The Imagination Frontier at the Nexus of a Bold New Future


Boundless Worlds Within: How Imagination Fuels Human Innovation and Transforms Society

Michael Shaun Conaway
Publishing Editor
April 16, 2023

People often ask me how they can be creative? As a filmmaker, philosopher, and writer they see my creative output and somehow think that I am an outlier — the creative one who is capable of imagining much more than they can. The irony is that they don’t see how much imagining they actually do! Imagination is responsible for our waking life, from managing the short term future, to being able to make out the shape of a butterfly in the garden. They don’t see that without imagination relationships with others would be impossible. If we can’t imagine these people’s perspectives and empathize with them, we could never participate in community and culture.

You are the creative culmination of over 4 million years of human evolution, and some would say that you are the culmination of the whole 13.8 billion years of the history of the universe. Imagination is the animating force of the universe. The formation of the early universe was a creation of imaginative genius. The simple molecules are the first great works of art as the universe evolved to higher and higher levels of complexity. Stars, galaxies, planets, organisms, plants, animals and finally consciousness.

At some point some 4 million years ago, our human ancient ancestors began to develop tools and use them to extend their capabilities beyond their physical bodies. Around 2 million years ago the hominids are thought to have gained cognitive abilities — they began to think. After that, over the next 1.9 million years we learned to control fire, used advanced tools and conducted long distance trade. By the time of Homo Erectus, some 110 thousand years ago we had developed language or at least proto language.

One of the hidden foundations of this development was the emergence of imagination. It shaped our social structures, cultures and cognitive abilities. Imagination is central to problem solving, planning and decision making, communication, empathy and perspective taking — all of which are crucial to the evolution of our social structures.

We are all creatures born of imagination.

If you aren’t convinced that you are creative, then consider that imagination is the source of every evolutionary leap. From a static state there are innovations, experiments into solving for the combination of the factors present in the environment. Before organic matter had cell walls there were pre-cellular molecules, proteins, nucleic acids like RNA and carbohydrates. Then about 3.5 billion years ago on Earth the cellular structure emerged. It was a novel solution to surviving the harsh environmental factors of the early Earth. Cell walls brought about thriving and gave rise to the incredible variety of organisms alive on Earth today.

At first the cell wall was imagination in action, a dynamic evolving structure and then at some point the structure became fixed and static. From there other evolutionary steps were taken based upon the new foundation of life. This dance between dynamic innovation (imagination) and fixed state allows the universe to evolve in a ratcheting manner, preserving the high quality innovations and allowing for a new basis of evolution.

We go from the early cells to eukaryotes, to multicellular organisms a billion years ago, to the early animals 6 to 8 hundred million years ago, to the cambrian explosion, to vertebrates and jawed fish, the modern mammals 200 million years ago, primates 60–80 million years ago, hominids 6–7 million years ago, homo species 2.5 million years ago and finally homo sapiens 300 thousand years ago. This ratcheting effect allows for creativity, exploration, failure, innovation, and finally fixed solutions to be achieved and retained.

You can see this in our human history as well. When the conditions are ripe for innovation we hit a point where multiple researchers discover or invent the same thing at basically the same time. In the 19th century Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Grey both filed patents for the telephone on the same day. The lightbulb was invented by Thomas Edison, Sir Hiram Maxim, Sir Joseph Swan at almost the same time. Rarely, if ever, does the history of invention prove out the stories of a single inventor. If Edison hadn’t worked on the light bulb, we likely would have thought of Swan as the inventor.

While there are many factors in what make us human, it is clear that our imagination is a key component of what sets us apart from the rest of the animal world. As I mentioned earlier, imagination allows us to communicate abstract ideas that cannot be directly experienced through our senses. We can also imagine things that do not exist, like gods and myths, which have shaped our cultural identity.

When we apply this capacity to know or experience things through our imagination to the future, we uncover one of the keys to our survival and domination as a species. When we can see the future, we can plan the steps out to create that future. It allowed us to plant crops and know when to harvest them, to know that in the spring the hunting is good near a spring, to create complex social structures like marriage and funerals, and initiate long term projects like permanent agriculture sites, cities and eventually trade.

Taken from a wider perspective, imagination is a force of the universe that catalyzes change and evolution. We are both a product and a practitioner of this imagination. So why then do many of us feel that we are not creative? One answer is that,

Our Imagination superpower is considered mundane, when it is actually miraculous.

When you wake up in the morning, you might imagine what a meeting or time with friends will be like, or if the day will be the same as yesterday. You might also imagine what you will have for lunch or even how a conversation will go, your evening plans, and what you will do on the weekend.

Countless times a day we imagine things that are outside of our sensory experience. We see and sense things that only exist in our imagination. For example, we watch a video on social media of an inspiring travel destination, or watch someone making an amazing meal, or see a tv hero get hurt fighting for what is right. In each of these cases we live through an experience that is not real, not present in our world. We rely upon our imagination to bring these things to life. Ask your dog or your goldfish to imagine what an exotic travel destination is like while showing them your tik tok feed and see how they respond. They don’t even recognize that what’s on the screen is real. Ever try talking to your dog on a video chat?

The second reason, and likely the one we relate to most, is the feeling of being a small fish in the big pond of imagination. Everyday we surround ourselves with the output of the most creative talent in history, in music, film, writing, comedy, dance, you name it. How can I be special in comparison to those “creative” people?

It’s understandable but tragic that we don’t appreciate our imagination. The thing is that your imagination is the key to a tomorrow that is different from the past. The most powerful way to make a change is to imagine a new future. My rancher grandfather had a heart attack. When he got home from the hospital, he radically changed his diet, cut down on meat, sugar, alcohol. When I asked him about making the change he said, he was a dead man walking if he kept on eating the way he had done all of his life. He pictured that future and decided that he wanted a different one. He lived past 90 with a pacemaker in his chest for his last 20 years.

When it’s time to make a change you can imagine a desirable future and use that to inspire your change and/or you can imagine dystopian futures and work away from them. The work of a generative futurist is to invent desirable futures for all of us and work towards them. The dystopian futures don’t need us to invent them, they are in plain sight for all to see.

Take a moment and close your eyes and picture something that you are going to do on the weekend, or an event that you have planned, and how you would like it to be. What would it be like if it were really great for you?. See if you can picture the people you will be with. Imagine a conversation you might have with them. Pick out a few details of the place you will be, is it a place in the city or in nature? How might you feel at this moment in time? See what you can imagine when you try.

What you have just witnessed is a miracle 13.8 billion years in the making. Our ability to imagine allows us to picture, see, and be impacted by events that are not happening now, as if they were. And the more we practice this skill, the better we become at it. Imagination is the key to building a better life for yourself and a better world for the future.

In the meantime, we’ll be looking for PROOF of a thriving future for humanity.

The Generative Futurist
Editor PROOF

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Proof 44 – The Imagination Frontier at the Nexus of a Bold New Future

PROOF in ACTION – 7.3 Steps to Prime your Imagination

Imagine a Future

7.3? What? Just hold on for a moment and take the steps with me.

Step 1 — Determine what it is to imagine. The question is “If you look around the world, do you have to imagine it to see it?” and the answer is “No. If you want to see something other than what is in front of you, you have to imagine it. Same for all of the other senses. If you want to remember the past, you have to imagine it. If you want to envision the future, you have to imagine that too. Imagining is when we see things, hear things, feel as in sense and as in have an emotion and/or think abstractly about the world and ourselves.

Step 2 — Harness the power of your imagination. Choose something you want to imagine. Is it in the past? In the future? Now but not where you are? Are you alone in your imagination or are you with people, friends, family, colleagues? Is there some question you are wanting answered? Is there a conversation you want to have? Is there a new future you want to imagine?

Step 3 — Make a guiding statement out of what you are going to imagine. For example, I am going to imagine a reunion with my parents in December of next year. I want it to happen somewhere that none of us has been before. I want it to be an event we talk about for years after it happens.

Step 4 — Find a distraction free zone to do your imagining. The mobile phone is the destroyer of imagination. It can scratch every itch with the swipe of a finger. Likewise you need to be uninterrupted by people, notifications, and the like to have a good imagination session.

Step 5 — Close your eyes and transport yourself to the destination in your guiding statement. In the case of the reunion with your parents, imagine landing and meeting them on the concourse as they have landed at almost the same time as you have. Look around and notice if the airport is large, indicating a large city or is a small rural airport. Go outside and imagine the weather, time of year. Keep imagining your time with your parents and don’t stop to have all of the pieces add up. You can imagine a big city and wind up on a tropical beach. Rational thought can come later, for now just imagine.

Step 6 — When you have had your fill of imaging, it’s time to take notes. First of all write down anything that got you excited in your imagination. Passion is the key to unlocking the flow of imagination. When we move from imagination to making our imagined worlds real, passion will give you the energy you need.

Step 7 — Imagine the details. This is the part that most of us forget. We imagine the big picture, forget to fill in the detailsIt’s the details that give us the experience. The waiter was funny when he took our order. We found the perfect gift, when we got lost in the market. For the most part we aren’t trying to make the details happen but rather use them to capture the underlying feeling of the place and time we are imagining.

Step 7.3 — Imagination is a game. The more we play it, the more at home we feel. When I wrote the headline of this article, I decided to imagine a number that appealed to me, I thought of 7. Then I thought about what would be more imaginative than 7. The .3 is the detail that made this article fun to write. Imagination and passion dancing together. Now step away from the device and start imagining something that makes your day brighter and your future better.

May this information inspire you to generate a thriving future for humanity and a thriving life for yourself. For more resources please check out our Podcast and Youtube channel.

-The Now Team

BOLD.LY NOW is a movement of co-creative up-levelers who have a burning desire to step free of our collapsing world & take the most daring leap forward to a thriving world.

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PROOF is a digital magazine published by NOW and the Generative Futures Initiative.  The mission of the magazine is to shine a light on people, organisations and ideas that stand as Proof of a Thriving Future.