People living in the 21st century are faced with a number of global challenges – climate change, political instability and biodiversity loss – just to name a few. The old systems are struggling to adjust to new realities, leaving spaces for new or alternative ideas to emerge.
However, at the same time, scholars point towards a new sort of crisis – a collective inability to dream.
Sir Geoff Mulgan, CBE, a Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London, describes it in the following way:
‘The world faces a deficit of social imagination. 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’.
The consequences of the imagination crisis are short-sightedness, a reactive approach to change and imaginaries limited to various portrayals of decay.
Popular culture has been successful in conjuring dystopian images of the near and far futures. These visions mirror today’s fears and anxieties. However, they often do not offer any hope, and often times, fail to address the complexity of the ongoing transformations.
French futurist and entrepreneur Daniel Kaplan explains why crafting dystopias is relatively easy in comparison to utopian or protopian scenarios. In his words, it is enough to ‘push one characteristic of today’s world to an extreme’  to create a radical reality most will fear. Take examples of recent popular shows such as The Handmaid’s Tale (what can happen when most women become infertile) or Westworld (imagine a world where robots go rogue). The alternative visions require more complex thinking and willingness to experiment.
But don’t get me wrong, I still find it crucial to examine the negative consequences of rising trends and new technologies. We need to know the risks and how they may impact the lives of people, cultures and ecosystems moving forward.
At the same time, there should be energy directed towards dreaming of the best possible futures, places we would like to inhabit one day. Being critical can only get us so far. It may lead to activism, but it doesn’t mean it will bring people together to create a desirable systemic change. First, we need to know what we want and what is possible to achieve within a given timeframe.
With this in mind, I started Happy Futures Lab (HFL), an experimental playground for imagining and prototyping happier tomorrows. What does that mean in practice? The idea is to create a safe space for engaging in social imagination, to experiment and test visions, strategies and new products. The HFL works both as a commercial studio and as a platform that connects experts, thinkers and doers in exploring spaces of rapid change.
To craft positive narratives for the future, we need to include experimentation and multiple perspectives into practice. Exploring possibilities through play may help increase creativity and approach uncertainties around coming transformation in a less stressful way. It also is important to invite as many voices to the discussion as possible. It is not an easy task but ignoring diverse perspectives on the matter may potentially lead to a realization of one of the less favorable scenarios.
To inspire transformation, future visions must be rooted in the present. They might feature developing technology or describe the extrapolation of social or political trends. It is best when the imaginaries are as tactile and immersive as possible. This is plausible through the creation of narratives, visuals or artifacts or an engagement in a simulation game.It allows participants to not only examine risks and opportunities of a chosen future but also, in case of a preferable scenario, to create a feeling of longing and excitement. The backcasting of a vision can support the process of creating a roadmap forward.
By mentioning all this, I recognize that ‘to future’ is a privilege. Unfortunately, many still cannot afford to dream. Their daily struggle is focused on surviving and getting by. But there are also those of us who can engage in social imagination actively. By doing it, we also carry a responsibility to make this process more welcoming and accessible to approach. In this spirit, Happy Futures Lab wishes to facilitate the networking of experts and invested amateurs through dedicated research hubs that explore areas of rapid change.
Some may say that creating a positive vision for the future is a naive endeavor. But engaging in the exploration and prototyping of dreams is not about ignoring the pressing dangers and challenges. It is a process that includes the study of both fears and hopes, risks and opportunities. It is about practicing the forgotten muscles of communication and imagination in pursuit of a positive change. We need to remember that the future is a team effort that should benefit many.
Inspired by the premise of hope punk literature and the words of American tech journalist and author Annalee Newitz, I will leave you with these words:
‘There are two pathways out of huge problems like climate change or political instability. We can retreat into paralysis, and pretend that’s somehow pragmatic or realistic. Or we can say, fine, this is a horrible problem, let’s get together with other people and try to solve any small part of it that we can.’ 
 Mulgan, G. (2020). The Imaginary Crisis (and how we might quicken social and public imagination). UCL, Demos Helsinki and Untitled.
Karolina Thakker (she/her) is a designer and researcher that specializes in futures thinking. She is inspired by the possibilities of the future, bold visions and storytelling. Thakker uses creative tools and strategic thinking to help innovation-driven organizations succeed by supporting their design process along the way. She is a founder of Happy Futures Lab, an experimental design playground for prototyping happier tomorrows, and Busola Trends, a studio focused on foresight research. In addition, she is a chapter leader and organizer for the Speculative Futures Rotterdam community. In her practice, she has worked with international clients, universities, start-ups and think-tanks.