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Learning to See the Future First

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I was walking through the engaging new Decorative Arts of the World's Fair exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City when I chanced to see a photograph by Charles Thurston Thompson depicting the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris. In a strange way I felt like a voyeur peeping in on the past, hoping for a mere glimpse of something revealing -- a vision of a recognizable now. This is because the art of innovation starts with seeing the future first. So I was looking for some trace of where the next nascent idea would become the generative must-have stuff that turns the wheel of our most fabulous dreams and the commensurate commerce. And then I had a most curious thought. What did these imaginative time travelers see when they looked forward to the terra incognita where we now call reality?

The temporality of the human condition compels us to want to peek around the corner to spy upon tomorrow. This irrational exuberance takes hold of our children at Christmas and market analysts throughout the change of seasons. Will that marvelous boy next door be off to Old Ivy in 10 years or managing the 7-11 around the corner? The problem is that innovation happens in the future where we can't know it until it until it becomes our disillusioned past. How many tomorrows have we distorted with the dominant logic of today? As a boy, the Nautilus at Disneyland immersed my imagination. Surely I would submerge in Lake Michigan and surface in Tomorrowland. Alas, the future is often filled with deep disappointment as well. Watch an old sci-fi flick and you can estimate its production within a year. (Fantastic Voyage: sports car spacecraft, ivory jumpsuits, chrome everywhere, and sigh, Raquel Welch in several compromising situations -- I'm guessing mid-1960s.) Ironically, it's our remembrance of things past that plots our trajectory to the present. Woe to those who confuse their time and place -- just ask the aging Facebook paramours who have forsaken their today for some bygone yesterday.

What if the Darwinist idea of progress as natural and efficiently selected -- the greater invention usurps the lesser -- also functioned in the abstract? Perhaps Oscar Wilde had it right in that life imitates art. Just as the march of time pulls us ever forward to a more perfect state of being -- presumably whatever flag we salute or religion we adhere to -- our imagination evolves into our reality, idle daydream or conjured utopia. Saint Thomas More, who coined the term from Latin as a play on words meaning "everywhere" and "nowhere," knew well that we never really arrive at the future but the dream lingers. The whole vision thing is an infinite game that moves along slightly in front us all along the way. But who is really chasing whom?

Consider the story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" by the great Argentine magic realist writer Jorge Luis Borges. In the tale, the narrator encounters an apocryphal encyclopedia entry about a nonexistent country called Ugbar. This in turn leads to the uncovering a great conspiracy contrived by a secret society to invent a contrived world called Tlön. Once revealed, the public becomes intrigued by the laws and legends of this brave new creation and slowly the real world morphs into the imaginary world. If you've ever heard anyone speak Klingon or Elvish you get what Borges was driving at. Everyone from the anonymous Zen poet to the sleeping prophet Edgar Cayce to the contemporary neurobiologists remind us that in some substantive way our mind is the maker and the future is its proof of concept. Our ingenuity is that we are revisionary visionaries making it up as we go along.

Recently there has been some research from Duke and Harvard suggesting that highly creative people are more apt to cheat on exams and lie to others regarding their accomplishments that those who tested as less creative. This isn't particularly surprising or even objectionable. One of the ways you make sense of things that are not yet real -- a future that hasn't yet manifested -- is to drive it around the proving grounds of your life. Just listen to little kids. They frequently fib not only in an effort to see what they can get away with but more so to make sense of their world. Getting your story straight requires some very advanced cognitive maneuvers. All innovation starts as fiction before it moves across the aisle and becomes nonfiction. We do, in fact, believe it when we see it. That's what makes the world's fairs and exhibitions so compelling.

One of my mentors, Rudolf Arnheim, the late eminent perceptual psychologist who gave us many of our ideas about visual thinking and literacy thought that art taught us how to see -- not only the beauty and symmetry of objects but also our own artifacts of thought. The patterns of what we take for our culture and sensibilities are revealed when we reflect upon what we once took as our future. Just look at the family photo album you can almost make sense of the mural of your life. Back at our art exhibit -- Inventing Our Modern World -- if you look closely you might just see the future, just like Charles Thurston Thompson. But don't be surprised if it takes place in Kansas City -- where, presumably, everything is up to date.

JEFF DEGRAFF is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You and PBS special by the same name, visit his web site at www.innovationyou.com or follow his blog on innovation at www.jeffdegraff.com.

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