Protopia now: Monika Bielskyte on designing better futures for humanity

Beyond flawed utopias and damaging dystopias, lie more positive, inclusive and radical visions: protopias. The NEXT Show explores how to build better systems for living.

Futures researcher Monika Bielskyte consults at the future intersection of technology, culture & politics. In the fifth episode of the NEXT – SHOW series 4, she explored how existing visions of utopias and dystopias are failing us — and how protopian thinking could change the world.

Watch the complete episode

Utopias and dystopias are how we tell each other stories about the future — or so most of us assume. But Monika Bielskyte thinks there are plenty of misconceptions about utopias and dystopias – but precious few other frameworks for people to explore these ideas.

“Dystopia is this idea of a future gone wrong. Everything is terrible in it, and it is beyond repair. Historically, dystopias had a lot of significance.“

They awaken us to the possibility that futures might not be what was promised, she suggests. “They started off as cautionary tales. The futures written by Octavia Butler or William Gibson: they were warnings of how things could go wrong.

Dystopia now

“Recent movies and TV show like Black Mirror are no longer like that: they have become a product roadmap,” she says. “What we end up with is a lot of companies, individuals, and governments looking at these dystopias and saying ‘well, they could be good for us’.”

They see the potential for power or money within the dystopia.

“That’s a real problem. Look at Minority Report, and what Peter Thiel came up with: Palantir, a predictive surveillance technology, that almost took a direct product roadmap from that film.”

Imagining the end of the world is easier than imagining a better one – we just extrapolate from the negative scenarios we see in the world already. It’s also easier to do it from a visual design sense – you tweak what’s there, and make it different and worse.

Dystopia in VR

That even extends to emerging forms of entertainment. It’s easy to hijack someone’s brain in VR, if you do something scary. Things that attack you, that make you afraid, made the environment seem more real.

“It takes more imagination to make something beautiful, something truly inspiring,” she says. “If people are in a state of calm, they see more of the details. They’re not running scared from something, so they see the things that could be improved, or made more high resolution.”

She points out that most of the science fiction writers and directors ar very privileged cis-het middle-aged white men. They’re at the top tier of society and have no really lived through a dystopia.

“If you haven’t lived through a dystopia, it’s an exciting fantasy to image.”

The dangers of dystopian thinking

When you have experienced more difficult lives, as those who are refugees or who are already feeling the impact of climate change, dystopias become less exciting fantasies because you know that the end of the world is not glamourous.

“The moment we start believing that the future is doomed, that it’s being decided by someone else, somewhere else, we start disengaging,” she says.

When they lead to disengagement, obsessive consumption and hopelessness, dystopias are no longer cautionary tales. Historically, utopias have been the counter to these negative visions. We used to conceive of utopias first, and then the dystopias followed – but now we’re seeing it the other way around. When people see that the visions of the future are those they would rather not embrace – utopias become the answer.

No place for utopias

“The very word ‘utopia” itself means a ‘no place’, a place that cannot exist, but historically, utopias have existed, except that they were utopias for the few,” says Bielskyte.

Surprisingly, utopias and dystopias aren’t opposing poles, she says. They’re two sides of the same coin. Most utopian concepts were only for the elite. Everyone else paid the price.

“They were exclusionary by default,” she says. “They were designed by people in ivory towers, looking down at people below – and excluding people. Utopias are eugenic by default – and that critique is lacking in our society. “

Today, too many people don’t question utopian political visions because they’re “perfect”. But utopias are just as flawed as dystopias.

“Both of these frameworks are unsatisfying,” she says. “Could there be a third way? Something that’s beyond these two?”

Protopia futures

Yeas ago, Kevin Kelly coined the word protopia in a blog post. It never really took off because our society was not ready to explore these ideas. But it inspired her thinking about radically hopeful and inclusive. She’s one of a group working together on Protopia Futures. They find and amplify traditionally excluded voices.

“If you want to make a future that’s kinder and safer for most of us,” she explains, “we need to look at the people who are at the very frontline of any negative effects. We’re centring disability, queer and indigenous justice. If we look at technological innovation, we realise that disability-led innovation isn’t charity work, it’s the source of so much innovation that improves our lives.”

If our pandemic response had been disability-led, we wouldn’t have seen millions and millions of dead people, she says. Just by paying attention to the most vulnerable, we’d have agreed policies that made us all safer.

Finding protopia in the vulnerable

“When we talk about green futures, we need to look beyond green corporate futures to indigenous justice movements,” she says. “Within these movements are people who have been living with, and are part of the landscape, for millennia. Until we move beyond human-centric design that sees the landscape as a resource to be pillages, we can’t entertain the solutions that are not only sustainable but regenerative.

“Sustainability is not enough – we need to repair the damage. And we must look at the answer proposed by people at the bleeding edge of the impacts of these changes.”

“Climate change and ecological collapse is not a theory, it’s a reality people live today,” she says. “If we start here, it will be safer and better for everyone.”

The path to protopia

How do you start building a protopia? Find the people who would be living the real-life dystopia, and ask them how it could be improved. If you’re in the global north, seek the perspectives of those in the global south. If you’re a man, seek the perspective of women and marginalise genders. Able-bodied? Seek out those with disability or those who are neurodiverse.

“Tolerance is not enough, we need to be curious about others. It is only by coming together that we will find the answers to challenge the status quo and prototype alternative pathways.”

“The future doesn’t happen somewhere else, decided by someone else. We are many, and if we come together and insist that the future is what we are creating, we can create a portopia. With every single story we share, we help create the future we want.”

This is a summary of an interview with Monika Bielskyte conducted by David Mattin and broadcast on the NEXT Show on 28th July 2022. You can catch up with Monika and her work on the Twitter, LinkedIn and the web.