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Mark Stevenson: Rebooting Our World

Nuggets From Mark Stevenson's Call

Last Saturday, we had the privilege of hosting Awakin Call with Mark Stevenson.

Mark Stevenson has described himself as a “reluctant futurist” and “pragmatic optimist”. He has been described by others as a rare visionary, with “an ability to express even the most complex scientific problems in terms easily understood by a layperson.” An expert on global trends and innovation who is also a gifted story-teller, occasional comedy writer and former stand-up comedian, he has been noted as “one of those rare visionaries who fascinates an audience and makes them laugh in equal measure.” His life is dedicated to “future literacy” and enabling us to answer the questions that the future is asking us in a way that makes the world more sustainable, equitable, humane, or just. Many of the world’s most pressing dilemmas result from old models that fail to keep up with modern challenges, he says. But instead of being depressed about the future, he says we have an opportunity to fix it.

We'll post the audio of the call soon, but till then, some of the nuggets that stood out from the call (even amid the technical/audio issues we experienced) ...

  • Mark spent his early years as a musician and "brain for hire," as he put it. During his 30s, Mark had a moment of awakening that led him to pursue something he really cared about--combating cynicism and a lack of understanding about complex problems. Mark dedicated himself to "spreading the meme of pragmatic optimism."
  • As a musician, he recognized early on that there were a lot of brilliant writers and thinkers out there, but that they weren’t able to translate important subjects in a way that ordinary people could grasp them, much less take action as a result of them. So he actively studied ways in which complex thoughts and emotions are distilled effectively, and found good pop song-writing to be especially powerful for this. In just 3 minutes, an audience of a pop song can be brought to feel a complex set of emotions. Next in terms of effectiveness, according to Mark, is stand-up comedy, where, after a 45 minute routine, an audience’s range of thoughts and emotions can be expanded considerably. “The comedy we laugh at the hardest is the truest – and the most succinct,” he noted. (He also noted that there are some authors beginning to effectively translate their ideas to more lay audiences – and cited especially Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (also the subject of a TED talk), Michael Brooks’ books At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise and Free Radicals, as well as books by Simon Singh.)
  • So Mark became a comedian, where he developed a skill for translating complex topics, like climate change, into language most people can understand. As Mark put it (paraphrasing another person), "A competent comedian will say what he wants to say and everybody will laugh; a great comedian will say what the audience wants to hear and everybody will laugh; a brilliant comedian will say what he wants to say in a way that the audience can hear it and everybody will laugh." The brilliant comedian is the best vessel for truth. Mark's critically acclaimed book, "An Optimist's Tour of the Future," embodies this humorous spirit and search for truth amid complexity.
  • Some of the big systemic issues that keep Mark up at night: climate change, soil erosion, sea level rise, energy transitions and transformations, democratization of technology, retreat of democracy, automation, education.
  • Mark acknowledged that people tend to ignore the big systemic issues because it's more comfortable and convenient not to confront these issues. How does one foster an environment that inspires people to care about the big systemic issues while also meeting people where they are?
  • According to Mark, the key is to create spaces for individuals to share their stories and be part of a coherent community, as opposed to throwing a change agenda at people, and resources behind an “on-high” agenda. He noted that the prevailing model of change for most organizations is to come up with new policies and visions, and then specific projects, and then raise assets – and then create a story to try to engage people. Real change, he noted, comes about the other way around: when the soil is created to build coherent communities where people share their stories, then information, and then have access to assets. This leads to people being empowered and connected at a local level, and, ultimately, the local and the big are indivisible. This is also where true democracy lies.
  • Mark gave some examples of inspirational change agents who are providing a roadmap for a more sustainable and humane future, like Prof. Samir K Brahmachari and his open source drug discovery project. He also cited participatory budgeting happening in a number of communities/cities around the world.

Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen, and lots of gratitude to all the listeners and speakers for navigating the technical/audio issues that we experienced during the call with patience and calm.

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