Angela Oguntala: How Do We Achieve The Future We Imagine?

Apr 12, 2019
Originally published on April 12, 2019 2:40 pm

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Changing The World.

About Angela Oguntala's TED Talk

How do our present thoughts and actions affect the future? Futurist Angela Oguntala shares ideas on how imagining the future we want to see is the first step toward achieving it.

About Angela Oguntala

Angela Oguntala is a director at Greyspace, a design consultancy. She has led work in various spaces across culture, technology, and sustainability, with both large and small organizations.

She is a Salzburg Global Fellow and was named a Future Innovator by The United Nations ICT and the Ars Electronica Center.

She has a BA from The College of New Jersey in Business Administration, and an MA in Interaction Design from the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID).

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

When I say the word future, do you think optimism, or do you go down a darker path?

ANGELA OGUNTALA: Oh, man. This is such a loaded question for me.

RAZ: This is Angela Oguntala. She's a designer and a futurist.

OGUNTALA: And sometimes when I'm asked it, I know that my answer is really going to make some people uncomfortable because I am sometimes in the room in order to bring unbridled optimism about change and about how we're going to move towards change. But I don't think you need to have the unbridled optimism in order to believe that you can change things. So I think it's kind of like a spectrum. I think you can either think that the world is getting better or that the future will be much better than it is now, or you can think that the world is getting worse. But that continuum isn't as important to me, actually, as this idea of, do you think you have agency in this world that is either getting better or worse?

RAZ: And Angela believes that if you want to change the world, you have to think about the future because the way we think about the future can affect the way we act in the present.

OGUNTALA: The future is a continuous, iterative process. It changes every single day. And your ideas about it changes, also, as you test and as you play with that idea of the future. So for me, that's the most important thing. Of course there's a present, but there's this transition period before we reach this future that we can envision.

RAZ: Angela Oguntala picks up her idea from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

OGUNTALA: We love to think about the future. We have all of these predictions about what it will be like when it comes. The future of meat is lab-grown. The future of music is a chip in your brain. The future of chairs is a pair of bionic pants that you put on and then you just kind of lean back into. The future of film, of work, of love - we talk about the future like it's this thing that will just arrive one day. But why do we think that?

Talking to your watch - this is the quintessential self-fulfilling prophecy. Pop culture has told us that talking into your watch is the future, so we've constantly tried to produce it and to reproduce it. And then there's the 1939 World's Fair in New York City, which showcased the World of Tomorrow. Forty-four million people attended these exhibits, and they were told that this is what the future will look like - master-planned cities in suburbia, superhighways, futuristic kitchen appliances. This helped to define the American dream, which meant that it ultimately helped to bring that specific dream to life.

So these kinds of visions, they creep in, and then they stay with us - from Hollywood, from tech companies, from science fiction. And I don't think it's a conspiracy. I think we all collect visions so that we can have something to aspire to.

But in the same way our visions inspire us, they can also start to limit us. If we hear the same narratives over and over again and if we see the same visuals over and over again, then that becomes our scope of possibility. That becomes our benchmark for what we believe is good - and what's not.

So today I want you to think about your assumptions about the future because there are just so many different futures and alternatives out there. And if we choose to be more curious about them, then they will make us rethink what's possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, it's all related. Right? And in the context of this episode, it's about trying to envision or make a better future, a better world. And you know, I was talking to Dolores Huerta and Ruby Sales and, you know, asking - what keeps you going? - because today in the United States, there are many reasons to feel pessimistic, especially around the issues that they work on - social justice, racial justice. We're living in sort of a dark period right now, or it seems like we are. And what came up again and again was - I have to imagine a better future because otherwise I couldn't do what I do in the present.

Do you think that activism or the idea or the desire to change the world requires a belief in a better future?

OGUNTALA: Yeah. Yeah, I do think so. But I don't think that you have to know the point at which that future will materialize. I think it's just an idea that we are on a journey towards something. The way that we see things now, it's not working. So it's just - and sometimes, it's not even better; it's just different. So sometimes - without even adding the value judgment - it's just, what we're looking at now is not working.

And in a lot of ways, we can see it's not, which is why we have this period of mass redefinitions of a lot of things we're opening up. OK. What about work? What does the future of work look like? What is good work? Traveling - can I travel as someone who cares about people and the planet? What is good masculinity? What is good femininity?

I think there is a lot of things that we are understanding that it just doesn't quite work. The way we've defined success in some of those things don't quite work anymore, so we need to think about things differently. And for me, that is what motivates me because, in some ways, I don't know what a better future could actually look like. But I do know when things are broken. I can see when things are wrong, and I would like to envision something different.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

OGUNTALA: When we choose to be curious about the alternatives and when we take them seriously, we'll start to think in new ways; we'll solve problems in new ways. And we'll just start to see possibilities that we couldn't see before.

When it comes to our futures, we have hope; we have fear. But sometimes we forget that we also have influence. And that means we can choose the futures we want to work towards. Nothing is written in stone, so reconsider your vision of the future. Take a chance, and be surprised. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: That's Angela Oguntala She's a designer and a futurist. You can see Angela's full talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GOING TO CHANGE THE WORLD")

THE ANIMALS: (Singing) I'm going to change the world, baby. I'm going to change the world. Yeah, I'm switching wrong to right. You can bet your love, baby.

RAZ: Hey. Thanks for listening to our show on Changing The World this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, Melissa Gray and J.C. Howard with help from Daniel Shukhin. Our intern is Katie Monteleone. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee.

I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.