a narrative based on the story of collective investigation, as there is not a singular truth in middle. As Solitaire Townsend put it: “Case stories – not case studies – are important in narratives.”

Do you think utopia is green fascism? Which side are you on – push or pull? Let us know in the Comments below.