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World Building for a Cause

“If this world does not have a place for us then another world must be made.” —Zapatista saying

thunderhead works world building tom peterson nonprofit visioningBy Tom Peterson

George R.R. Martin’s world, Game of Thrones, has captivated many of us, with its wonderful geography, seasons, languages, cities, ships, attire, customs and strange creatures. Most novelists tell their stories in familiar settings. But some—particularly science fiction and fantasy writers—have the added task of world building.

World Building is constructing an entire fictional universe. Authors create settings, like Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, where their stories unfold. They answer questions like: What is the landscape? What plants, animals or other creatures live here? How do characters get from one place to another? What’s the weather like? Are other planets involved?

World Building in the Real World

In a similar way, those of us trying to change the real world should have at least a rough picture of the one we want to create. What does this new world look like? Maybe we can’t see it clearly. But we should try.

World building in reality presents big challenges. Let’s say we want to improve health care in a remote Appalachian town with a new affordable clinic. Tolkein could tap it into existence on his typewriter. We can’t. We have to build the world the old-fashioned way. So if we want a different world, as the Zapatista saying goes, we’ll have to create it. But first, we have to imagine it.

In her TED animation, How to Build a Fictional World, Kate Messner gives some pointers:

  • Start with a place and time so you’ll know where you are.
  • Create a time-line to show how the world came to be. What events shaped it?
  • Draw out details of the world: What rules are in place? Who has power? What does the society value most?
  • Ask how do the inhabitants live? How do they treat one another?
  • Ask what technology exists?

Civil rights activists imagined a world where all people were treated equally. Martin Luther King was world building when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Mahatma Gandhi was a great at world building. He imagined, against all odds, the British ousted and an India ruled by Indians. He also imagined and worked for a classless society (a radical idea) where people of different religions peaceably coexist. Going further, he described the ideal village:

It is a complete republic, independent of its neighbors for its vital wants, and yet interdependent for many other wants in which dependence is a necessity. Thus every village’s first concern will be to grow its own food crops and cotton for its cloth. It should have a reserve for its cattle, recreation and playground for adults and children. Then if there is more land available, it will grow useful money crops, thus excluding… tobacco, opium, and the like. The village will maintain a village theater, school and public hall. It will have its own water works ensuring clean water supply. This can be done through controlled wells and tanks. Education will be compulsory up to the final basic course…” (from The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, Louis Fischer).

What’s Your Vision?

If your focus is a better food system, think about your world in 10 years. What does the ideal setup look like? Who grows the food and where? Is it genetically modified? How is it processed? How is it moved to the dinner table? What kinds of warehouses are there and who owns them? What rules make the food safe or healthy? How did they come about? Who owns the stores? Are there supermarkets with thousands of selections? Do you need a car to get food? Does our breakfast come out of 3D printers? Can people with little income afford to eat well? Who prepares the food for a disabled person?

The visioning part of strategic planning is too often seen as an obligatory activity to check off when done. It takes work to dream up a new world. But the mere act of world building can hold great power. Many athletes and others use visualization, or creative visualization, techniques to help their goals become reality. They believe that imagining an outcome increases its odds of happening. The power of the envisioned world is that it speaks to both our reason and emotions. We can understand it and be drawn toward it.

If we want others to join a movement or simply support our cause, we need to inspire them with a compelling picture of the future. One that is possible only with their involvement. We have to practice the art of possibility.

Peter Drucker said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” The first step to that is to imagine it.

“If I were to wish for anything I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of what can be, for the eye, which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating as possibility?” —Søren Kierkegaard

Art, Sean McGrath, Creative Commons.

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