9 min read

Envisioning Eutopia

All efforts to describe permanent happiness, on the other hand, have been failures. Utopias (incidentally the coined word Utopia doesn’t mean ‘a good place’, it means merely a ‘non-existent place’) have been common in literature of the past three or four hundred years but the ‘favourable’ ones are invariably unappetising, and usually lacking in vitality as well.
- George Orwell, Can Socialists Be Happy

After discussing the negative sentiment of 'utopia' and exploring techniques to shift this sentiment, it's valuable to look at why previous visions of utopia have failed to install hope and positivity to ensure we avoid the same fate. I do this using the pre-mortem method, a strategy introduced by psychologist Gary Klein in a 2007 HBR article whereby you imagine that your project has failed and explore the most likely reasons for the failure. You can then plan to mitigate them in advance.

In our case I explore the reasons that our vision of an ideal future may prove either inaccurate - not describing a eutopia - or uninspiring. We'll see that this exercise gives us confidence in our approach while raising important considerations that will make the project more resilient and likely to succeed.


The political economist Albert Hirschman, in his book The Rhetoric of Reaction, proposed that social change and utopian visions are attacked on three dimensions: perversity, that seeking utopia will land us in dystopia; futility, that such goals are impossible to achieve; and jeopardy, that it endangers an existing, 'good enough' state. I'll explore each possibility in detail.


This is the plot of almost every dystopian sci-fi. Some start in utopia before everything goes wrong. Others start in dystopia and flash back to show how the cause of the downfall was a fatal flaw in humanity's utopian vision. This is a failure mode we should not take lightly.

It is vital to consider the risks or unintended consequences of each aspect of our ideal future vision and strategy for achieving it. For example, the desire for a common set of values could restrict diversity of culture and it is therefore important to limit such shared values to those universally justified by moral philosophy. I will hold off on more controversial topics, such as galactic expansion, as the strong arguments on both sides require a more thoughtful consideration of the risks in following either side. I will add 'consideration of risks' to the Principles of WFW? to codify this approach for every recommendation made.

The perversity dimension should also keep us vigilant for 'ends justify the means' thinking - the dynamic seen in much dystopian sci-fi. Strict utilitarianism dictates that 'only the consequences matter' and many a despot has used this rationale to justify horrendous acts in the name of the 'greater good'. Thankfully few utilitarians are this extreme but it shows the need to use a pragmatic approach to ethics when evaluating our approach for achieving eutopia.


Our vision might be impossible to achieve... is that okay? It being a Hirschman 'failure mode' would suggest it isn't, but I would challenge that conclusion. The failure risk of futility is if the lack of belief leads to either dismissal or demotivation. Our vision, however, is dynamic, not static. A direction, not a destination. As long as we're clear that we will never 'arrive' at the vision, we should maintain the motivation to keep moving in our ideal direction. The vision should not be completely unrealistic - we won't be adding unicorns to the picture anytime soon - but we don't need to justify the path to achieving every minute detail of the vision that is likely to change.

It also brings up insights from goal-setting. Research has shown that the best goals - those that motivate contributors to achieve the best possible results - are set much higher than people initially believe is possible. One study of large organisational transformations found they delivered 2.7x more value than senior leaders thought was possible. And that isn't even to say that these goals are always achieved. In fact the best goals are never reached. The ideal target is one that is likely unachievable yet is seemingly within grasp enough that contributors use every drop of effort trying to make it a reality. They don't see it as a failure to not hit the target and instead are rewarded for achieving something even the goal-setters didn't believe possible. I think the same approach applies here. Our ideal future vision should feel aspirational but 'within reach'. As we drive closer to it, our vision will evolve to stay always at the tip of our fingers, keeping motivation as high as possible.


This mode is concerning, and requires greater investigation. Those that would claim that 'pursuit of our future vision is not worth risking the status quo' are likely to either not understand the vision or disagree with its core shared values. Our few core shared values are justified by moral philosophy and we can therefore deem any disagreement with them as 'wrong'. For example, certain religions, regimes, and communities have values that reduce the rights or freedoms of individuals based on demographic factors, and we would deem these values as 'wrong'. We are yet to determine what should be done when a direct conflict arises, but we should anticipate attacks and attempts to undermine our mission from those we can identify as holding conflicting values.

The strongest risk of this in my mind is the likely resistance from those who currently have power and who don't align with our shared value of equality. Our eutopian vision will have significantly greater equality of income and wealth than our present day society, both globally and within each nation, meaning these individuals will necessarily lose these instruments of status and power in our transition towards our eutopian vision. An important question, possibly the most important question for our research agenda, is how we persuade those with power in the present to choose to relinquish it to enable our eutopian vision. There are no easy answers to this one.

Hirschman's framework shows us that there are many causes for concern and vectors for attacking and undermining our mission. However in doing so we have learned how we can make our vision and strategy as robust and resilient as possible.


As robust and resilient as we can make this project, it will mean nothing if it is communicated in a way that doesn't inspire action. Utopianism is culturally out of favour, meaning there's an even bigger obstacle to surmount. Not only do we need to make the vision compelling, but we must make it so compelling that it overcomes any initial scepticism.

The approach here draws on the excellent writing of futurist and author of the Cold Takes blog, Holden Karnolfsky. I highly recommend you read his three-post series on utopias to dive deeper than I will here. We know that the more specific the vision of the future, the more likely it is to inspire change and motivate action. Karnolfsky agrees that this is important - "it's hard to picture, so it isn't very compelling" - but warns that specific descriptions of utopia often fail to inspire because they sound dull, homogenous, and alien.


"Challenges and conflict are an important part of life. We derive satisfaction and meaning from overcoming them, or just contending with them" Karnolfsky writes. He also posits that most of our important relationships are born from jointly overcoming a conflict, though I don't fully agree with this. Still, it is true that there is challenge in uncertainty, uncertainty provides variety, and variety is the spice of life. A lot of utopian visions, absent this challenge, can taste like an unseasoned dish.

This also raises an interesting question over our innate desire for conflict and suffering. I believe it is a reflection of the role and value of status in our society that makes this winner vs loser culture so predominant. As our vision will likely not contain such zero-sum dynamics other than in games, it's important to use an invigorating tone when describing lives free of conflict. Karnolfsky concludes, "when I think about my life as it is today, I think a lot about the things I'm hopeful and nervous about, and the past challenges I've overcome or gotten through. When I picture most utopias, there doesn't seem to be as much room for hope and fear and challenge". Our vision will be different from today but much, much better. Our challenge is making these unimaginable improvements to life imaginable.


Our world is rich with a diversity that is hard to accommodate in any utopian vision predicated on a convergence of ideas. "If you take any significant change in lifestyle or beliefs and imagine it applying to everyone, it's going to sound like individual choice and diversity are greatly reduced". If we suggest, for example, that everyone meditates for an hour every morning, it brings up ideas of uniformity and lack of choice. However I feel this is a minor cognitive bias. Uniformity of action through shared understanding of benefits is not a dystopian idea; we (almost) all brush our teeth twice a day after all. There will always be people that choose not to meditate and diversity in the areas that matter.

I'm least concerned about this reservation. I think homogeneity developed largely through lack of imagination of previous utopian thinkers and often an unnecessary overstepping of shared values/culture. I believe we can create a eutopian vision that converges on core values yet leaves lots of space for diverse expression in art, culture, music, communication, and many other forms. Personalities will differ in eutopia as they do today. Our vision will likely picture many more rich cultures than we have today, all enacted through personal choice.


Everyone has an inherent level of tolerance for new things varying from 'virtually non existent' in some progressives to 'actively hostile' in some Conservatives. "We tend to value a lot of things about our current lives - not all of which we can easily name or describe" Karnolfsky writes. "When a world that is "too many steps away" is described, it's hard to picture it or be comfortable with it". Or imagine it this way, how far back must you go for a description of today's world to sound like a horrible dystopia to a majority of people? 100 years? Less? We ought to respect this baseline level of discomfort when describing our vision. Given we're experiencing accelerating societal change, we ought to be sympathetic to the desire to slow down.

Visualising Eutopia

Karnolfsky believes that this all "points to a kind of paradox at the heart of trying to lay out a utopian vision. You can emphasize the abstract idea of choice, but then your utopia will feel very non-evocative and hard to picture. Or you can try to be more specific, concrete and visualizable. But then the vision risks feeling dull, homogeneous and alien." He doesn't suggest that it is not a noble effort because of this, just that it deserves and necessitates more thinking.

Using this continuum from conservative (minimally compelling, dull, homogenous, and alien) to radical (radically compelling, dull, homogenous, and alien) he proposes laying out a range of visions along this spectrum in the hope that one will resonate with each reader. He also proposes a meta-utopia that gives everyone the option of selecting which utopia on the spectrum they want to live in, and a protocol for reevaluating this choice, which can feel more compelling even if none of the individual visions feeling so. He's also thoughtful to avoid specificity, since he believes he can't overcome the mistakes that all others have fallen into, but also to avoid abstraction to keep things compelling.

Karnolfsky also posits that the forces of incremental change do a lot of the heavy lifting to overcome the hesitation toward a radical eutopian vision, as long as there's a point on the spectrum that someone feels compelled by. He writes "I think this explains some of why "radical" utopias don't appeal: it seems entirely justified to resist the idea of a substantially different world when one hasn't been through an iterative process for arriving at it."

This gives me confidence in our approach to envisioning the future. While we're only envisioning one eutopia, our dedication to both pragmatism and dynamism should translate to individuals seeing a version of eutopia, a step along the path towards our 'direction of eutopia' that they are compelled by. We will reinforce this by communicating the milestones of our strategy that we hope and expect to achieve, which will provide these necessary 'interim' eutopias. By communicating the biases all people have against the radical - and how less radical this full vision will feel after a significant amount of incremental change - we can further quell any initial concerns.

I have further confidence given Karnolfsky's finding from his survey on fictional utopias that "it was much easier to get widespread agreement (high average scores) for properties of utopia than for full utopian visions. For example, while no utopia description scored as high as 4 on a 5-point scale, the following properties all scored 4.5 or higher: "no one goes hungry", "there is no violent conflict," "there is no discrimination by race or gender."". This aligns closely to our approach. We may experiment with descriptions of our ideal future world vision in time, but for now we just list the properties of this eutopia that we have identified. My guess is that people prefer to acknowledge these properties as eutopian and 'fill in the gaps' themselves, so to speak, while many descriptions of utopia have to prescribe 'too many' properties to develop a coherent picture. Other interesting findings from the study include "(a) the popularity of Utopias that emphasize “freedom” rather than “pleasure”; (b) surprisingly small, differences between people who lean left vs. right politically; (c) the difficulty of finding any Utopia with near-universal appeal". Further food for thought for our project.

We can have greater confidence in our approach after this exercise, yet should return to it often to ensure our vision is not falling into the traps of perversity, jeopardy, or, futility in its accuracy, and to keep it compelling by avoiding it being dull, homogenous, or alien. All easier said than done but we now have the strategies and considerations to keep in mind as we continue to develop it. I believe that just because this task is hard, and that humans seem predisposed against the idea of developing a eutopian vision, we shouldn't shy away from this necessary and achievable task on our journey to creating a better future.

Please share your thoughts if you have any feedback on this article, or leave a comment below.