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Let's Talk About the Future We Want

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Here are some questions for the Occupiers, the Tea Party demonstrators, the people engaged in the Arab Spring and those around the world who are too hungry, too tired, too discouraged or too occupied with basic survival to protest.

These are questions, too, for the young people who will inherit the future we are setting in motion today, and the elders who are concerned about the world they are leaving their grandchildren.

Most of us want things to be better. We don't want the kind of world we'll get if we allow global climate change, resource conflicts, resource constraints, environmental degradation, overwhelming population growth, helter-skelter urbanization, war, social injustice and other looming problems to go unaddressed.

We have a pretty good idea what we should avoid. But what should we build?

We have incredible technologies and tools today - arguably all we need to create communities that are resource efficient, resilient, safe and prosperous while treading lightly on the environment. How would our lives be improved if we deployed the best sustainable development technologies and practices? How would it impact future generations?

Those questions are at the heart of a campaign called "The Future We Want", announced this week by Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations. The UN has chosen "The Future We Want" as the tagline of Rio+20, its international conference next June on sustainable development. Coming on the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit, the conference has symbolic importance. We hope it will have concrete significance, too.

I am part of a group of visual artists, policy wonks, technology experts, urban designers, civil society leaders and former public officials who have been working on a Future We Want campaign the past three years. We brought the idea to the UN and it embraced the theme. We have volunteered to support the campaign over the next several months. We are not part of the United Nations. Our part of the campaign is supported by private donations from philanthropists, foundations and corporations interested in producing what we need for greater sustainability.

First, we have launched a global conversation to learn what people want their communities to be like in 2030. We want everyone -- all ages, cultures, religions, genders and countries - in the conversation. If we finally confront head-on the economic, social and environmental challenges we face, and if we get busy building more just, peaceful, and sustainable communities, what would ours look like?

We're starting with a simple tool to gather comments on our web site. Over the winter, we'll add more dynamic ways for people to share their ideas, including a crowd sourcing exercise next February.

"Look" is the operative word in this campaign. At a conference where "The Future We Want" idea was born three years ago, we asked: What's missing in the dialogue about change? Why aren't more people excited about sustainable development? Why isn't everyone insisting that our leaders, neighbors and families take action?

One answer, we decided, is that people need to see sustainability, to experience it. Dry policy documents, esoteric science and abstract concepts don't stir everybody's blood. So, The Future We Want is all about vision.

Second, based on the ideas you submit and the comments they receive, a team of world-class visual artists and subject-matter experts will select the most promising ideas for sustainable communities in a variety of cultures. We will turn those ideas into life-like, high-definition videos and computer animations.

Third, we'll unveil the visualizations in an exhibit at Rio+20, and broadcast them worldwide on the Internet and with social media.

Fourth, after Rio we will put up links to the latest tools to help urban planners, architects, local officials and citizens build more sustainable communities around the world.

A demonstration of vision-power took place 70 years ago at the New York Worlds Fair. During the Great Depression, with World War II looming, General Motors sponsored its "Futurama" pavilion, in which hundreds of thousands of visitors were submersed in an exhibit of what life would be like 20 years later in a highly mobile, car-centered society. At a time people needed to know there was a path out of despair, GM used the best communications techniques available to show a dynamic future.

There are a few things we'd like people to understand as the conversation begins.

o The Future We Want will grow into an exercise that uses many of the amazing technologies today that permit a global conversation. But we'll also reach out to people not connected to the Internet and invite them to send us letters, essays, drawings, videos and photographs.

o We are not looking for utopian fantasies, or life with the Jetsons. We want you to base your visions on the technologies and information available today. How can we use them to build the communities we want our families to live in 20 years from now? We want visions that show us we can get there from here.

o Some will wonder why we're having a conversation at a time we need so much more than talk. We do indeed need concrete action by national and international policy makers. We believe that to motivate our leaders, we must motivate the people; to help motivate the people, we need the power of vision -- the same power that informs, entertains, shocks and inspires us in the media and that sells ideas and products in the marketplace.

Clear vision is a precursor to coherent action. As one good book has put it, without vision we perish. I've argued before that in this latest time of trouble, we have come to another teachable moment. We see evidence nearly every day that the old vision of prosperity and progress isn't working. We need a new one.

It starts with a global grassroots brainstorming session. That session is just getting underway at www.futurewewant.org, at facebook.com/futurewewant, at @futurewewant on Twitter, and at the UN's web site http://www.un.org/en/sustainablefuture.

We want everybody in this conversation. Spread the word and jump in.

Bill Becker is a senior associate at the London-based sustainability think tank E3G (Third Generation Environmentalist) and at Natural Capitalism Solutions in Colorado. The co-director of The Future We Want project is Jonathan Arnold, an urban design expert who uses computer animations and videos to help developers conceive and build projects that achieve the principles of green design and smart growth.

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