Dream, Simplify, Imagine

In times where everything is getting more complex and technology driven, I have found myself increasingly adopting the opposite behaviors – simple and hands-on – in both my professional activities and my daily life tasks. My classes are much simpler than years ago in that every semester I remove content to be able to focus on only one or two key concepts per session. This approach has helped students better comprehend and engage with the material. When possible, I avoid using digital tools or slides so I can fully engage with the students and adapt content and exercises to what each cohort needs. My motto with students has become: “Keep it simple.” For each project, I encourage them to focus on addressing one main user’s need and establish one clear goal for their solution idea. Interestingly, this seems to be easier said than done for students – as well as to many of us in other aspects of our life.

“Research funders, foundations, universities, and governments” seem to be only interested in supporting efforts that involve some form of technological developments either related to augmented reality (AR), machine learning, or virtual reality (VR) tools; artificial intelligence (AI) models; or robots. The loudest message about the future is: “The only way to be successful is to have a job related to technology.”

Not surprisingly, technology is always present in students’ minds. Everything they do ends up including tech, being unnecessarily complicated but made possible by AR or AI, or having multiple moving parts. However, the overall purpose is unclear and whether such an idea would address the intended audience’s needs is answered. The addition of technological features has become a shortcut – or replacement – for critically thinking, which often results on ideas with unclear functionality or poor usability. This is not only a growing phenomenon among students, but also in society.

Lack of social imagination

Only encouraging society to think about the future from a technological lens can cause severe negative consequences for humanity. This way of thinking limits our capabilities to critically approach problems and conceive radically different solutions. There is already a collective societal struggle to imagine possibilities beyond digital tools and technology which manifests every day in conversations about policy making and healthcare, social interactions, and actions we take towards climate change.

Simple has become complex. As Geoff Mulgan clearly put it almost three years ago: “We find it easy to imagine apocalypse and disaster; or to imagine new generations of technology. But we find it much harder than in the past to imagine a better society, a generation or more into the future.” People also find it harder to think about every day problems or explain something in direct, plain, clear terms. This seems to require more creativity because we have to envision ideals very different from the status quo. While creativity seems to be welcomed at multiple levels of society, not all types of ideas are welcomed, given a chance, or even considered. There is an “implicit prescribed” way of thinking and seeing the world. To start breaking up with this view, we must ask different questions: What if we imagine a world without technology? or if everything would be replaced by AI, what other things could humans do? What are our superpowers? How could we embrace them?

Imagination is the missing piece. We need imagination to feel and experience what else could be possible and design a better future. Yes, there are many methods and techniques to spur creative thinking and generate ideas, but first, we must create spaces to nurture and foster individual and collective imagination.

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